“Sam McKnight has always stayed at the forefront of the zeitgeist,
which is what fashion is all about”
Shonagh Marshall, curator of Hair by Sam McKnight
Text: Rachel Speed
Hair by Sam McKnight is the first exhibition of its kind to focus solely on a session stylist and celebrates the forty-year career of hair stylist Sam McKnight. An instrumental figure in creating iconic fashion imagery, curator Shonagh Marshall and set designer Michael Howells have produced a stunning exhibition to showcase McKnight’s contribution to fashion. Featuring imagery, wigs, videos, and full catwalk looks from Vivienne Westwood and Chanel, the exhibition opens today at Somerset House until 12th March 2017.
The transformative power of hair and the freedom it can give women is a key part of Sam McKnight’s work. From the tools he uses, to how he designs for catwalk shows and works on set (Kate Moss: “No one can work a wind machine like Sam McKnight”), Hair by Sam McKnight journeys through all aspects of hair and hair styling. Divided into sections, the exhibition weaves together a narrative of Sam’s work. The first section starts with the tools and products he uses, you then travel backstage at the Spring/Summer 17 shows, watching Sam at work, and end at a beautiful display of nine full looks from Vivienne Westwood, topped with wigs created by Sam for the shows and the exhibition.
After this first section alone, you get a real sense of the scale of the exhibition. Not only from the size of the exhibition space, but also from the volume of work that is presented to you. At one point, you are surrounded by Sam’s Vogue covers, of which he has done 100 British Vogue covers and 190 total (including international) covers – more than any photographer, model, make-up artist, or set designer… it is a staggering amount of work and creativity. Condensing this into one exhibition was not an easy task said curator Shonagh Marshall: “Sam guesses he’s made 40,000 images in his career! It’s been a real process editing them down. Our first selections are completely different to what we’ve ended up with. It’s been quite hilarious really, as myself, Sam, and Michael discuss passionately for certain images around a table!”
“It’s certainly been a journey for Sam. His words when I first approached him were, ‘What? Me? You want to do a show about me?’ I think it’s partly his modesty that makes him so successful. He’s stayed so vital to fashion image making for the last forty years, he’s seen so many different trends, and girls, and photographers, and stylists, and make-up artists but he’s always stayed at the forefront of the zeitgeist which is what fashion is all about. He’s an extraordinarily talented human being.”
The longstanding collaboration with Vivienne Westwood (over twenty years) highlights the prominent theme of the exhibition: relationships. Sam states that the most important part of the creation of the exhibition was teamwork: between Sam and his team; between them and Shonagh and Michael. And whilst the exhibition is just a part of his iconic career, the necessity of strong relationships remains the same. Candid backstage images in the ‘Intimacy’ section show Sam with models, designers, make-up artists, and the real connection they have with one another.
Shonagh explains: “He has an extraordinary way with people and that is something that is highlighted throughout the show. Relationships with models, with stylists, photographers, make-up artists; we look at all the intimacy he shares with people when touching someone’s head, through to his many collaborators over the years.”
Quotes from said collaborators fill the walls to round out Sam’s character. Nick Knight: “A shoot is a proposal of life. Beauty, chemistry – he [Sam] champions this, and this is what he has taught me.” Karl Lagerfeld: “He is by instinct motivated by the pressing issue of modernity… He can reinvent hairstyles and periods with a fresh and always renewed eye. This is what makes Sam unique.” Vivienne Westwood: “When models work with Sam you can see that they’re in heaven. They know that they are going to be goddesses in ten minutes, after he has worked his magic.”
The imagery featured shows a beautiful cohesion between these collaborators, yet the hair is still at the forefront. Shonagh explains: “We want the visitor to retrain their eye when looking at the imagery at the show. To start looking at the hair first, not the model, not the clothes, not the photographer. In many ways, we want them to look at the whole thing, and how all those elements come together, but also, what the hair adds to that image and how is it part of it.”
Sections on pop music, namely Lady Gaga and Bjork, and his work with Princess Diana (he was her personal hair stylist from 1990-1997), show that McKnight’s creation of identity extends beyond the range of fashion too, something the creative team were keen to highlight in the exhibition. The ‘controversy’ of Princess Diana’s slicked-back bob is a light-hearted nod to the transient nature of hair towards the end of the exhibition.
The lasting impression from this exhibition comes from a film at the very end. Sam is interviewed candidly in his garden and states: “Don’t be afraid of your hair. Just use it. It’s like the garden in your house, you cut it back, it grows, you cut it back again.” Hair is give and take, and change, and trial and error, and adapting, but overall, one part of a much bigger thing which together create something spectacular.
Hair by Sam McKnight runs from 2nd November to 12th March at Somerset House. The accompanying book is published by Rizzoli.
Images (in order of appearance) © of Laspata Decaro, Craig Mcdean and Sheila Metzner.