Sam McKnight is one of the world’s greatest hairstylists. He’s tended to the tresses of some of the world’s most famous women from Lady Diana to Lady Gaga, and has helped create some of the most iconic fashion images of all time. Here he speaks exclusively to GTG’s editor Susannah Taylor about success, sexy hair and supermodels.
On how it all began…
GTG: How did you first get into hair styling?
SM: I fell into hairdressing by accident. I was about 18 or 19 at a teacher training college in Scotland, and was thinking about going into teaching children, but it just wasn’t my thing. I had fallen in love with fashion in my teens listening to David Bowie and I befriended a crowd who had a hairdressing salon and disco. I did a bit of waitering for them, and worked in the salon on Saturdays which I threw myself into. Quite shortly afterwards I went to London and retrained as a hair stylist. Miss Selfridges had a hair salon and I worked there and at Elizabeth Arden which also did hairdressing back then.
However, I found my spiritual home at Molton Brown which was an exciting place to be. It was anti-blow-drying, anti-Vidal Sassoon - there was no backcombing or sharp geometry. It was quite radical at the time and Caroline and Michael Collis, the owners, didn’t even allow meat in the staffroom. Little did they know we used to sneak in the odd bacon sandwich! Caroline and Michael got us a 30% discount in Browns and they introduced me to the world of Armani, Calvin Klein and Karl Lagerfeld. It was then that my love of high fashion really kicked in.
GTG: Has there been anyone who inspired or greatly helped you in your career?
SM: Michael and Caroline were an inspiration to me - they taught me to do hair with my hands.
The hairdresser Kerry Warn was also a great influence on me. We both worked at Molton Brown and Kerry used to be the one who did all the Vogue covers. Sometimes if he couldn’t make a shoot I would fill in, so that’s how I started really. I began doing a few jobs for Honey and 19 magazine, and then I started to work on Vogue. In 1977 I did my first Vogue cover – a sort of side bun thing that wasn’t particularly good. I felt really out of my depth.
GTG: Was there a time or moment that you knew you had an incredible knack for hairdressing?
SM: I don’t think I am a genius. I think I have quite a good eye and when it comes to creating an image I think I am very good at being part of a team, but I’m always thinking ‘I could have done that better’. I think my knack was being in a business at the time when nobody really did what I did. There were no agencies, and I wasn’t really any good, but I had to learn very quickly. That’s what I do now; I still push myself into doing stuff I don’t normally do. In the last ten years for example I have started using a lot of fake hair, colour, wigs and hairpieces in my work.
Linda Evangelista, Vogue August 1991, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier and Kate Moss, Vogue December 2005, photographed by Nick Knight
On the highlights of his career…
GTG: Has there been a highlight of your career and if so what was it or is it?
SM: There have been so many amazing moments it’s hard to say. The beginning of my career in the late 70s and early 80s coincided with such a thrilling time in the fashion world, and a HUGE highlight was being so lucky to be around during the time of the supermodels.
I've had the honour of working with some amazing, talented fashion stylists such as Liz Tilberis and Grace Coddington at the beginning of my career, and Lucinda Chambers, Katy England and Carine Roitfeld. And then there have been incredible photographers such as Patrick Demarchelier who introduced me to Lady Diana and I went on to travel with her for seven years. I have had amazing collaborations with photographers such as Nick Knight, Karl Lagerfeld, Mario Testino and then in more recent years Craig McDean and Tim Walker.
Photoshoot with Tim Walker for Vogue Magazine
GTG: What have been your favourite shoots of all time and why?
SM: I absolutely loved my Princess Diana shoot I did with Patrick Demarchelier in 1990. Mary Greenwell was doing the make-up and Anna Harvey the styling. It was such a memorable moment. It’s a shot that’s everywhere. I even have a fridge magnet of that shot – you know an image is iconic when it becomes a fridge magnet!
Princess Diana, Vogue 1990, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier
Other favourites would have to be Linda Evangelista, bleached blonde, on a blue background for the cover of Vogue which we shot on Patrick Demarchelier’s roof, and Christy Turlington in 1986 with her hair falling over one eye and a gold earring in… it was shot in Mexico in Cabo St Lucas.
Another, more recent moment was shooting with Nick Knight for Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way’ album. We shot it in Park Royal and Val Garland did the make-up. It was just great to be working with Gaga - she’s up for anything and a real pleasure to work with.
GTG: What are your fondest memories of the supermodel era?
SM: I have so many incredible memories; it was a formative part of mine and their careers. I met Naomi for example when she was 15 – she was divine then and still is. It was incredible to work and grow with those girls at the beginning of their careers.
GTG: Can you describe a week in the life of Sam McKnight?
SM: No. I never know where I’m going to be. It could be two days in Paris, one day in New York, three in London, and one in China, or it could be a whole week in London. There is no typical week. Next week for example I’m in Scotland, then New York, then St Barths and then I go back to Paris.
GTG: How do you find the constant travelling?
SM: My idea of luxury is to stay at home for a while. However, having said that I love a long haul flight so I can read and watch movies. Really I’m lucky in what I do – I get to visit amazing places and stay in fabulous hotels.
On being a hair stylist….
GTG: You once said to me that hairdressing is a bit like sculpting. What do you mean?
SM: Doing hair is like working with a material – it’s a 3D process rather than 2D. My assistants and I don’t do hair in the way you might be taught in a conventional salon. We often beat it into submission – it could be frizzed and sprayed and backcombed and straightened all in one look. The hairdressing I do is about not being afraid of it.
On his assistants…
GTG: Tell us about your team…
SM: Eamon Hughes is my head creative – he has an MA from the Royal Academy and is a great hairdresser in his own right and he’s not afraid of any material. Cyndia is our assistant and is with me at all times on shoots. Technically she is very, very good. She really wanted to work with us and has dedicated herself to it; you have to - this job is hard work, it’s long, long hours and lots of time away from home.
GTG: What is your kit like?
SM: It depends on what sort of story we’re doing but we often take six or seven suitcases with us on a shoot. There will be one case for hair extensions in every colour, a whole bag of electrics and double sets in case anything breaks down plus extension leads for different countries (we never know where we might be going next), a bag of hair pins, grips and ribbons, a bag of products, and others with brushes and combs.
GTG: How do you find inspiration for your work or is it just innate?
SM: I think collaborating with the people I do - stylists such as Carine Roitfeld, Lucinda Chambers, Grace Coddington, Liz Tilberis, or photographers like Horst Avedon, Irving Penn and Tim Walker, as well as such amazing make-up artists like Mary Greenwell, Val Garland and Francois Nars… that’s inspiration.
The incredible thing about this job is the vast breadth of the teams I get to work with on a daily basis and the talent – people like Uma Thurman and Cate Banchett. It’s very hard not to be inspired by people like that. At other times though, it might be someone on the street who inspires me.
GTG: Do you ever get star struck?
SM: Sometimes I do a bit, yes.
iD, June 2008, photography by Craig McDean
GTG: To what do you attribute your incredible success?
SM: You have to keep ahead of it all and you have to stay relevant and keep on reinventing yourself a bit. But the really huge part of it all is plain hard work. A bit of it is talent, but the rest is hard graft. There is no shortcut. Some people think they can get straight to the top, but unless they’re prepared to work hard they won’t stay there.
I also think it’s really important to push yourself out of your comfort zone and not be averse to trying new things. I have worked a lot recently with Carine Roitfeld and she’s not afraid to push you into new territory which is amazing.
What this job is not about for me is going in and throwing my weight or my ego around. I want to do a good job and people to feel comfortable around me. I don’t do screaming and shouting.
GTG: How do you stay sane?
SM: I do about forty minutes of meditative yoga when I wake up. I have a lovely yoga teacher called Audrey Thom who was a model in the 80s. She’s been a yoga instructor for 25 years and she has got me into doing it by myself. Also when I can, I do circuit training outside.
I also read a lot and I have my garden that I’ve been really into for the last year, which I really enjoy. I’ve also been known to do a spot of baking. I make a fantastic Jamaica ginger loaf.
On the future…
GTG: What does the future hold for Sam Mcknight?
SM: I would like to go on until I am pushed out really… this is what I do.
GTG: Is there anyone whose hair you haven’t done that you would still love to do?
SM: The Queen. Now that would be amazing.