Hair by Sam McKnight: Celebrating 40 years of iconic hairstyles

Hairstylist Sam McKnight is no stranger to the trappings of the fashion world; with over 190 Vogue covers to his name, a seasonal spot backstage at myriad high profile shows and Kate Moss’ personal hair stylist, he’s been responsible for creating some of the major hair moments of the last 40 years. Somerset House’s latest exhibition, Hair by Sam McKnight, pays homage to his journey.

Set in the theatrical arches of the Embankment Galleries, this is a multi-media immersion into the little-known creative process behind the craft of hair styling. Beginning with a look at McKnight’s life backstage at fashion shows, the exhibition opens with a re-creation of his styling stations, where vanity mirrors stream specially commissioned videos from the S/S17 season. Showing Sam in action, the unique atmosphere of this twice yearly spectacle is brought to life, revealing the collaborative, hectic and sometimes fraught nature of styling 40 models to deadline.

McKnight’s relationship with these top models helps bring a personal twist to the exhibition. Polaroids, snapshots, selfies and private notes are littered throughout, showing the bonds created through the intimate moments Sam shares with the women he transforms. From Naomi Campbell to Kate Moss, Karlie Kloss to Tilda Swinton, these aren’t just clients but friends, and ones that have led to some of the stylist’s most iconic creations to date. Princess Diana is one such woman, who McKnight became both friend and stylist to after working on a shoot with Patrick Demarchelier. Responsible for dramatically changing the princess’ look, it is perhaps the moment he slicked her hair back for the Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Awards in 1995 that is most iconic, a decision that led to widespread media coverage and debate. “I wanted to try something different,” McKnight said. “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.”

“…working with him is like getting
into a warm bath with bubbles on top.” 

Lucinda Chambers, 2014 
7. Sam McKnight with Linda Evangelista and Jesse the chimp, Los Angeles, 1992. © Laspata Decaro
Sam McKnight with Linda Evangelista and Jesse the chimp, Los Angeles, 1992. © Laspata Decaro

But it’s not just the models that make up McKnight’s magical world. He credits his success to the collaborative nature of his creative process, working with everyone from Nick Knight to Carine Roitfeld, Tim Walker and Val Garland, creating images that push the boundaries of fashion and capture the imagination of the viewer. 10 of his closest confidants are profiled here, with a single image capturing McKnight’s relationship with them, whilst an insight into their friendship comes through thanks to quotes, holiday snaps and behind the scenes imagery, reinforcing one of the key messages this exhibition aims to leave you with, Sam McKnight is a bloody lovely guy and one you would be lucky to call a friend.

“Sam has magic fingers, he makes hair look effortless and
can make a girl feel confident, feel their best, just with a touch.
I see all models and actresses smile when they are with him,
because they relax and fall in love with him.” 

Carine Roitfeld 

Throughout his career, McKnight has worked with many respected fashion houses, and his continued collaborations with Dame Vivienne Westwood and Karl Lagerfeld take centre stage within the double-heighted spaces of the gallery. Nine mannequins apiece are donned in the designer’s couture and ready-to-wear looks, topped with wigs by Sam McKnight that mimic the styles created backstage at various shows over the years. Designed to show how a hairstyle can round out an ensemble and help complete a visual identity, these areas create an air of drama and theatrics, bringing the space to life and truly immersing you in a world often only seen through a lens.

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Vivienne Westwood x Sam McKnight 

“Sam is really one of the true greats of hairdressing! He has total mastery over his craft and combines that with an enthusiasm and commitment to push the boundaries of fashion. The affection, admiration and devotion he has for the models he works with, makes his presence on my shoots so valuable. Nobody else can make those women feel as special as Sam does,”

Nick Knight

Opening today, this exhibition promises to be about more than just hair cuts, instead dedicated to the craftsmanship of the art form and championing its transformative nature and empowering spirit. It’s a personal story, one told with honesty and humour, that takes a viewer from the glamour of Hollywood to the fantastical world of the surreal – and if it happens to inspire you to get the chop too, well, that’s just a happy bi-product.

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Patrick Demarchelier © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

Check the exhibition out until 12 March 2017.

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