Sam McKnight

The celebrity hair stylist talks to am

By Gill Sherry

Having recently returned from both Paris and London Fashion Weeks, you might be surprised to learn that one of Sam McKnight’s next appearances is at the Boswell Book Festival at Dumfries House. This time, however, he’ll be leaving his scissors behind.

As one of the guest authors at the Festival, Sam will be talking about his book, aptly titled ‘Hair’ which was first published in 2016.

“They’ve asked me a few times but I couldn’t do it because I was always abroad. Then finally when I could do it the book was out of print!”

Despite his delayed appearance, Sam’s looking forward to promoting his book in his own back yard.

“I’m from New Cumnock,” he tells me. “I went to Cumnock Academy which is literally next door to Dumfries House. Then I went to Craigie College in Ayr when I was 17/18. I did a couple of years there, teacher training, but I really didn’t like it.”

Sam disliked it so much he dropped out of college and ended up helping out some friends in their hairdressing salon. Little did he know how successful his hair styling career would become.

“After a while I went on holiday to London…”

London?

“I just thought London was the most amazing place in the world,” he says, unperturbed by my questioning tone. “To come out of the depression of the early 70s in a little mining village in Scotland, being in London was suddenly like the lights went on, literally. It was all very exciting. So I decided I wanted to move there.”

After working in a few different places, Sam secured a job at Molton Brown.

“It was the cool salon at the time. It was 1977… the time of renewal and punk and all these kinds of seminal things happening. So I guess the timing was right.”

Situated just around the corner from Vogue, it was the hairdressers at Molton Brown who did the majority of the Vogue photo shoots. Indeed, Sam worked on photo shoots for the best part of three years before taking a risk and leaving the salon in order to work on shoots full-time.

“The fashion world hadn’t really kicked off like it is now. Everyone thought I was mad… but I took the risk like you do when you’re young and got in there at the beginning when the fashion world was starting to grow and… permeate the wider culture.”

Sam then moved to New York in 1982 in what he describes as ‘the supermodel era’. That was where he honed his craft and really made a name for himself.

“The supermodels… I was around with all of them at the beginning. Around that time there was loads of coverage on television. The Clothes Show was on TV and that just exploded. It was definitely right place, right time.”

Granted, he may be able to put some things down to luck, but you need an awful lot of talent to work with the likes of Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell.

“Being in New York for all those years and working with those supermodels when they were in their mid-teens was a really special time for me.”

There’s a modesty to Sam that I find quite endearing. He’s worked with A-list celebrities, world-famous designers, supermodels and royalty (he was Princess Diana’s personal stylist for 7 years), but he insists he’s just been really lucky.

“I’ve worked with an amazing photographer called Nick Knight… creating iconic images, iconic Vogue covers. I had 12 years with Karl Lagerfeld until he died. I worked with Vivienne Westwood for 30 years.”

It’s not just the memories that are special to Sam, it’s the relationships.

“It’s all about relationships in this business,” he says, recognising that regardless how famous someone may be, they are still human beings.

“It’s funny because I cut Jodie Comer’s hair recently and it was all in the papers the next day. But for me and Jodie… she’d just finished a play and she said ‘I’ve had two months of this and I want a change’. It was as simple as that.”

Sam admits it’s almost impossible for him to choose a highlight (no pun intended) from his very successful, very long career.

“We’re doing stuff like that on a daily basis. I mean, I created the tousled look for Kate Moss back in the day, that’s still iconic. We did Diana’s short hair, that’s iconic. And we did countless amazing things for Chanel and for Vivienne Westwood.”

Not forgetting a certain MBE…

“I went and got it on Friday!” he admits, obviously still thrilled by the occasion. “It was Princess Anne. She asked me where I’d trained and where I was from. I said I was from New Cumnock and she said ‘Oh, I used to drive through there in my horsebox’ which I thought was quite funny!”

Listening to Sam it’s clear his career is still very much full-time. He remains the contributing Beauty Editor at British Vogue, works on the four major fashion shows each year (two ready-to-wear and two haute couture) and, after launching his own brand (Hair by Sam McKnight) in 2017, he’s now concentrating on building that brand.

“We had a massive… I wouldn’t say relaunch, but we launched a lot more products in September so that’s ongoing. We are building the brand, that’s my focus at the moment.”

The product range consists of wet products rather than gadgets and is designed to enable people to get the best out of their hair.

“I think in these modern days, women – and men – are more interested in how they can look good and feel good. That’s the bottom line these days. It’s less about trends and more about how individuals look at their hair. When we did this product range, what I wanted to do was change the way people think about their hair.”

After a career that spans almost five decades, Sam is perfectly placed to advise. But is it not all a tad exhausting?

“Between you and me, it never used to be, but it is now!” He’s laughing but I suspect he’s only half-joking. “It’s full on. It’s long hours and lots of travel, but it’s fine.”

Our conversation returns to the upcoming Boswell Book Festival and inevitably to his book. Did he enjoy the process of putting it all together?

“I didn’t at first. I hated it in fact. We had 40,000 images to go through… and you couldn’t rush through that. It was a real process that had to happen organically. It was a bit like This is Your Life. It was a bit overwhelming so I had to get an emotional handle on that and leave my emotions in the drawer. But in the end it was really enjoyable.”

Could there be a follow-up, perhaps?

“Not yet. We put so much into that book. It was a 30/40-year back catalogue but… we’ve been talking about another book that’s very, very different, so let’s see.”

Before we say our goodbyes, I ask Sam to sum up his career in one word.

“Rollercoaster.”

Some may argue that’s two words in which case, hyphenate it if you must!

The Boswell Book Festival takes place at Dumfries House 12-14 May. For more information, visit www.boswellbookfestival.co.uk.