The fashion industry is known for its fast pace and high turnover, but some things stand the test of time; designers swap labels, models come and go, but industry vets like Sam McKnight remain as vital and essential as ever. With a career that spans over 30 years, McKnight has cemented his status as one of the business’ most powerful and beloved fixtures. During his legendary career as a high fashion hair stylist, McKnight has worked with everyone from Avedon and Irving Penn, to Meisel and Nick Knight reshaping the way we look at hair and playing a crucial part in the creation of some of the most iconic imagery around. His fur mohawks at Fendi were the season’s most talked about hair moment, the daring dos captured expertly in photos by Daniella Rech, summed up the industry’s current obsession with punk. Speaking to the effervescent Mr. McKnight is like taking a trip through fashion’s history and his unique insider perspective provides insight to key moments in and out of fashion.
Janelle Okwodu: How does the Sam McKnight story begin?
Sam McKnight: I started by accident in Scotland where I’m from a small town. I was in college studying to be a teacher, and I absolutely hated it. I dropped out when I was 19 and ended up helping out some friends of mine who owned a hairdressing salon just to get some money. They also owned a disco and a restaurant. I would make some money helping them out DJing in the disco, waitering in the restaurant, and also washing hair in the salon. To cut a long story short, that’s how I got into hairdressing.
JO: When did you start to move into fashion work as opposed to the salon?
SM: After a few years, I moved to London. I worked in a very, very fashionable hair salon there called Molton Brown which actually went on to create the famous Molton Brown hair products. It was around the corner from Vogue magazine and Vogue would use the stylists to do the cover shoots. I covered for a hairdresser called Carrie Worn, when she couldn’t do one of the jobs for Vogue. That was around 1978, and that’s when I began to do my own thing.
JO: That sounds very different from the way hairstylists get into the industry nowadays.
SM: The industry then didn’t really exist. It was really people from salons who did a cover, etc. There were only a few hair and make up people who were freelance. I think in England I was one of the first people to go with an agency and be solely on photoshoots. I left the salon in 1980. It was a real risky thing to do because the business was fairly small, it was very fledgeling. It existed but it wasn’t a big business. People shot TV commercials and stuff like that but the fashion industry didn’t really exist in the way it does now. There wasn’t the amount of shows; the shows were very small and very sort of expensive.
JO: You’ve worked with everyone, but what would say were the big moments that took your career to the next level?
SM: The defining moment was when I decided I’d take a chance on working in New York. I was very grateful the Bryan Bantry Agency took me on. I’d done a lot of stuff with British Vogue in the four years I’d been working. I had done some stories for them with a few young photographers, one of them being Steven Meisel; Steven was just starting out then. That was in 1982. I was offered a couple of jobs in New York; to be honest, it went very well in New York. Moving to New York, in that first couple of years working with people like Penn, Bruce Weber, and Patrick Demarchelier, Horst and Bill King, that was the defining moment in my career. I lived in New York for 18 years after that and watched the whole business growing from the beginning, from the inside out, part of the blueprint that is the business as we know it today.
JO: Are there any things from the old days that you miss? The industry has changed so much…
SM: I miss the small amount of people on the set. I miss the small crews, I miss shooting on film and polaroid. I miss the supermodels, although I love the new models, but I miss that sort of nurturing of the best girls and the girls being allowed to develop personalities and to look different from each other. I miss the kind of, I guess, the days before everything became homogenized. I miss the naiveté of it, in a way, but that is human nature, isn’t it? I embrace lots of things about now. I mean, I love digital, too, I love the internet, I love the fast turnover. It was all so new then and it was also about making the stakes and inventing without really knowing what we were doing. We knew it was kind of groundbreaking at the time. Everything was growing, everything felt like a new beginning. It’s different now. It’s business now. It’s big business.
JO: The time period was very exciting for a lot of people.
SM: The talented photographers Paolo (Roversi), Patrick (Demarchelier) and Arthur (Elgort) and even the old guys like Avedon and Penn were creating such phenomenally iconic pictures with these amazing girls that were chameleons and had huge personalities.
JO: Now who are some of your favorite girls from that time period?
SM: Linda, Christy, Tatiana, Helena, Claudia. To name but a few…
JO: You work nonstop – how do you keep things exciting and fresh?
SM: I just have a great time with young assistants and I really enjoy what I do. I probably enjoy it now more than ever before. I enjoy it now as much as I ever enjoyed it before. I think I’m constantly working with new people. I try to constantly work with new people as well as people like Karl Lagerfeld, Nick Knight and Patrick. I kind of try to add some young new people at the same time. I just worked with Dan Jackson for the first time who was great and I love working with Josh Olins and um… oh who am I forgetting now? There’s a lot of great, young talent around and it’s really great to be part of that and I love doing shows. I LOVE doing shows. I had such a wonderful time doing the Chanel shows with Karl and I love working with Vivienne on her shows and it’s been wonderful to be doing Balmain since the beginning, doing Mulberry for the last 5 years, and I was back at Paul Smith again for the first time in, I think, 10 years. It’s lovely. I love doing shows.
JO: Now, when you’re doing a show, how does the process work for coming up with those amazing hairstyles? Do you work with the designer a bit, is there a conversation, how does that come together?
SM: Well, of course it’s the designer’s show and the designer and stylist usually have an idea of how they want to present the collection… Karl will send me a wonderful drawing with an inspiration so it’s about figuring something out after. Being in this business has been my ticket to meet and work with some of the most iconic and inspirational people of our times; people like Karl, like Vivienne, like Linda Evangelista, like Kate Moss. Like Princess Diana, who was a big part of my career for over seven years. It’s enabled me to almost have a bit of their magic rub off on me, if you like. It’s very privileged to go all over. It’s the most wonderful job because I’ve been all over the world with these people. There’s not many other jobs where I could’ve done what I’ve done.
JO: Could you talk a little bit about your work with Princess Diana? It’s very interesting.
SM: Patrick Demarchelier introduced us. Patrick photographed her for seven years, and Patrick had many, many, many wonderful pictures of Diana. He was doing a shoot with Anna Harvey for British Vogue in 1990. Diana was ready to change her look and Patrick asked us, Mary Greenwell and myself, to do hair and makeup on a shoot for British Vogue and we did that very, very, very iconic picture; that famous one that is shown everywhere. She’s sitting on the floor, in a white dress with a tiara, big smile on her face. That was the first day I met her and she asked me to take care of her hair for the next few years. We ended up having a great relationship for seven years. Yeah, it was wonderful!
JO: Now, you said she took you along on a bit of her charity work, so you were able to see that side as well.
SM: Yes, she took me to Pakistan, Afghanistan and India where I got to see Mother Teresa. Oh my gosh, she took me to these kinds of places I’d never have access to because she wanted her team to see the kind of work she did, and it was pretty harrowing sometimes because it was nothing I’d never experienced unless I was with her.
JO: That’s incredible. She did so much.
SM: She did so much, she really did. It was a great honor to be a part of that.
JO: I have to ask you. You’re on social media, you have a Twitter, I see your fabulous Instagram. How did you sort of adapt to that side of the business? Because that’s all very new, people showing inside of their lives, really.
SM: Well, I blame Mr. Edward Enninful for that. Because we were on a shoot and Edward said, “Oh, you must join Twitter, you must do Twitter,” and I was like “Please, I don’t want to do any of that shit, I don’t want to do that.” So he made me do it, and 2 weeks later I was addicted. Then, when Instagram came along- Instagram for me is more effective than Twitter because you don’t really have to say anything. It’s just image driven, which is perfect for me. I’m loving Instagram! I’m loving everyone else’s things on Instagram. I’m loving posting my own things. I get a great response from backstage at shows, from old editorials and things. It’s fun, too. I’ve just been posting pictures of my garden for the past 2 weeks because the blooms are out.
JO: I think that’s sometimes more fun than some of the fashion-y pictures people put on Instagram. I mean it’s nice to see something private, something different.
SM: Yes, it’s good fun. I really enjoy it.
JO: Now, can we talk a little bit about the hair at Fendi?
SM: The mohawks?
JO: Yes. How did that come about?
SM: Yes, that was Karl, to be honest. We came up for the idea of the braid that high on the head, and Karl just pulled a piece of fur from the shelf at Fendi and said, “Try using this.” The fur ended up at the top of the head. It was an organic little hair trial in the Fendi showroom the day before the show, and it just kind of happened like that. That was thanks to Karl. He always has a wonderful flourish for an idea for something, and I try to run with it. It was fox fur and we sprayed them with really bright colors.
JO: Now, what would you say is sort of the future of hair in relation to fashion? What’s next?
SM: The future of hair… God, I don’t know. There’s so much choice out there. I would say the real far-future of hair would have to be a pill. It would have to be a pill that you take to get the straight hair that you want or the curly hair that you want. I foresee that.
Karl just pulled a piece of fur from the shelf at Fendi and said, “Try using this.” The fur ended up at the top of the head. It was an organic little hair trial in the Fendi showroom the day before the show”
JO: That’s a great idea. Can you imagine? Let’s see. Now, is there anything you haven’t done just yet like with hair or just in the business in general that you’d like to do? What’s next for you?
SM: What’s next for me? I wish I could even talk about it. I have a few things bubbling under and on the soil, and if a couple of them could come off I’d be very excited.
JO: Well, we look forward to the secret being revealed.
SM: I’m sorry if it’s a bit cryptic.
JO: It’s something to look forward to.
SM: I’m always looking for things to do that I’ve never done before, which is what keeps me going.
JO: Is there anyone whose hair you haven’t done just yet that you’d like to do?
SM: Well, I haven’t done the Queen’s and that would be nice.
JO: Oh my, I’d love to see what you come up with for her.
SM: That would be nuts. Maybe the Queen in a Fendi mohawk?
JO: That would be an international news headline.
SM: That would be something, wouldn’t it? Or we could give her a little pastel wig from the Chanel show last year.
JO: Now I’m just imagining various hairstyles that the Queen could wear and I think that’s a fashion editorial waiting to happen, like for Vogue Italia. How would you say that the role of a hairstylist has changed in the business over time? Since the start. What would you say has changed?
SM: It’s a much bigger role now because often on the job now you will have six models, and you will be expected to do completely different looks for every shot. A story used to be the same hair and makeup throughout the whole story but there is much more demand for different things. There are much more wigs and extensions, it’s a much more complicated, bigger role.
JO: You’re definitely right. There’s much more that goes into it. Especially these multi-girl editorials.
SM: All the barriers have been broken with hair and makeup, and I think it’s pretty much now anything goes so you have to be prepared for anything. I have to bring so many bags to the shoots now- I used to just show up with one bag. It’s grown.
JO: You once said that you like to do creating when you’re on set.
SM: I like to change things on set when you’re actually there rather than take the girl away to the dressing room all the time and do sort of hair after-changing. It always looks different on set than in the dressing room. Once she gets in the light I like to work a bit with it there.
All the barriers have been broken with hair and makeup, and I think it’s pretty much now anything goes so you have to be prepared for anything
JO: That’s interesting. What are some of your favorite individual hairstyles that you’ve created or things that you just enjoy doing?
SM: Frizz is always a favorite of mine, I love doing a big frizz-ball. I love doing frizz. The frizz we did at Chanel in Edinburgh was really cool. That was great. I loved doing those little pastel wigs we did; I like changing things.
JO: Just sort of something new every time or…?
SM: It’s nice to do Kate Moss in a brown wig, for instance. We did her in a brown wig for Italian Vogue with Nick Knight. I love working with Nick. Nick kind of pushes boundaries and it’s kind of great to do Nick’s big, dramatic stories that are almost theatrical. And Tim Walker, too, it’s great to do such fantastical stories with him.
JO: Now I have one last question for you. Why do you think you’ve had such incredible lasting power in this business?
SM: I don’t know! I don’t know! I guess I just keep reinventing myself. As long as I keep reinventing myself and I keep trying to not get stuck in a rut and trying to sort of challenge myself. I think also being there at the beginning. I know all the people. I didn’t have to begin when the business is already really big. There’s quite a few of us oldies still around.
I keep reinventing myself and I keep trying to not get stuck in a rut and trying to sort of challenge myself. I think also being there at the beginning. I know all the people”