From window cleaner to the world’s most famous hairdresser – The Irish Times
“I was a window cleaner for a while. I worked in a hosiery factory and a jeans factory. They don’t exist anymore, of course. She and I used to drive a delivery truck too, just to make enough money to go out on the weekends,” says Sam McKnight – hairstylist The most famous in the world – who also almost became a teacher.
This was before he dropped out of Teachers Training College after being the first in his family to access further education. His father – a miner – and his mother, who worked at the local co-op in the Scottish village where McKnight grew up, were “devastated by this decision”. Or so he tells me when I visit him in his Kensington studio. His dog Arthur—a cockapoo puppy with suitably shiny hair and the eyebrows of an old man who has seen it all—greets at the door as if he’d been waiting for me his whole life. I am happy. (I later found out, to my disappointment, that Arthur does this to everyone.)
Everything about the studio is surprisingly comfortable, given McKnight’s prestige in the beauty industry. In 2016 his work was the subject of a book and a retrospective exhibition at Somerset House, London. This was history-making—an official acknowledgment of McKnight’s role in beauty history. “I didn’t take the time to think about my career or pursue my work until then. I’m always completely focused on what I’m doing now, and then,” says McKnight.
The gallery took the work of the celebrity and editorial designer and presented it as art. He received an MBE this year. Original session stylist and boundary-pushing stylist Sam McKnight changed the beauty industry in line with people like Bobbi Brown and Kevin Aucoin, who shaped makeup in the ’90s, and Vidal Sassoon, whose famous “wash and wear” hairstyles were a symptom and symbol of women’s liberation in Sixties.
McKnight is honest when he says he doesn’t think much of the synopsis about his career or his legacy—when I ask him about anything that touches on them, he sounds depressed. “Don’t think you’re doing anything to make a difference at that time,” he says. “It’s all retrospective. I don’t sit at home like Miss Havisham, looking at old magazines. It wasn’t until social media got big that I realized people even had an appetite for all those old photos.”
The kind of “old pictures” he so adeptly refers to are so famous that they’re generally recognizable to people who don’t know or care about fashion or beauty at all. Princess Diana Vogue covers. Kate Moss’s Vogue September 2000 issue. A polished perm at the 1994 Vivienne Westwood show. Countless photos of actress Tilda Swinton, whose otherworldly features McKnight helped recreate through the lens time and time again.
Quiet and unassuming, the famous Scotsman styled every one of Diana’s (he was the one who cut her hair in the ’90s to create it. that iconic style, before becoming her personal hairstylist for seven years until her death), to his girlfriend Kate Moss, whom he first saw walking with Vivienne Westwood in the early ’90s. “She was this skinny little thing. A teenager,” he says, his face revealing some of the skepticism he felt upon seeing Moss, who is notoriously small at five and seven, among her fellow models. “I remember saying, ‘Oh my God. She’s so petite!'” The other girls were much taller than that, but Kate came out and flaunted this amazing confidence and we were all backstage: “Oh, okay.” Well there you go!'”
As a pair of hands behind countless celebrity photos, McKnight understands that the power of hair extends beyond aesthetics. He made news during the pandemic when he suggested that then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hair was a hoax signal. that besides the crooked tie and rumpled suit, Johnson’s famous blonde mop was artfully disheveled and deliberately to convey a man who was far from the frivolity of grooming; A disembodied intellectual too busy rolling up his sleeves and doing important “things” to get trim.
McKnight says Johnson’s current iteration is more prepared. “Amazing thing. I saw him (on TV) the other day and it was all so nice and cut and combed. It’s incredible that at the time, because he was against it and wanted to appear a certain way, he had to look different. It was so brilliantly used, even if It didn’t work out in the end.”
As Princess Diana’s personal hairstylist, McKnight went everywhere with her, from galas to refugee camps. He encourages her to wear her hair unstyled, but she tells him that people come out to see the version of her hair that they were expecting. Elegant and caring princess. She has publicly credited her relationship with him as a source of self-confidence.
McKnight has always preferred to stay in the background. “I miss that mystery a little bit,” he says. “Something is lost in lifting this veil.” He created the original supermodels, whom he is still friends with and still refers to by their first names.
“They were kids. Christy (Turlington), Linda (Evangelista), Cindy (Crawford). They were all coming, going on tour, and we felt like we were all in on it,” says McKnight.
I was older than them, but not by much. You just create these awesome photos, and suddenly one gets a cover. Then they wear five covers, and then these 18-year-old superstars. But you don’t realize you’re creating that when you’re in it.”
McKnight says he didn’t have an eye on the legacy. “None of us ever imagined that these girls—like Cindy (Crawford) at nearly 60—would still fit,” he says, not to mention people behind the scenes like him.
“You wouldn’t even see our names in the photo credits unless you really looked. Accepting differences is recent, and I think social media has helped with that.” Social media has made the aesthetic people behind the scenes figures in their own right, outside of previously close-knit industry circles.
Nepotism has always been rampant, and it is facing the public especially in entertainment. So much so, that it spawned the “new kids” trend, where people share the bloodlines of celebrities’ connections to show how class, wealth, and fame tend to correlate to generate more of the same. A quick look at a few of the top models who are the sons of supermodels shows how difficult it can be to break into the industry if you don’t have connections. As someone who grew up without any of that, what does he think of the newborn phenomenon?
“I’m not one of those,” laughs McKnight. “My life is a long way from where I started. As a child, I could never have imagined living the life I have now.” He says his working-class origins made him respect skill and shrewdness. “You have to take risks. I always thought that when you practice hair or makeup, you have a skill that you can rely on again. Safety doesn’t really matter to me. Everything involves risk.” It’s just the thing, says McKnight, scratching Arthur’s ears, “about assessing when the risk is worth it and trusting that you have the resources to be okay if you don’t get your way.” something to return to.
McKnight started his own hair brand, Hair by Sam McKnight, whose Irish launch was imminent, just before the pandemic. Covid forced a pivotal role in McKnight’s career in his mid-60s. Filming stopped. fashion show. Everything stopped,” he recalls. “I found out what Zoom is. We used to do 15 shows a season and you’d go from Chanel to Fendi to Westwood. I have never used my laptop before. We were all aware of the downsides at the time, but when it all stopped, I decided to try and see it as an opportunity.” The risk paid off, and McKnight and Arthur are in the studio regularly, growing the business.
McKnight has been a session stylist since he established his relationship with Vogue in the late ’70s, leaving the salon business to carve out a career in the hair industry for the shoots. “That’s all I wanted to do. I just found the creative process very interesting,” he says. There has always been a demand for reinvention.
“I don’t know how other people see things. Everyone has a different perception of reality. Everyone’s reality is different,” says McKnight. Working with photographers like Patrick Demarchelier and Nick Knight has allowed him to see reality through new lenses – to reinterpret it. A selection from McKnight’s collection of hundreds (“maybe thousands—we didn’t count”) of custom-made wigs, displayed in his studio as I walked in the door, is testament to that.
It is a sacred place for fashion and beauty lovers. There’s Chanel’s voluminous ponytail from his fall-winter 2014 show. There are two creations he put together for Lady Gaga, whose early surrealist-inspired styling allowed McKnight to “do something really different.” There can also be found the Thomas Jefferson-esque powder case which appears to have had a former life in the courtroom. Everything from the real to the surreal.
At 67, McKnight is still working in session. “But I’m channeling my creativity into work more now,” he says. It allows him to continue doing what he has always loved. “It’s about creating beauty. That’s what I’m here for. That’s what I do. I used to get away from photography for weeks on end. Now I can spend more time at home in my garden.” McKnight says, casually gesturing to Arthur, who chooses this moment to lie down On his stomach on the couch McKnight has a lot of love Growing roses Visiting his hometown Arthur Disco music
He’s visiting Ireland this month to launch Hair by Sam McKnight at Brown Thomas, which will start stocking cult products from the brand like Cool Girl Volume Foam, €36, whose fans include people like Moss. “I’m looking forward to it!” says McKnight. “I come to Ireland a lot to shoot, but my most recent visit was to the north – Belfast – to shoot an episode of Mastermind.” His specialized topic? Not supermodels or paparazzi or art, but ’70s disco.
Hair by Sam McKnight will launch exclusively in Ireland at Brown Thomas on April 21st