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Inside the World of Hair Artist Sam McKnight

As a new exhibition dedicated to the fashion hero opens at Somerset House, we take a backstage tour of the marvels inside, from Princess Di newspaper clippings to towering Chanel wigs

TextOsman Ahmed Photographic EditorHolly HayPhotographyAlexander Coggin

Britain is a nation of hair salons. In every town there is at least one, filled with piles of fashion magazines and women clutching pages torn from them. These women place their trust in their hairdressers to transform them into the Hollywood stars and supermodels documented within their glossy pages, women who they can emulate regardless of their financial status. Hair, in this sense, is a form of fashion which is much more accessible, personal and visceral in its conceptual circulation. Most people have hair and anyone can do something transformative with it – it’s part of the reason that clichéd cinematic makeover scenes centre on the hairstylist’s big reveal. Sam McKnight is the hairstylist’s hairstylist – an image-maker in his own right, and one of the first artists to make the transition from the salon to the runway. For over 40 years, he has been at the forefront of both editorial and fashion show styling alike, as well as standing behind the coiffure of icons like the late Diana, Princess of Wales and Madonna.

Last night, a new blockbuster exhibition was unveiled at Somerset House dedicated to celebrating the artist – Karl Lagerfeld writes in the accompanying Rizzoli book that he can’t imagine anything worse than the word ‘hairdresser’ – and his vast archive of images, films, wigs and memorabilia. Designed by Michael Howells, it is a visual feast of installations placed throughout the Embankment galleries: upon entering the Vreelandian red lacquered entrance (inspired by the Nick Knight Vogue photo of Kate Moss in 2000, which acts as the exhibition's poster), one is greeted by a suitcase that has exploded its myriad of brushes, combs, bands, products, clips, and anything else remotely hair-related onto transparent shelves for all to see.

“At the shows in September we had these videos made in situ of the girls getting their hair done to show what it's like” – Sam McKnight

“This is what I like to call the ‘salon in a suitcase’,” says the exhibition's curator, Shonagh Marshall, pointing out that most visitors to the exhibition are probably unfamiliar to what a session stylist actually does. As I speak to her, McKnight emerges from directing the various staff members in the process of hanging. “This is meant to be like being backstage,” he says, leading us into a dark area lined with lightbulb-framed mirrors and tables covered in utensils. The atmosphere is uncanny. “At the shows in September we had these videos made in situ of the girls getting their hair done to show what it's like.” Each dresser has an accompanying video filmed with a GoPro, which shows models like Kendall Jenner or Gigi Hadid head-on sitting in the chairs, on their phone or talking to friends. McKnight did the hair for 12 shows this season, including Chanel, Burberry, Tom Ford, Balmain, Vivienne Westwood and Fendi. He is the first to admit that the chaotic atmosphere is the antithesis of his beloved garden, a tranquil space in which he has cultured a heavenly array of botanical beauties. “I love the buzz of going from show to show,” he enthuses. “You get absolutely lost in the moment.”

From here, the exhibition journeys through McKnight’s close collaboration with Vivienne Westwood on her runway wigs, which have all been archived perfectly. As one of the first major exhibitions to focus on hair, it is darted throughout the exhibition in the form of wigs and framed snippets to remind the viewer of its materiality. “It’s almost easier to recreate something that was big and theatrical,” McKnight says in his lowland lilt. “It’s the more natural looks that are much harder to recreate, and they come through more in the images.” Fashion and beauty editors alike rave about McKnight’s done-but-not-done hair, the kind that inspires them to brief hairstylists to “make the girls look natural – just like how she walked in.” Of course, by that they mean an amplified, softly tousled version of the hair she came in with and that is Sam’s signature. 

“He has a relationship with [these models] that is incredibly close – these women tell him things that they would probably never tell anyone else" – Shonagh Marshall

A large section of the exhibition is devoted to the staggering breadth of images that McKnight has been involved in producing. Split into sections, they chronicle his instrumental relationship with the supermodels, and collaborations with the most era-defining photographers and designers. “I got to work with...” he begins. “Well, I got to work with everyone: Irving Penn, Horst, Richard Avedon. It was incredible to be travelling the world and going on location and being a part of these iconic images. On one display is Penn’s milk snake curling around Anette Stai’s kohl-rimmed eye; over there is Christy Turlington with luscious Veronika Lake curls; on that wall is a close-up shot of a baby Brooke Shields; opposite stands a teenage Naomi Campbell with Aphrodite ringlets and Shalom Harlow as a vision in red with a silhouette-shaping beehive. The list goes on (and on, and on). What links all of these images is McKnight and the close, creatively successful relationship he had with the models, photographers, make-up artists and fashion editors that also worked on them. “It’s always a collaboration,” he reasons. “It’s never a singular effort.” Such is testament to his warm humility and modesty. “Sam is sometimes shut away with these models from first thing in the morning to the last thing at night,” says Marshall. “he has a relationship with them that is incredibly close – these women tell him things that they would probably never tell anyone else.”

Does the hair maestro ever sense when the photo being taken is going to enter the hall of fame of fashion photography that he has been a part of? “No, for an iconic image to remain iconic it has to hit the public at a certain time and there needs to be a gap in the market for it – or a gap in peoples’ minds,” he explains. “It has to be both in the news and to be timeless. There’s a lot of different elements. There could be the most amazing image in a magazine but sometimes nobody really notices. If it’s on the right person, at the right time, by the right photographer, they will.” 

“There could be the most amazing image in a magazine but sometimes nobody really notices. If it’s on the right person, at the right time, by the right photographer, they will” – Sam McKnight

Beyond the galleries of iconic photography, endless Vogue covers, personal polaroids and memorabilia, breathtaking wigs and immersive videos amassed over the years, is a room dedicated to one of the most formative relationships in McKnight’s career, with the late Diana, Princess of Wales. The two first met in 1990 on a Patrick Demarchelier shoot for British Vogue, and there and then she agreed to let McKnight cut her hair into the shorter style that became synonymous with her later years, free from the gilded shackles of royal duties. “She holds a special place in my heart,” says McKnight. “We bonded because we laughed together so much and that lasted seven years – I would see her every week when I was in London.” Amongst the images of Diana are snippets of press, including a copy of The Sun from 1995 exclaiming readers to VOTE IN THE DI REFHAIRRENDUM. Such was the megawatt power of the princess that when McKnight gave her a slicked-back look for the CFDA Fashion Awards in New York, it caused a national division.

The show ends with a spectacular line-up of Chanel looks from the last decade against a backdrop of bonbon pink silk. “Karl will often sketch the hair,” says McKnight. There’s one look that he says combined a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots and a photo of an African princess; a Bombay-Paris look inspired by the dreadlocks of Sadhu priests; the “giant croissants” (as per Karl’s request) from spring’s couture. “The shows are always in such a massive space with massive sets, so sometimes the girl can get lost – she needs something quite theatrical.” The girl is always the primary concern of McKnight. He has, after all, nurtured generations of models – and actresses, and pop stars. His ability to produce relevant work is akin to Lagerfeld’s – not long ago he set Instagram on fire with the mismatched hair colours he did for Balmain, sending a brunette Gigi and peroxide Kendall through the Internet cosmos and back.

So what feels different for the man who has seen it all? “Back then, I was closer in age to them and we were hanging out,” he says of Linda, Cindy, Naomi et al. “Those girls worked really hard to create these iconic images and it was because of their work that they themselves became iconic. Now you can be iconic and in the public eye before you’re even a model – today, the new girls come along and they already have tons of followers and it’s a readymade package.” With that, the exhibition closes on the ‘Instagirls’ and McKnight’s most recent work, set against a heart-warming backdrop of his own witty Instagram images. The fashion world is a much bigger beast than it was four decades ago – what hasn’t changed, however, is his place right in the centre of it all.

Hair by Sam McKnight is at Somerset House until March 12, 2017.