Master hairstylist Sam McKnight touched down in New York this week as part of a promotional tour for his new book, “Hair by Sam McKnight,” which is authored by Tim Blanks with a foreword by Karl Lagerfeld.
Tonight, the “Hair” book will be celebrated with a launch party at Chanel’s SoHo flagship. McKnight said the best part of working on the book — and the exhibition at Somerset House in London, which opened Nov. 2 — was the response it’s been getting from people both in and outside of the industry.
“If I’m at a party with nonfashion people, nine times out of 10 it’s, ‘Oh, you’re a hairstylist? Where’s your salon?’ Because I’m older and I’m expected to have a salon, and then I have to go into an explanation…I think people outside the business don’t really look at [fashion editorials] the way that we look at them. I think most people are blissfully unaware [of what goes into a shoot],” he said. “And the thing I’ve loved most about this exhibition — I’ve been giving lots of talks and talking to trade magazines for young hairdressers — and I’ve been inundated and amazed by the response from young kids getting into the business.”
WWD caught up with McKnight ahead of tonight’s cocktail party to discuss pivotal moments in his career:
On the process of publishing the book and exhibition at Somerset House, which runs until March:
“I have collected most of my tear sheets and magazine clippings, starting about 40 years ago. It was a lot of stuff, a lot of paper. I moved house six years ago and there was so much stuff, the accumulation…and I thought ‘OK, this cannot go on, this mountain of paper.’ It could get destroyed. I did research and found a lovely archivist, Tory Turk, and she took all my stuff and digitized it. It was all put in order. It was an enormous feat. She happened to also work for Somerset House. She said, ‘Could I show my bosses your archives? Because they’re interested to see it.’ I said, ‘Sure, absolutely.’ They do very interesting shows there and they asked me if I’d like to do a show with my stuff. I was like, ‘Really? People want to come and see this?’ They had done the Isabella Blow exhibition a few years ago and they seemed to think that people would come. I was like, ‘But how do we do this so that it doesn’t look like a massive ego trip?’
“There’s a room called ‘collaboration,’ because hairstyling is not a solitary craft; it’s always a collaboration on a photo shoot with makeup artists, photographers, stylists, designers. It’s not just one person’s vision; it’s a collaborative art. There are 10 absolutely enormous images of Christy Turlington, Karlie Kloss and different people representing my collaborations, with 10 people I’ve collaborated most with, from Carine Roitfeld to Craig McDean.
“They wanted the show to have an educational feel — it wasn’t just going to be pictures on the wall. And that’s what they’ve done. Chanel kindly and graciously loaned us nine couture outfits, which we paired with real hair wigs [to match] the hair styles done in the shows. Vivienne Westwood, too. We have videos; a huge vitrine with my kits and products… It’s quite a big exhibition and a surprise for people. They go into this immersive experience.”
On how he got into hair:
“I was doing some odd jobs for some friends who owned a salon, cleaning windows, sweeping floors, washing hair just to get some money on the weekends. One day I had to go do some hair and I really liked it. I loved the interaction with people and the glamour of hair salons. Students at the time were hippies, but in this world, the glamorous hair and makeup was very intoxicating to me.
“About a year or so after that, I moved to London. It was heavy times in London in the Seventies — the era of David Bowie and punk was about to happen….When I got there, I worked in a few salons and then I became aware of a salon called Molton Brown. It was the coolest hair salon in London in the Seventies; it was on the coolest street and attached to the coolest clothing store, Brown’s. This was the amazing creative place to be and I got a job there. Very soon after that, they started to send me out on photo shoots, which I had never done before and I was absolutely terrified. It was a very new thing in the Seventies, but by the time the Eighties came along, this idea of a hairdresser who only does photo shoots…it had boomed. Fashion shows became big deals. What I’m trying to say is that I was in the right place at the right time.”
On the transformative power of hair:
“The most high-profile people I have transformed in a radical way are probably Tilda Swinton — I gave her a buzz cut about 10 years ago from shoulder-length hair, and it kind of gave her a really strong look. The next person would be Princess Diana, in 1990, whose hair I cut very short and it gave her a new image. Then, there’s Agyness Dean. We cut her hair off with Mario Testino for British Vogue, then bleached it…and she completely took off. The power of a transformative hair knows no end. And it grows back. You can change it. People don’t use their hair enough to that end. You get stuck in a rut. And I think with all three of them, I picked up on a strong sense that they really wanted a change. I never really force stuff on people if I feel that they’re not ready.”
On his relationship with Karl Lagerfeld and the house of Chanel, which he’s worked with for nine years:
“At this stage in my career, to have the opportunity to work with an icon like Karl and Chanel and Fendi — it’s just a fantastic opportunity. I bounce off people really well, and Karl and I bounce off of each other very well. It’s a wonderful team of people to be involved with — positive and inspiring. Karl is so smart and brings so much to the day; just getting his sketch ideas for hair and the show is so fantastic. I like to try and bring something more to it and work with him to get somewhere that takes you a bit further. He loves that. And he’s so funny. We have so much fun. He makes us laugh and keeps us on our toes. He wrote a lovely foreword for my book which almost made me cry.”
On the biggest changes he’s seen in the industry over the course of his career:
“The scale of [the industry]. It’s not the small business that it was. It is a massive machine; a circus. There’s almost every month a show season, whether it’s men’s, couture…It’s become this behemoth. And it’s becoming much more of a public thing. Even the fact that Somerset House felt that there would be a public interest in my work tells you that the business has become mainstream and much more open, which is great in many ways. When you’re on a photo shoot now and there’s 30 to 40 people there, that’s when it hits me.”
On how social media has changed the vibe on set:
“There is so much pressure to create content for social media now, and sometimes that feels almost more important than the actual campaign. Everything is so exposed. There are no down moments at work anymore — you’re ‘on’ from the moment you get there. And the girls have more pressure to look good, because before, no one saw the girls until the campaign imagery, but now everyone wants to see behind the scenes, eating breakfast… It worries me where all this hunger for information is going. We’re kind of in a saturation point right now. You are killing the mystery a bit. It’s nice to keep a little mystery, a little magic. We don’t wanna kill the magic.”
On what excites him the most about his work today:
“It’s still the same thing: I love going into a studio and making a great image. It doesn’t really matter what it’s for, whether it’s a shoot for Vogue Magazine or a show with Karl for Chanel, or whether it’s a celebrity for a cover. We’re still doing the same thing and that hasn’t changed. We’re still making images. I just think we’re making a lot of more of them.
“When I see the pages in the magazine — that still gives me an incredible buzz to see everything come together and the girls look and feel amazing. Because it’s not just about looking good but about making sure that people feel good.”
On what he likes about Instagram, where his @sammcknight1 account has 104,000 followers:
“I think there was a point where I felt that Instagram was devaluing the image. But I’m looking at Instagram for really interesting images, and I’ve seen really interesting people on there making nice stuff, great young photographers. So we just have to get more choosy [in who we follow]. The choice is out there, and we have to be careful with our choices. People do it for different reasons — people have it for their work, some people use it more personally. Everyone is a brand now.”
On his relationship with Diana, Princess of Wales:
“[I was introduced to] Princess Di in 1990. That was something that would never happen to me if I hadn’t been a hairdresser. I traveled to Mother Theresa’s in Calcutta with her. I went to refugee camps in Afghanistan with her. I ended up in these places that I would never have been able to go, and just having a seven-year slot in my life with Princess Diana was the absolute most unexpected and most unusual and lovely thing. We got along very well. I like to laugh a lot, and she and I used to laugh a lot. For me, that’s important in everything — that you have fun. I try not to let myself start taking things too seriously. I’m not a down person. I’m an up person.
“On that note, something I’ve learned is that it’s not always about having fun. Sometimes you gotta rein it in a little. I’d probably tell my 20-year-old self that it’s not all about you. We all think that a little bit in our 20s, but it’s about learning lessons along the way. And hopefully I’m still learning lessons.”
On the worst trend in hair, past or present:
“It would probably have to be the perm, the Eighties perm. Although, there’s something about it — after 30 years, you have that thought of, ‘Well, maybe we could do a little something with it,’ in a modern way of course.”