• Images courtesy of Sam McKnight
  • Images courtesy of Sam McKnight
  • Images courtesy of Sam McKnight
  • Images courtesy of Sam McKnight
  • Images courtesy of Sam McKnight
  • Images courtesy of Sam McKnight
  • Images courtesy of Sam McKnight
  • Images courtesy of Sam McKnight

Sam McKnight

Often credited as the original session hairstylist, London-based Sam McKnight has long been a favorite of top fashion editors, renowned photographers, supermodels—and even royalty. McKnight's legendary career encompasses nearly every major magazine from Vogue to Vanity Fair; numerous fashion shows and advertising campaigns for clients like Chanel, Prada and Burberry; iconic pop culture hair moments like Agyness Deyn’s bleached blonde crop, Madonna’s Bedtime Stories album cover and Lady Gaga’s appearances with her alter ego Jo Calderone; and traveling alongside Princess Diana for seven years as her personal stylist. We asked McKnight to share his hair journey, offer his advice for the next generation of session stylists and tell us the Oribe product he's addicted to.

Tell us how you got your start in hair.

I really just fell into it by accident when I was 18 or 19 years old. I went to college in Scotland and hated it. A friend owned a combination salon/disco/diner, and I helped out with everything to make a little money. I discovered that I really loved the styling part of the job, so I began doing that. A year later, I fell in love with bright lights of London while I was there on vacation, so I decided to move. I re-trained at the Molton Brown salon, and that’s really where I learned everything. It was the late ‘70s, and the salon was around the corner from Vogue, so the editors used the stylists there all the time for shoots. I found the whole editorial creative process intoxicating—the polaroids, getting girls ready, the film, seeing my work in magazines…

By 1980, I was solely doing photo shoots. It was a time when all that was at its peak; the days of David Bailey, Jerry Hall, Helmut Newton. I was lucky to begin in the middle of that, and then carry on my career through the supermodel years with Oribe. During that time, there weren’t that many people doing what we did and specializing in editorial. It was a small group, and we all knew each other.

What was your big break?

Doing the shoots for British Vogue in early ‘80s started me on my path. From those, I got a call from American Vogue, and that set me on my way. I did a whole season of shoots for them. One of the early ones was with Kathy Ireland and Bruce Weber. The whole thing was a big learning curve. Shoots are very different than salon work, and shooting in the US was different than in the UK. I learned I had to take risks and make a few mistakes…and that was okay. I’m still learning to this day. I didn’t learn to keep my mouth shut until just recently!

Did you have any mentors or early influences?

At first, not really; I was just thrown in on the deep end. But I assisted Kerry Warn in the salon and on lots of shoots, and I Iearned a lot from him.

I really looked up to Garren and Mod’s Hair in Paris. I loved leafing through David Bailey’s pictures of Jerry Hall; I was intoxicated by the glamour. Arriving in NYC and getting to work with Patrick Demarchelier, Bruce Weber and Irving Penn was incredibly inspiring. I was lucky—I did a lot of work with editors at British Vogue, especially Anna Harvey, who is now the global director of Vogue. Anna was wonderfully loyal and encouraging when I first started. I worked with her for many years.

What do you consider some of your career highlights so far?

(We know you’re not slowing down at all!) In 1990, was introduced to Princess Diana by Patrick Demarchelier, and I worked with her for the next several years. I feel very fortunate for the time we had together. She was a wonderful person, and we’ll never see the likes of her again. She was very kind to me—and so much fun to be around. It was a magical seven years, and it propelled me into a new sphere. It’s that kind of experience that being in this business has afforded me. It’s taken me places I would never have been able to go to.

What’s your signature style?

I like an easy, natural edge to hair, rather than anything too complicated. I like simplicity. I can do huge, intricate hair, but I prefer to give people something they can relate to, something almost attainable. I like styles that are done and then destroyed a bit so they look lived in.

What inspires you?

The great outdoors, traveling, trips to India, people-watching. Keep my eyes open all the time. If there’s a great exhibition at a museum, I try to go to it. London is an incredibly inspiring place, so it’s not hard to be inspired by the world around me. In the fashion world, I’m inspired by designers Karl Lagerfeld and Vivienne Westwood and photographer Nick Knight.

You’ve been in the industry 30+ years, but your work always seems so fresh and new. How do you stay so in-the-moment?

I’m always working with lots of cutting-edge people—people who are pushing the boundaries—so it makes it easy for me. I’m also surrounded by teams of very creative people, including designers, makeup artists, photographers. I have a great styling team around me, as well, with lots of young stylists, and we’re all very collaborative.

How do you think the hair industry has evolved throughout your tenure?

It’s a different business now. Before, it was small groups of people having fun and being creative. Now, every job has a lot of money depending on it, so everyone is a little more serious.

You’ve collaborated with so many incredible fashion brands—any favorite campaigns?

So many! We spent 10 years with Nick Knight for John Galliano and Dior, working with Kate Moss, young Gisele, Angela Lindvall and so many others. The ads were all spectacular. John is a genius. I love the recent Kristen Stewart campaigns for Chanel with Karl Lagerfeld and Carine Roitfeld.

You’ve built a lot of long-lasting relationships with photographers, clients, brands, etc. What is the secret to building relationships like that?

I guess I’m just a long-term relationship person! Really, I’m a creature of habit. I’m faithful. I like to be comfortable with people—when I get my feet in the slippers, it works for me. I like relationships where respect is mutual. It makes it easy. I believe in mutual respect for others’ privacy. When you’re working on a shoot, you spend long, intense hours with people—in the old days, we would have all gone to a club together after; now, I like to go home.

You traveled with Princess Diana as her personal hairstylist. What was it like styling the most famous woman in the world? What did you learn from her?

It was an incredible experience. It was important to her that we could see her work because her causes weren’t vanity projects. She was so good with people, a natural healer. We met Mother Teresa in Calcutta and went on refuge trips to Afghanistan. It was very different from what I was doing in other aspects of my career—I’d be frolicking with Linda Evangelista on the beach in St. Barths for Vogue one week and then at a refuge camp the next. We also went on a wonderful trip to the Taj Mahal; there were just 60 of us there. It all brings back so many memories.

What are some other great trips you’ve taken through your work?

I’ve gone on remarkable trips with Sarajane Hoare, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista to Mexico. One really amazing trip was a week-long shoot for British Vogue on rafts in the Colorado River. We had all the clothes on one raft and we were on the others. We camped out and shared tents at night.

And, of course, there were many wonderful wild weekends in Miami with US Vogue. I worked with Bruce Weber on a Calvin Klein campaign with 60 models. This was at the beginning of the strip in Miami, so we were surrounded by gangsters mixed with old people…and there we were doing high-fashion shoot with bodyguards. Within two years, everything was changed, and the area became very fashionable.

How do you build your team? What are the characteristics you look for?

I love to bring new people in, so there’s constant movement. I have a core team of five stylists, a regular team of about 20 stylists and then some others waiting in the wings. When looking for new additions, I usually ask the core team for recommendations and see how they are. My key people watch them carefully, and we build up responsibilities as we learn their different capabilities and weaknesses.

One key thing is that a stylist must have passion and drive. I can tell very quickly if someone doesn’t want to be there. Those who don’t stay to pack up—or are on social media while show is going on—are not asked back. Stylists posting pictures on social media is a new phenomenon over the last few years, but I always wonder, “How do they have time to take pics while they’re supposed to be working?” You need to have a certain respect for the job and the client and give them your full attention. You’re there to benefit the client.

How do you use social media?

As I mentioned before, social can get you in trouble, so you have to be careful! But it definitely has its benefits for hairstylists because it’s so visual and instant. I’ve really embraced it and made it my own, especially on Instagram. I have boxes of Polaroids from shoots in the ‘70s and ‘80s; for me, Instagram is like those, but I can share my work with so many more people. It also gives people a nice, personal insight into my world outside the studio. Just a glimpse, though. I always make sure to ask other people if it’s ok to post pictures of them. I mostly show silly shots of me, my life, my garden. It’s an interesting way to connect with people. It’s like being able to share my scrapbook. I enjoy it.

Tell us more about your garden—we know that’s a passion.

Gardening is a huge part of my life. I’m actually about to start being a gardening correspondent for Mulberry. I’ve always loved gardens and was always interested in visiting gardens. The UK is such an intensely beautiful and historical country. Over the last several years, I’ve been really getting to know my own country. The gardens here in the summer are astounding. I love Great Dixter in the South of England. It’s beautiful, very wild and just magnificent. It was designed by Christopher Lloyd and is an old medieval house that was extended in the 1900s. It’s organized chaos.

My house has been under construction for a year, but I visit regularly to tend my garden—it looks raggedy, but it’s still there. My fruits and veggies, especially my tomatoes, are looking very hopeful! With the amount of love and care I give it, my garden is like my child.

I take a lot of inspiration from gardens, such as the pastel wigs I did for Chanel a few years ago. Really, gardening is not a million miles away from hair—you can tailor and change trees and plants…they’ll grow back…they have structure…etc. It’s not a huge leap.

Who are some of your favorite photographers to work with?

I love working Patrick Demarchelier. I’ve spent the last 15 years working intensely with Nick Knight. I love him. I also work a lot with Karl Lagerfeld as a photographer; he’s an incredible inspiration. And I love Tim Walker these days.

Any up-and-comers we should be on the lookout for?

I recently worked with Josh Olins. He’s young and does great work. Also, Johnny Dufort—I just shot a Tom Ford campaign with him. He’s going to be big.

You famously transformed Agyness Deyn’s hair and gave her a look everyone wanted to emulate. Tell us about that.

At the time, her hair wasn’t long or short—it was kinda nothing. I thought if we cut her hair really short, it could really work. Then we bleached it. It was essentially the start of her career. The timing was right.

How important is it for a stylist to help clients take risks? How do you usually start that conversation?

It usually works one of two ways: It’s either spur of the moment and you get the sense it will work (and client agrees) or someone has to be persuaded. In either case, make sure you get the sense that the client is really ready; it might feel not right for that person at the moment, but it may after some time. I know when someone doesn’t really want to do something. But at the same time, I know when someone really wants to do something—and I just go for it. The most important thing is that you never bully anyone into making a change.

When I first met Princess Diana, she said, “What would you do with my hair?” I told her I’d cut it off. She said, “Let’s do it!” And it was great. Another key moment was slicking her hair back for the Met Ball. We had done it before in private, but she never wore it like that in public. I wanted to try something different, but I didn’t want to push her. It was a great success. You have to take a risk sometimes with your hair. Life is the runway for normal people. If you make a mistake, you can change it. With modern products and technology, you can fix mistakes and have six hairstyles in a day. Variety is the modern way to go. It’s all possible without ruining your hair.

You’ve done a lot of famous short styles – any tips for styling/cutting short hair?

I like short hair when it’s a bit messy and not too well-done. Short hair looks old when it’s too coifed. Add waxy products. Don’t make it too blunt; try going shorter underneath. I hate mumsy short hair. It has to be individualized.

What trends are you anticipating for fall 2014?

I’m not really a great follower of trends; the hair I do doesn’t tend to be trend-driven. I can say that what we’ve been doing for fall is lots of variations on ponytails (tied up with rags at Chanel, slick at Balmain, beachy at Isabel Marant, a complicated woven ponytail at Fendi). Also, natural, beachy, sexy hair. What will begin to come back is a return to volume, such as the look from the Chanel Dubai show.

You’ve recently been working with a lot of Oribe products. Do you have a favorite?

I just love—well, really, I’m addicted to—Dry Texturizing Spray. It does all the things I need it to do. It brushes out. It enables us to do many different things. It’s a line of dream products, and I love being able to support Oribe, whom I’m a great admirer of.

What tips to you have for stylists who want to make it big in the session styling world?

Call agents in New York City or whatever fashion hub you’re closest to and offer your services for free to get onto a team. Be available. I’ll say it again: Always be available. If not, someone else will be, and you may not get the second phone call. You have to show that you’re willing and available. When you get there, don’t say much. Just take it all in and soak it up. Learn from the more experienced people and watch what they’re doing. Remember that you’re there to follow the instructions of head stylist, not to put your own version on it. You’ll have time for that later.

What’s next on your project list?

I always have exciting things I’m working on, but right now, I can’t tell you about any of them. On a personal note, I’m so excited to move back into my house. I’m going to Ibiza for a month, but I’m more excited for my holiday to be over so I can move!
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