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Disco curls, androgynous quiffs, plaits woven with raffia or pearls. Hair lifted by balloons. Naturally tousled, elegantly slicked back, punk braided, top knotted, blunt bobbed. Scraggy scarecrow, rock chick bed head, mohawk-fluffed, backcombed updo. Pumped up, pimped out, twisted, teased and tinted. There’s really very little legendary hair stylist Sam McKnight hasn’t done, from catwalk show to fashion shoot, in the world of innovative haute hair.
Now, he’s developed Hair By Sam McKnight, a must-have capsul e collection of four essential hairsprays that will help busy girls on the go to achieve the same finesse he creates so effortlessly behind the scenes.
“What I always do is about the new,” says McKnight, when we meet in his light-filled north London home on a sunny morning. The haute couture shows have just wrapped in Paris, and the stylist extraordinaire is about to jet off to Ibiza. We catch him not with scissors but secateurs in hand. As many of his 146K Instagram followers will know, McKnight is as adept at bringing out the best in dahlias, roses and hydrangeas as he is the beauty of supes such as Karlie, Gigi/Bella and Adwoa.
“I’m always looking at new things,” continues McKnight, when quizzed on what keeps him inspired after forty years in the fashion and beauty biz. He cites working for the past decade with Karl Lagerfeld on both Chanel and Fendi, six shows a year, as an example. “We’ve never repeated ourselves, even if it’s a ponytail. It will always be different. I’m just lucky to be working with people who are at the top of their game,” he says.
Those tastemakers include the world’s best designers (Balmain, Burberry and Tom Ford), photographers (Patrick Demarchelier, Tim Walker, Craig McDean and Nick Knight), fashion magazines (Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar et al) and the very best A-list stars of catwalk and screen (from 80s supes like Linda, Christy, Cindy and Naomi to cinematic icons like Tilda Swinton, Marion Cotillard and Isabella Rossellini). McKnight has a thing for great Aussie beauties too, from Cate Blanchett and Margot Robbie (he’s just coiffed her locks for the ad campaign for Chanel’s recent first-ever Coco Neige winter sports collection) to model Abbey Lee.
McKnight has the Midas touch: the short blonde crop he gave model Jenny Howarth, catapulting her modelling career in the mid-eighties, had the exact same effect for model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn two decades later. As Princess Diana’s most trusted hairstylist in the nineties, McKnight was also responsible for her cropped pixie style that became one of that era’s most iconic looks. He worked with the princess for seven years, helping her prepare for public appearances, charity events, even humanitarian missions. “I was incredibly privileged to be part of her world,” he told W magazine.
When it came to creating his own collection of four simple, clever hair care solutions, McKnight knew exactly what he wanted. “I wanted it to be easy to use, lightweight and ‘brushoutable’,” he enthuses. “I’m about stuff you can touch and feel, I want hair to look great.” Backstage, McKnight and his team constantly need a quick fix, “like a really quick fix,” he emphasises. “Sometimes we’ll only have ten minutes, so I wanted something that could transform hair instantly. As I’m a great user of hairspray—because it does a million different things and I can make it do a million different things—that’s what we decided to do,” he says.
In the mix, is Cool Girl, a very light texturiser, “which I’ve been using on Kate Moss to mess her hair up a little bit,” he says. All she has to do is “give her hair a little scrunch now and again during the day and it will stay.” Then there’s Easy Updo “which we used at Fendi during couture, it’s great for back-combing and giving hair grip,” he adds. “Great for doing really big hair.” Lazy Girl is a crafty dry shampoo “we’ve made feel almost invisible but it has a little bit of hairspray in it, so it gives some volume and hold as well,” he explains.
Finally, there’s Modern Hairspray, the ultimate multitasker. “I can spray it on a section, brush it through and then tong it, and it will give just enough hold; I can finish hair into a sharp chignon; I can volumise with it, I can just do the roots. I can brush it out or layer with it. The best thing, is you can never put too much on.” All are blissfully scented with notes of angelica, water lily, frankincense and cedar, while the bright packaging is a perfect nod to fashion and “having a bit of fun,” he continues, beaming.
McKnight’s signature “done, undone” look owes much to his early days working at the ground-breaking London hairdressing salon Molton Brown in the late seventies. “They taught us to work with our hands and not to rely on hair dryers, tongs and tools,” says the Scottish-born stylist whose big editorial break came with his first cover for British Vogue in 1977. “It’s something I’ve carried with me ever since.” At 24, he went freelance and the world was his oyster.
Since then, McKnight’s “magic fingers”, as former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld calls them, have been on the top of the fashion world’s speed dial. “Sam’s work has a special sensual expression,” says Karl Lagerfeld in the foreword of Hair By Sam McKnight, a dazzling and comprehensive career anthology of McKnight’s work since the very beginning. Published in 2016, it also formed the basis of a spectacular retrospective at Somerset House that same year. “As a photographer and as a designer you feel more gifted if he is around,” Lagerfeld wrote.
Sometimes a shoot is about reality, sometimes it is about fantasy, explains McKnight. “For me, there’s always an accessibility to what I do; when we’re doing looks for shows we get everything down to three or four steps, so it’s actually achievable for everyone.” Hair by Sam McKnight embodies that approach. Each product has a specific purpose, and you will want to have the entire collection at your disposal this party season. Ultimately, what drives McKnight is looking forward, not back. “New ways of doing things differently to what I’ve done before.”
Words by Fiona McCarthySeptember 2018
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