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Sam McKnight on Supers, Powder, Wigs and Champagne

The hairstylist extraordinaire on the glory days of 90s fashion shows and the destroyed glamour of the world of Westwood

InterviewSophie Bew

Sam McKnight has been creating iconic hair moments for Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler since the early 90s and helped usher in the label’s relationship with some of the world’s most famous supermodels. A 30-page portfolio in AnOther Magazine Autumn/Winter 2017 examines the impact of pioneers Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler, and would be incomplete without the voices of their key collaborators. This talk with Sam McKnight is one of a series of discussions investigating the pull and power of Westwood and Kronthaler.

AnOther Magazine: I read that you named Vivienne as one of the key collaborators in your career, what do you think connects you so deeply to her work?

Sam McKnight: Well we go back to the early 90s and we met actually at Kinky Gerlinky nightclub [run by Michael Costiff]. I’d met her before but I kind of bonded with her and Andreas one night at this club. And very quickly, they asked me to do their show in, I think, 1991 in Paris. I think it was the first time they were showing in Paris, or it was the beginning of the whole Paris thing and so I spent the last part of the 90s working with them, doing shows, doing the opera in Austria, in Vienna, doing films... all kinds of projects that they were working on then. Naomi [Campbell], Yasmin Le Bon and myself managed to persuade Linda [Evangelista], Christie [Turlington], Nadia [Auermann], Helena Christensen, all those big, big, wonderful girls – Eva Herzigova, huge superstars of the 90s – to do Vivienne’s show for free.

AM: What made you do that for her?

SM: Because she was amazing – it was really incredible, they were not your run-of-the-mill, boring shows and I knew the girls would really, really enjoy getting dressed up and playing those roles and all of them absolutely loved it. It was wonderful: those few years, those glory days in Paris with the big girls, just looking incredible in every show, they put the audience on their feet applauding every time, every time they came back on, it was so surreal and spectacular. There was Vivienne, John Galliano, Karl and Gaultier in Paris who were putting on a spectacle and they were really heady times, and I just became very, very fond of working with Vivienne and Andreas, it was lovely, and I have quite an extensive wardrobe of theirs, I had men’s suits made but in the women’s fabrics.

“The shows were a lot of fun: lots of wigs and powder and champagne” – Sam McKnight

AM: And what was your first impression of Vivienne and Andreas? What were they like together?

SM: It was at Kinky Gerlinky, I was lying on the floor, rolling on the floor, having a lot of fun, and someone introduced me to Vivienne and she bent down and shook my hand, and we had a really lovely chat and she was with Andreas. Then I was doing a charity fashion show – one of those shows where there were lots of designers, Versace and Valentino and all the big artists – and then after that they asked me to do their show in Paris and we developed quite a particular look for her then: an element of Marie Antoinette and Vivienne’s punk rebel streak and it was always such great fun, it was wonderful.

AM: What was the atmosphere like backstage?

SM: Oh it was heady – I mean you could imagine – it feels strange to say this in the past tense now because it’s not like that anymore, anyway, and it was a lot of fun, lots of wigs and powder and champagne, yeah it was a lot of fun.

AM: And what’s the creative process like when you’re coming up with your hair designs for the shows? How does it work?

SM: Well, Vivienne’s quite... she knows what she wants but it can take a bit of deciphering. It can kind of go off on tangents but I think I learnt to translate, I kind of got the gist of what she was about and she wanted that sort of drama and glamour but she always wants it kind of falling apart at the seams, she doesn’t ever want it perfect, she wants it to look really lived in and destroyed, sometimes really destroyed, it’s kind of my aesthetic too, so it married quite well. That kind of destroyed glamour is what I really like to do best.

AM: Why is that?

SM: I don’t know, I just don’t like perfection. I always think that there is something about perfection that is asking to be imperfected. I like things to be constantly evolving, I almost never look at something and say “Yes that’s it, it’s finished, it’s done.” I’m kind of taking it somewhere else, and I think she does that too, she’s on a continuous journey and still is, I mean the last few collections have been so beautiful, they have been amazing.

“Vivienne wanted that sort of drama and glamour but she always wants it kind of falling apart at the seams, she doesn’t ever want it perfect, she wants it to look really lived in and destroyed , sometimes really destroyed” – Sam McKnight

AM: How has the atmosphere changed? Have the collections changed a lot in your opinion?

SM: Well they’re not such big show spectacles anymore, but nothing is anymore, it’s just not the way things are done anymore. I think the clothes have gotten really refined and there are always so many ideas in one show. That was always the thing about Vivienne, it was never one, two or even three ideas walking down the runway in different colours and different fabrics. It was never that. It was a fucking fireball of ideas just blasting down the runway, it was almost too much to comprehend, she’s almost too good for her own good if you know what I mean?

AM: Do you respond to that with your work? Or is there anything you try to conjure or create when you are working with them?  

SM: I’m just always checking myself for making it too good, so it’s about going through the process of only stopping halfway there or doing it and pulling back. This season for instance, she had a lot of rubbish in the bin in the office, which she kept so that we could work it into the hair. We tied it in with string. We also tied in some hair pieces which were in the bottom of my bag. I know she doesn’t want things conventionally done, she takes things and turns them inside out and upside down. It’s always a challenge for me and Val to come up with something complementary. Once Vivienne showed me a drawing of someone, I can’t remember if it was a man or woman running down the stairs – it was probably 16th century, it was an old drawing – with her hair on fire, and she was like  [impersonating her Midlands accent] “Oh I like that, I like the look of that”. So I was like “Right, OK”, so off we went and made some hair pieces in colours in flames and she loved them – she even had her hair done the same at the show. There was another time when – you know the plastic bags that the garments arrive in backstage? – she picked up one of those and she said, “Oh I wonder if we could work this into something?” so we did this down-to-the-ground braid, braiding the plastic Vivienne Westwood bag into her hair. There are no boundaries which is an absolute delight.

AM: And do you have any way of describing your body of work at Westwood?

SM: Eclectic, very eclectic, because it changes every season now. There’s no pattern to it apart from the eclectic side of it.

AM: The moment where Naomi fell in her platforms on the catwalk, I’ve read that you found that quite significant at the time, or was it afterwards perhaps?

SM: Well, I don’t if it was significant it was just... Naomi was just amazing. She fell from those shoes, and she banged on the floor, and Yasmine [Le Bon] and Yvonne [Gold] and I were just looking at the monitor, tiny little monitor, and I thought “Oh my god, she’s broken her ankle!” Because we saw the ankle go, it just bent, and Naomi smiled, when you look at the video she smiled, stood up and got on with it and that was amazing, that was extraordinary. I mean you think to get those girls, those amazing girls who were making a fortune with their legs, to don 10 inch platform shoes and walk down a runway was no mean feat and they all did it for our Vivienne.

“It was a fucking fireball of ideas just blasting down the runway, it was almost too much to comprehend, she’s almost too good for her own good if you know what I mean?” – Sam McKnight

AM: You said that you enjoy her reverence for history…

SM: Well it’s sort of her reverence and her irreverence for history, because there are always two or three sides to her. You never quite know how she’s going to take it, if she’s going to actually be reverential to the historical theme or if she’s going to totally turn it inside out. And it usually gets turned inside out. So it’s usually a historical something but it usually has some kind of punk sort of rebellious side to it.

AM: I was wondering if you had any favourite references or favourite moments that you look back on apart from the hair…

SM: Some of those shows, I think it was Café Society, where there were three, four, five girls all on the runway at Paris’ Grand Hotel, that amazing baroque setting. All the girls were in 20-foot-long satin ball gowns, the trains and massive hairdos and they were all kind of just strolling around, it wasn’t a runway, it was a stage. And there was Kate, a very, very baby Kate Moss holding a baby bunny. And Kate eating a Magnum ice-lolly because the show was sponsored by Magnum and they didn’t have any money. There are so so many...

AM: And where does your love of history come from, and your love of that glam factor?

SM: I guess, like all of us, it comes from the culture we were immersed in when we were teenagers. I guess I was immersed in Hollywood glamour and punk came along when I was probably too old for it but I grew up with Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth, all those sort of old movies. And brought up through Debbie Harry. I think for my generation it’s definitely TV and movie inspiration.

This interview was conducted for the Autumn/Winter 2017 issue of AnOther Magazine, on sale now.