Chanel, Dior, Vogue, Diana, Kate – for the most iconic images, you want one man doing the hair: Sam McKnight. 

Sam has lost count of the number of covers he’s worked on (British Vogue alone was 80 at the last count), but the always-in-demand hairstylist’s 99,000 followers on Instagram may know him better for dahlias and roses. Amanda Harlech, who works with him at both Chanel and Fendi, suggests there’s a link between his professional and private pastimes. “The way Sam sees a flower is the way he sees hair,” she says. “He is passionate, curious, always experimenting and creating. He’s a genius, but humble about it – the funniest man on the shoot and terrifyingly tireless! I love him.” 

In 2014 he won Creative Head’s Session Hairdresser of the Year for the third year running, and was also presented with a specially created Hair Icon award. Today he is sitting in his flower-filled garden with a mug of tea, enjoying the last rays of the summer sun and his last moment of calm before the storm of fashion month sweeps in. Despite his status, he generally avoids the public eye, even if he did pop up in Dolce & Gabbana’s television advert for The One with Gisele, and was coaxed into a cameo as Coco Chanel’s favourite butler in Karl Lagerfeld’s short film The Return. He has come a long way since doing teacher training in his native Scotland. “I just didn’t enjoy it,” he says. “It was David Bowie and glam-rock time and the college was full of hippies.” Then he discovered hair. “I fell into doing this by accident. My friends owned a hairdressing salon, joined to a disco and a burger restaurant. It felt so glamorous that I ended up there, did a few odd jobs at the weekend and slowly began working in the salon – and that was it.”

A few holidays to London later, “in the thick of Biba and change,” he moved south, hoping to tap into the city’s “undercurrent of magic”. Fashion – specifically, British Vogue – was his inspiration. “We had old Vogue magazines in our school library and I fell in love with Norman Parkinson’s pictures, Twiggy, Jerry Hall and Marie Helvin. Doing hair was a tiny little part of that, and when I got to London I realised I wanted to be part of it.” 

He worked in various salons but soon realised, he says, “Molton Brown was the one doing all the covers. I took it upon myself to apply for a job.” The salon on South Molton Street had been co-founded by Caroline Burstein, whose family owned Browns, and was favoured by editors. “Sam had a strong impact from the day he started,” Caroline, now creative director at Browns, says. “He had natural talent and great charm in equal doses. My then husband Michael [Collis] did not like doing session work for magazines, so would put Sam forward to represent us.” 

“I kind of retrained with them,” Sam explains. “I learned their way of doing things, which was very natural. They taught me how to use my hands more than tools, for which I am very grateful.” By the end of the 1970s he was spending more time on session work than in the salon.

It was around this time that he met two future collaborators: 18-year-old Lucinda Chambers, who was working as Vogue editor Beatrix Miller’s secretary and was sent to Sam before a shoot for a “Vogue makeover”, and make-up artist Linda Cantello. “Linda and I forged a team and went off to try to get an agency in New York,” he remembers. “There’d just been Studio 54 and all of that, so we kind of went there on holiday and never came back.” It was 1982 and the newly formed creative team went straight in at the top, working with American Vogue and “amazing photographers like [Irving] Penn, Bruce [Weber], Patrick [Demarchelier] and Horst [P. Horst].” 

A new fashion era was dawning and Sam was at the centre of it. “When Anna Wintour took over at American Vogue, she brought in stylist Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele and suddenly there was youth. Her first issue had jeans on the cover.” Of course, Sam also did that cover. “I was working with Brooke Shields, who at the time was ‘the one’, Kim Alexis and these all-American girls. Then in 1982 and ’83, androgynous girls like Jenny Howorth started appearing, Peter Lindbergh and Paolo Roversi started taking pictures and the whole thing got rougher and a bit grungier, and things felt like they were changing. In 1984 and ’85, Yasmin Le Bon, Christy Turlington and Linda [Evangelista] were emerging.” The supermodel era was about to begin, but Sam says, “They didn’t become ‘super’ in the press until Versace put them on the runway.” All the greats – Christy, Cindy, Tatjana – are now among the groupies who follow him and keep in touch on Instagram.

“I remember the first time I saw Naomi,” he says, smiling. “I was on a shoot in Hyde Park for Harpers & Queen and this little girl, with bunches in her hair and wearing a school uniform, turns up on a go-see. ‘My mum don’t know I’m modelling and I’ve got to get the bus back home.’” The future model later remembered Sam when she was working in New York with Steven Klein, but then, everyone remembers him: from the lowliest assistant to the most legendary photographer, Sam has a talent for putting people at their ease. “He has great charisma,” make-up artist Mary Greenwell agrees. 

“I was still an up-and-coming photographer while Sam was already doing covers for Vogue,” Mario Testino says. “He worked all the time with Patrick Demarchelier and Mary Greenwell and 
I always looked at his work.” When Mario moved to New York, he saw Sam out and about. “We partied a lot, but we did not work together until years later, towards the mid-1990s, when I had reached the same level,” he remembers. “Yesterday we were working together with Kate Moss and at one moment I made a joke, and Kate said, ‘Sam was doing Vogue covers long before you!’ I burst out laughing, but she was right. Sam is as relevant now as he was then.” Mario believes that “his magic lies in his openness. He just leaves all doors opened and does not mind whether the idea came from him or anyone else. In the end it is his hands that are magical and he understands what it means to work in a team.”

“For someone who has been at the top of his game for 30-odd years, he’s remarkably un-fashiony,” Lucinda says of their enduring friendship and creative partnership. “He cuts through all the nonsense, takes his job very seriously and is very, very good at what he does. But perhaps the most important thing about Sam is that he adores women. He’s very indulgent of them, young and old, and is incredibly loyal to the ones he loves. When you are one of the chosen, it feels like a real honour. You’re a rare jewel.” Kate Moss is one of those jewels, another model he has “known from the beginning”. She came on a go-see when he was shooting for Harper’s Bazaar with Steven Klein. “I remember her doing a picture, leant up against the wall, and she was amazing – she got the job.” They shot her for one of then-editor Liz Tilberis’ first issues of Harper’s Bazaar, “and boom, that was it.” They have worked together ever since, which Kate describes as “like working with a member of your family or your best friend.”

This season he and his team did the hair for Chanel, Dries Van Noten, Emanuel Ungaro and Balmain in Paris, DSquared2 and Fendi in Milan, and Tom Ford in London. “I don’t like to do hundreds,” he says modestly, too polite to add that he only does the best. His “magical hands”, as Mario describes them, also have green fingers. “It’s funny, isn’t it,” he says of the Instagram disciples who follow him for his gardening snaps as much as for the fashion. “I was at an event the other day and this girl who’s a hair fanatic said, ‘I love your hair pictures, but I love your flower pictures even more. Am I allowed to say that?’” Pre-home garden, he always visited the Regent’s Park rose garden in season, and his own green space now provides a haven from the rest of his busy life. “I do love a little sniff round a garden centre,” he says. “Gardening is great. It’s a calm, solitary thing.” His love of flowers has also led to a range of hair accessories he designed with jeweller Vicki Sarge, who describes Sam as having “impeccable taste with an edge of irreverence.”

Sam and Mary Greenwell met “when he gate-crashed a party at my house,” she says. They began working together and soon became fast friends. “There is complete trust,” she adds. Their collaboration played a part in bringing a different kind of rare flower into bloom. In 1990, they were sent to Hoxton’s Perseverance Works studios for a job with Patrick Demarchelier. They had no idea who they were shooting until “this gangly blonde comes bouncing up the stairs,” Sam remembers. “‘Hi! Morning! How are you?’” It was Princess Diana. 

“Patrick had shot her before for British Vogue, and Anna Harvey [stylist and then-deputy editor] decided they would like Mary and me to come in and do something. We didn’t know it was Diana; we were totally taken by surprise. She let me cut her hair and we did that lovely photo where she is sitting on the ground in that white dress and her tiara.” The image is so iconic it has been made into a magnet, which he has on his refrigerator. “You know you’ve made it when one of your looks is a fridge magnet, don’t you? That gives me more of a tickle than anything else.” 

Even though Diana was the most photographed woman in the world, Sam went off to Paris the next day to work at the couture shows. “I then got a call saying she was going to Pakistan the next month and would I go with her.” Diana loved him and over the next few years he wove her into his already demanding schedule. “I was never off a plane, but it worked,” he says. Even as Diana grew more confident as a style icon, she continued to rely on Mary for her make-up and Sam for her hair. It was, he says, understated as ever, “A bit of a social, a bit of a chit-chat and hair fluffing.” 

“I think the dressing room in a studio is a sanctuary,” he continues. “It’s a safe ground; it’s private. We are seeing women at their most vulnerable, first thing in the morning, no hair, no make-up, raw. It’s already brave of a woman to do that. People think about Kate, Linda, Princess Diana, Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett – ‘Oh, that’s what they look like.’ Well, yes, it is, but it’s a process to put the mask on, to brave those lights and flash and build that confidence.” Sam’s personal warmth and compassion are as key to that process as his styling talent. “No one has ever cut my hair as brilliantly as Sam,” Jenny Howorth remembers. “It’s guaranteed good hair. He shaved my head in New York in the 1980s, then bleached it white. It was a life-changing hairdo for me.” “We did a similar thing in the 2000s with Agyness Deyn,” Sam says. “I like hair that doesn’t look too done. I like it a bit more casual. Even if it’s structured, I like to make it a bit undone.”

In the late 1990s, Sam worked on the famed Christian Dior campaigns that photographer Nick Knight shot with John Galliano. “We were striving to do something iconic and out of the ordinary,” he recalls. “We wouldn’t leave the studio until five in the morning, until Nick felt we had achieved that. With Chanel it’s the same thing – the hair and beauty is so vital and Karl [Lagerfeld] is very specific sometimes, but I love those challenges.”

“Sam doesn’t just do one look,” Nick says. “He’s inventive; he has amazing ability as a hair artist, but also this amazing mental attitude. He prepares the girls, talks to them, gets them hyped up and understands how to make them feel good. He delivers someone on set who is ready to make the best image possible. People say the studio is the most creative place, but the hair and make-up area is often the nucleus of the shoot, and a creative space to experiment.” When models arrive on set, they need to perform and inspire, and, as Nick says, “Sam is crucial. When he goes near the girls, they relax. He has this magical physical presence. He encourages me to embrace mistakes and bring life back into the shoot, so that the model is real, not a statue. He’s also taught me to be involved in more human characteristics, and to see that perfection is boring. A shoot is a proposal of life. Beauty, chemistry – he champions this, and this is what he has taught me.”

Of his long career at the top, Sam simply says, “I am inspired by the people I am around at the time. I like being a bit spontaneous and seeing what happens. Fashion should be inspiring – and I 
want goddesses.” 

Interview by Camilla Morton

Hair by Sam McKnight is on display until 12 March 2017 at the Embankment Galleries, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA. Find out more information about the exhibition at somersethouse.org.uk.

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