Within the world of hair, Sam McKnight is a man that requires little introduction. He has touched the tresses of Princess Diana, conjured up countless creations for the cover of Vogue and invented iconic moments involving bleached blonde crops. Four decades later, Sam is still entrenched in photo shoot sessions and backstage styling, and has also found the time to author a book and curate a jaw-dropping museum exhibit.
Hairstyling, which swept Sam off his feet, almost by accident, has afforded him a life of unbelievable experiences. Sam was born and raised by a working-class family in Prestwick, a tiny village in Scotland. It was there—after a misguided attempt at becoming a schoolteacher—that Sam started doing odd jobs for a friend who owned a salon. At the age of 19, the soon-to-be industry icon picked up and moved to London where he joined Molton Brown and began absorbing the technical side of hairdressing.
The session styling side of the industry would open up to Sam after he was introduced to Kerry Warn in the early 1970s. Sam did his first Vogue shoot in 1977, and by the end of that decade he had moved exclusively into the competitive and rewarding realm of session styling. A move that is still celebrated by the creative directors, models, makeup artists and photographers who are lucky enough to ideate and collaborate with Sam.
After the madness of Fashion Week, we snuck in a few minutes with Sam to learn more about his new adventure as author, his Somerset House exhibit and his almost-unbelievable industry partnerships that have taken place over the last 40 years.
How do you stay inspired after almost 40 years in the industry?
Collaborations with people like [former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris] Carine Roitfeld, [British Vogue Fashion Director] Lucinda Chambers, [photographer] Irving Penn, [fashion photographer] Mario Testino, [makeup artist] Mary Greenwell and [makeup artist] Val Garland—to name only a very few—keep me inspired. These amazing people are a constant source of inspiration. The work we do together and that collaborative process keeps me going and challenges me.
You also work with iconic designers like Karl Lagerfeld, Vivienne Westwood and Balmain. Is your approach and process different when you work with these big names?
You always need to treat every shoot or show with respect no matter who the designer is—of course, some people have bigger, more elaborate ideas. The trick is to never go in thinking ‘This is what I'm going to today,’ or ‘This is my thinking.’ It is never completely your day; you are all working toward the same end.
What is something that still challenges you about the beauty industry?
I work with people who have very big, imaginative ideas for their shoots, collections and shows. I challenge myself with every job I take. You should never be working on autopilot. Every season and shoot brings its new challenges. It’s what makes life so interesting and compelling.
What has been your most memorable project?
I absolutely loved the Princess Diana shoot I did with Patrick Demarchelier in 1990. Mary Greenwell was the makeup artist and Anna Harvey was the stylist—It was such a memorable moment. I even have a fridge magnet of that shot.
You have 100K Instagram followers—Has social media changed your approach to session styling?
It has changed the industry. On the one hand it’s a good thing—I enjoy Instagram and sharing my work with people, but the flip side is that the mystery is slowly being eaten away. The elegance, glamour and fantasy is disappearing, which is a little sad.
What is your signature style?
“Cool girl” is my signature style. It’s that sexy, effortless, rock ‘n’ roll look. The trick to “cool-girl” hair is making it look like you haven’t tried. It’s the antithesis to done hair.
You recently added author to your resume. Tell us a little bit about Hair by Sam McKnight.
Hair by Sam McKnight is an amalgamation of my 40 years in the business. I’ve worked with some of the most talented and creative people in the industry, and the book is a celebration of our work together. It also gives people a snapshot of some of my most proudest moments as well as an authentic insight into the hair industry.
What provoked you to put together your esteemed collection of images in one (beautiful) place?
I had been talking to Rizzoli—the same people who did Kate Moss’s book—for a while, but we couldn’t decide what the book should be bout. After meeting with Somerset House about the exhibition, I realized that the book should be an archive of the (incredible!) past 40 years.
There are 800 images in your book. Why did these make the cut and what was the selection process like?
It was so hard to narrow down the nearly 40,000 editorial images. There are so many good ones, and it feels like you’re losing a child when you edit them out. Selecting the personal photos was easy. I’d just look at them and say, ‘No, too fat in this one, too old in that one.’
You mention your exhibition at Somerset House. How did the show come about?
I was fed up with carrying around 40 years’ worth of magazines and tear sheets. I’ve taken them with me to every house and apartment, and when I moved into my current home five years ago, it became clear that they were taking up a ridiculous amount of space. I said, ‘I'm not doing this again; these are going digital,’ and the woman who was doing the digital archive for me happened to work for Somerset House. She showed my archive to the team and that was the catalyst for the exhibition.
What was it like to see your work on display at an arts center that is experienced by 3 million visitors every year?
It’s a truly humbling experience. I am grateful to anyone and everyone who helped to make it happen.
What tips can you share with newer stylists who want to break into the session-styling world?
This industry is hard work. You need to have a passion for it and put in the hours. Grab all the opportunities you are given. More than anything, I’m hoping the exhibition has shown what’s possible, and has given more recognition to the industry.
How does London inspire you?
London has many old, beautiful buildings that inspire me—the architecture is amazing. My favorites are the old Georgian terraced houses with railings outside of them. They are just beautiful. The constant row of traditional, Georgian houses is so uniquely London. Regent’s Park has some lovely ones.
If you had to move away from London tomorrow, where would you go?
I would go to a small house in the country, near the sea. It would probably be in Dorset with a walled garden and an orchard.
What is one fashion statement that will never go out of style?
With everything you have going on, when do you find time to relax and what do you do when you can squeeze in a few moments of “me” time?
I am surrounded by people all the time, so a great luxury for me is to spend a little time by myself. A little solitude is precious. I love to spend time in my gardens—flowers are even more photogenic than models!