Tilda Swinton, Vogue Italia, February 2003 © Craig McDean, Courtesy Art + Commerce
Naomi Campbell © Michael Williams
© Alexei Hay, Trunk Archive
Kim Kardashian by Nick Knight for V Magazine September 2012
Naomi Campbell © Michael Williams
Shu Pei, represented by DNA Model Management, photographed by Jem Mitchell for Vogue China, April 2009
Patrick Demarchelier © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd
Cate Blanchett, Vogue USA, January 2014 © Craig McDean
Karlie Kloss for British Vogue, November 2015. Photographed by Patrick Demarchelier
Uma Thurman, German Vogue 1992 by Sheila Metzner
Sam McKnight photographed by Jason Lloyd-Evans
Sam McKnight with Linda Evangelista and Jesse the chimp, Los Angeles, 1992. © Laspata Decaro
Hair by Sam McKnight is published by Rizzoli // see link below for purchase
INTERVIEW AND STORY BY MICHAEL WILLIAMS
“I really liked the idea of transforming people; of making people feel good about themselves.” – Sam McKnight
Hair by Sam McKnight is the name of legendary hair dresser Sam McKnight’s new book and touring gallery show is a bit of an understatement. Sam McKnight has a way of understating his enormous success and decades long career and in this interview with Imagista founder Michael Williams, Sam shares insights into his career success as well as a few entertaining insider stories from the world of fashion.
Imagista: You have a new book and gallery show out now titled Hair by Sam McKnight. Can you tell us how the project came about and why did you decide to do it now in particular?
Sam McKnight: Well if I waited any longer I’d be dead (laughs). I had so many boxes, you’d know what I mean, of papers in various boxes for years now that have been building, building, building, and I just couldn’t bear to look at it anymore. The last time I moved five years ago I thought, “okay, I don’t want them in the house anymore.” But then I thought, “well let’s get them onto digital because if something ever happened to them we’d never see them again.” So I found an archivist named Tory Turk who is the archivist at the Summerset House. Tory came and took all of my prints, polaroids and tear sheets and put them into a beautiful archival system.
In the meantime, I had been back and forth with Rizzoli and we couldn’t quite agree on how the book should come together because there were so many different ways of doing it. Tory then showed my archive to the directors at Somerset House and they all thought the images would make for a great exhibition. It was all very exciting and of course I said yes. Then the book really came from the Somerset Exhibition.
The exhibition itself is a mixed media exhibition. We showed lots of tear sheets but we also got outfits from Chanel and I cut various wigs on the mannequins. So we made the exhibition more 3D and “hairier” than the book could have been. It’s as much a fashion book as it is a hair book really and as far as the book itself goes it is linked to the exhibition but the two are unique entities.
Imagista: How did you go about designing the book?
SM: We had about 20 big boards in my living room for about a year. We edited down all the material to either important hair images or important people images. Then we worked on a loose chronological order and worked on creating story. We then worked on some sub themes and sub sections.
Imagista: I’d like to go way back and ask you how you first became a hairdresser. You became a hairdresser in an era when being a hairdresser wasn’t necessarily an obvious career choice so how did you first become one?
SM: Becoming a hairdresser was definitely not the first career choice that I had in mind. I was actually at college studying to become a school teacher and I was probably going to end up teaching french to kids. I was nineteen or twenty years old at the time and I absolutely hated what I was studying.
Around that time I was doing odd jobs for friends of mine who owned a couple of restaurants and a hair salon too. I ended up at the salon washing hair and I really liked working there. I very quickly decided that I wanted to quit school. To be honest, I left school because of boredom.
Imagista: What did you like most about hairdressing? What is the social aspect, the creative aspect, or a mix of both?
SM: I really liked the idea of transforming people; of making people feel good about themselves. I think that was part of the initial kick. And by learning how to do hair, I felt I was learning how to make people smile. It wasn’t just about making people look good. It was about making people feel good too. Making people feel good and look good gave me a real buzz.
I worked in a salon in Scotland but decided to try my luck in London: you know the bright lights attracted me then as a teenager. I loved London. I got my myself work in various salons until ending up at one near Vogue house. The salon was doing most of the hair for the Vogue shoots at the time and I got sent on one of them.
One of the first shoots I did for Vogue was with Eric Boman who was a big deal at the time. That shoot really gave me the bug for wanting to work on shoots. I was like, “wow, this is like discovering a whole new world that I didn’t know existed before.” It was a lightbulb moment for me and I decided that that was what I wanted to do.
Imagista: Did you continue working in salons?
SM: I ended up doing about three more years in the salon but left in 1980 to work exclusively on photo shoots. Back in those days working exclusively on photo shoots wasn’t yet a thing that people did as a full time job. It was something they did in between salon work or in their free time. So when I made the break I thought, “well, I can do this for a couple of years and if it doesn’t work out I can go back to working in the salon.” At the time too in London, the industry was very small. In New York there was an industry but not really in London. In London it was really, really small. I started on my own in 1980.
Imagista: Did you have any formal training?
SM: Initially I had no formal training before I began working at the salon in London. It was a very, very, very good salon with a school and I completely retrained when I went to work there. But then you’re constantly teaching yourself when you’re on photo shoots and meeting new challenges. I was constantly learning and I’m still learning today.
Imagista: And is that what you love about what you do to this day?
SM: I do because it never gets boring does it?
Imagista: No it doesn’t.
SM: And you work with different people all the time.
Imagista: You’ve had this amazing decades long career and you’ve managed to stay relevant the entire time…so how do you stay relevant?
SM: Well, I’ve always been lucky.
Imagista: You feel like it’s luck? That you’ve always been lucky?
SM: I feel that I’ve been lucky to work with amazing people. Opportunities don’t always come but I’ve always taken the opportunities that have come my way and challenged myself. I guess it comes from the same thing. I get bored easily. You want to do the next thing then the next thing. Constantly being on the move.
I’ve been lucky enough to work constantly with amazing people and to have amazing relationships with those people. I mean I’ve worked with Nick Knight for over fifteen years. I’ve worked with Karl Lagerfeld for nine years, I’ve worked with Vivienne Westwood for many years. And Patrick Demarchelier I’ve worked with for 30 years. So I’m constantly working with people who are inspired and inspiring and bouncing off a team of people.
Imagista: We’re friends on Facebook and I’ve noticed you’re always posting these great photos of flowers. Is your garden something you’re passionate about too?
SM: I am. I have a very nice garden. I love gardening and I love driving all over the country and visiting beautiful gardens and houses. I love doing all of that.
Imagista: You’ve worked with so many legendary stars and icons. You worked with the late Princess Diana too. What was it like working with her?
SM: We had lots of fun. She was lovely, fun and funny. Patrick Demarchelier introduced us on a British Vogue shoot in 1990 and she and I hit it off. We had a great time together. We worked together a lot for seven years. We traveled a lot together. She became a big part of my life.
Imagista: Do you have any preference between working with models or celebrities and is your approach any different between the two?
SM: I mean it’s still doing hair. For me, it’s the same thing. I mean I like making great shots and doing whatever is right for that shot. Sometimes you get to do really interesting things with celebrities too you know? I mean it’s changed. Maybe 10 or 15 years ago the celebrities were kinda there as themselves which was a little dull. But I think that now they and their publicists have realized that they need to push themselves a little further. That they have to become models and get into character a little more. They don’t get away with just being their gorgeous selves anymore.
There’s a lot of competition out there now. There’s a lot of competition to get on the cover of those magazines. You don’t get it because you’re famous. You get it because you’re pushing it. You’re pushing it to be ahead of everyone else.
Imagista: What do you think you’d be doing, or might have liked to have done if you hadn’t become a hairdresser?
SM: I think that maybe I’d be painting or doing something outside. Yes, definitely something outside. Maybe gardening. I don’t really know. That’s a hard question.
Imagista: One of the things that I personally enjoy about working with you is your positive and collaborative nature. Do you think that’s played a role in your success?
SM: It’s always a team effort. That’s what we do. Everything we do is based on collaboration. Fashion is a collaborative art. It’s not a single person’s effort. It’s a group of people coming together and bringing their expertise and talent into creating something unique. For me, I like it when everyone’s getting along and working together towards the same end.
Imagista: What advice would you give someone starting a career in fashion now?
SM: The best advice I can really give is to always be available twenty four hours a day. Keep your mouth shut because no one really wants to hear your opinion (laughs). And keep your head down for the first five years. If someone asks you to do a job, just do it, don’t say no.