Sam McKnight | Artist Profile
A conversation with the hair legend behind Anna Wintour’s first Vogue cover, Princess Diana’s most iconic looks, and Karl Lagerfeld’s greatest wigs.
- Written By
- JACK SUNNUCKS
Among hair professionals, Sam McKnight needs no introduction. But if you need a primer, here it is. After moving from Scotland to London in the ‘70s to work at the Molton Brown salon, McKnight became an in-demand session stylist for British Vogue. He decamped to New York in 1982, and essentially hasn’t stopped working since, from creating the flowing locks on Anna Wintour’s revolutionary first Vogue cover, to the short style that announced Princess Diana as a fashion force to be reckoned with.
And McKnight, who returned to London ten years ago, shows no signs of slowing down. To wit: his seemingly endless ideas for Karl Lagerfeld on the Chanel and Fendi runways which have incoporated pastel colored wigs, flower veils, and incredibly adorned head bands. “It almost becomes unspoken,” he says of his collaboration with the designer. “He’ll send me a sketch. He likes things when they’re a gesture, and really quite graphic.”
And then there’s his editorial work, which bridges the talents of film and fashion with ease. Only McKnight could do Kristen Stewart’s slicked black, peroxide hair one day, and then huge, natural hair on model Lineisy Monteiro the next. And still retain a sense of humor. As he says about working on the shows: “We have enough people working with me, and if it’s not done, I’ll do it myself. I’ll do twenty looks, it’s fine!”
Truly, we couldn’t love Sam McKnight more. To celebrate the launch of his eponymous product line on VIOLET GREY, we sat down with the brilliant hair maestro to discuss his work, philosophy, styling tricks and whether a wig counts as a hat. Read on.
A conversation with Sam McKnight.
Tell us about your new line.
Well, I had been wanting to create products for ages, and everything we [made] is stuff we use daily backstage, or on clients. It’s not stuff that we’re trying to be really clever and zany and off-the-wall about. I just wanted to do something that works, that isn’t complicated or going to make your hair feel like a carpet, and that will brush out. Everyone thinks models have glorious hair, but they don’t—it’s fucked. And we have to make the best of that. So we’re always looking for products that are less damaging and easy to brush out. And no one’s really doing that and addressing those things. So we decided to launch with was four hairsprays and texturizers. There’s no wet product in there, it works in a minute or thirty seconds. Modern hair is about different textures, so they’re all different strengths [to produce] slightly different [looks]. And they all brush out, even if you use lots of them. You can brush them out and your hair will still feel great. So that was the basis of it: something customers will find easy to use. People don’t have time anymore.
It’s also very aesthetically pleasing.
Well, everything looks very boring in the hair market. We were looking at fragrance, skin care, even candles, and the packaging was really exciting. Which was why we decided to use color. It’s something that looks great on the shelf, I hope! I also wanted to keep it in the fashion world, because that’s my thing! People should covet it because of the way it looks. Because you don’t really know a hair product until you’ve got it home and tried it, so I wanted to make it attractive through nice colors.
We love the names.
And the names! Well, [with] Cool Girl we were thinking of that archetypal Kate Moss look. And I think when people read “cool girl,” they get what that is. It wasn’t about making the names so weird that you thought, what the fuck is that?
What will Cool Girl do for us?
A few bursts will make it look like your own hair, but a bit fucked up and messy. It’s not that tumbled-out-of-bed, three-day-old look—but if you want that, you could apply more.
So it’s very light.
I think that’s when women get scared of hair products, when they put them on and it changes their hair into this unrecognizable material!
So when using your products it’s not the end of the world if you make a mistake.
If you put too much on, brush it out.
You moved to New York as a young man – did moving here change your career radically?
Oh god yes! I moved to New York in 1982, [because] the industry in London didn’t exist. And then I got asked to do a job for American Vogue, and I kind of never went back for ten years. Because there was massive industry there and it was the ‘80s and everything was just beginning to happen. It was an amazing time to be there. It was downtown nightclub city. It was great!
Tell me about doing Anna Wintour’s first cover of American Vogue. Did that establish you as a master of texture?
Probably, yes. I love it when it looks really effortless, I guess that’s kind of become my thing. That [shoot] was really groundbreaking because they’d never had a girl with [minimal] hair and makeup on the cover. And I don’t think they’d had a pair of jeans! The combination of the jeans and the couture Lacroix top was a first. It was pretty out there for the time. She [Anna] made it very different from the Avedon covers that has come before. And it kind of set the tone.
It was with Peter Lindbergh and Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, who we’re obsessed with.
She’s extraordinary! A one-off. There is nobody like her.
The night before the show, I pulled a FRINGE out of my bag, put it on sideways, and dyed it GREEN.
What’s the hair story now?
There’s a lot of diversity which is great, especially that women of color can have their own hair. A huge step forward. Also, the girls with fine hair are not having waist-length extensions put in. We have different hair for different women. What is also interesting is there isn’t an overall look. It’s very eclectic. The mix is very exciting and I think that’s to do with the younger generation experimenting with their hair, which the older generation haven’t really done.
Maybe you could speak about the incredible hair you’ve done at Chanel and Fendi in collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld.
Well Karl’s amazing for allowing you to play with it; he gives you a story and allows you to develop it. Last season at Fendi we did petrol green-blue half fringes on the girls. We couldn’t figure out where it was going but then, the night before the show, I pulled a fringe out of my bag, put it on sideways, and dyed it green. And Karl really loved it, and with no doubts.
I think that, over the years, we have built a relationship where I kind of know what he’s going to like, and can figure out what he’s thinking without him explaining too much. It almost becomes unspoken. He likes things when they’re a gesture, and really quite graphic, quite strong. And sometimes we’ll go quite far, and do huge croissant buns in the back. And sometimes it’ll quite literally be fringe stuck on sideways! In the end, it’s all about his vision, not mine. It’s me facilitating his vision of a silhouette, really. The hair almost becomes the hat, if that makes sense. Sometimes it’s a colored wig plonked on top, or it could be a really major ‘do!
My favorite was the wigs at the Chanel Cruise show held at Versailles.
Yes! He wanted to do something [that referenced] Marie Antoinette, but keep it firmly in the realm of Chanel. So we did these dirty grey pastels that had a slight punk air because they were badly chopped up, and plonked on top of a ponytail with a huge satin bow. We said that Marie Antoinette was the punk of her time, and that [led to] a Ladurée color scheme, but mixed with black to make it gritty. And these amazing, huge, almost crinoline satin bows.
So how many trunks do you travel with for shows?
Do you still love the backstage hysteria?
I think I love it most of all to be honest. It’s fast, it’s spontaneous, you’re in and out before you even know it’s done. I love the fun of it. We’re very calm backstage though; we don’t get hysterical. We keep a zen-like presence backstage, and I think that works for us. Works for me, anyway! I have enough people working with me, but if it’s not done, I’ll do it myself. I’ll do twenty looks, it’s fine!
Whose hair do you love to work with?
Gisele has the best hair in the world. And Luna [Bijl]. And Kate—she has the kind of hair you can do anything with. But Gisele probably has the best hair you could ever possibly want to work with. And Linda was so adventurous with it.
It’s great when actresses let you go there and be adventurous. It’s always good when people aren’t stuck in a rut, and are willing to try stuff. I think years ago they came and wanted to [just look like] themselves, but now they have to up their game and bring something else to the table. It’s almost like the actresses have had to become models.
There’s just so many more pictures now because of the internet.
It’s like feeding a beast that will never be satisfied.
Well, your Instagram is much loved!
I enjoy doing it. It was Edward Enninful who started me off, and I was like, really, do I have to? And as soon as I started I was addicted. Especially Instagram, because I’ve got boxes full of Polaroids from the ‘80s to the ‘00s. And it’s the same, but instead of putting it in a box and putting it away, you can share it with people! Obviously it’s heavily edited, thank God! But also, I’m not posting my dinner, and I hope I’m not giving an idea of a fake perfect life. I have a garden, so there’s flowers. I’m at work, so I photograph hair. And I love putting silly wigs on, so there’s selfies!