From Kate Moss’s casual dishevelment to Linda Evangelista’s glossy glamour, Sam McKnight's 40 years as a hair guru goes on display at London's Somerset House
We spent all day taking pictures of Diana — and just when we were done she said, ‘What would you do with my hair if I gave you free rein?’ — and I said, ‘I would cut it all off’,” recalls hair guru Sam McKnight.
“It was the beginning of the 1990s, so I thought let’s get rid of the ‘80s and I put a bit of plastic round her neck around her and cut it off,” Sam recollects, realising only later that he was metaphorically cutting off the soon-to-be-divorced princess from her royal life as she became — in McKnight's words — “a single mother”.
The image of Diana, Princess of Wales in the 1990s, lying on the floor, looking cheekily under her shorn head up at Patrick Demarchelier's camera, is more than “iconic” — a word so often used in the fashion business. The effect of scissors in a pair of expert hands, as Princess Di's marriage to Prince Charles crumbled, proved what many women already know: hair — and how you feel about it — has a deep, psychological significance.
Ah, hair! Is that stuff on top of your head that you wash, brush, stroke, comb, pummel and twist into submission really important enough to be the subject of an entire museum exhibition?
Hair by Sam McKnight at the Somerset House Embankment Galleries (until 12 March 2017) makes a fashion hero out of a man who has never chased publicity nor stopped working since he arrived in London from Scotland, first in a hair salon and then as a photo session stylist. Two entire walls of his 190 international Vogue covers are on display at the exhibition to prove his career success.
They include early “waif” pictures of Kate Moss and Anna Wintour's debut cover as editor of American Vogue showing a Christian Lacroix couture top with blue jeans — and deliberately messy hair.
Then came the arrival of the super models. “They were the silent movie stars of our time,” says McKnight, referring to the haughty, glamorous Linda Evangelista, the feline Christie Turlington — and so many more. Their famous faces, including the millennial Cara Delevingne, are grouped into sections, although the exhibition has one particular area that sums up the chameleon effects of changing hair. Here we see a handful of images of Tilda Swinton: channelling David Bowie in one photograph and, in the next, moving from boyish shaved neck to a head full of curls. A similar effect comes from seeing Kate Moss evolve from sexy waif to sophisticated star.
I would like to have seen this exhibition, intelligently curated by Shonagh Marshall and designed by sensitive scenographer Michael Howells, adopt the word “Transformation” in its title. And that is also true for the accompanying book published by Rizzoli. The transforming quality of hair is the essence of why the subject is worthy of a museum exhibition; this is the first one ever, according to Shonagh.
“There's never been an exhibition of this nature before,” says Shonagh, “There have been exhibitions on hairdressers such as Vidal Sassoon, but that concentrates more on perhaps portrait photography and how the hair appears in that. We really wanted to use the climate of fashion exhibitions becoming ever more popular, and really pick apart what it takes to make an image, what is the fashion industry, and who are the people that are behind these images, and the gel that holds it all together?”
Sam is quick to play down his achievements and to give credit to others, such as Demarchelier and his other favourite photographer, Nick Knight who says, “Sam has total mastery over his craft and combines that with an enthusiasm and commitment to push the boundaries of fashion,” adding that Sam's relationship with the models makes them feel special.
The show opens with the prosaic: an entire display window of the brushes and combs, sprays and gels that a hair stylist must carry to the studio for a shoot. It’s like seeing up close the pots and pans of a master chef. A series of films then shows McKnight backstage as he teases hair into different shapes, at the same time revealing his open, friendly personality. No haughty grandeur or temperamental scenes as imagined in movies about hairdressers.
The films are followed by our first glimpse of clothes. Although the focus of the show is on heads and hair, the exhibition is book-ended by Sam's long-term relationships with Vivienne Westwood and with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel.
The extravagant wire hair in punk colours for Westwood is matched at the finale of the exhibition by McKnight’s graceful hairstyles for Chanel, shown with a display of tweedy daytime and sleek evening clothes and runway films to see the looks in in action.
“Karl is so wonderful to work with,” said McKnight, explaining how Lagerfeld usually sketches the entire head-to-toe look. For the collection on display, the signature coiffure was a geometric, hyper-modern bob to contrast with elegant clothes in a casino setting.
The strength of this show is in its use of multi-media, with some excellent moving images and thoughtful comments on display. McKnight’s glib but thought-provoking lines, such as “The wig is the contemporary transforming accessory”, are accompanied by appropriate objects and images arranged by Michael Howells.
"The show uncovers the process of hair,” says Jonathan Reekie, Director of Somerset House Trust. “It explores his many collaborators: fashion photographers, makeup artists, stylists, designers, and of course models, who are celebrities themselves. It’s a really rich experience, and I think it brings hair, for the first time, to the forefront of contemporary culture.”
Altogether, this apparently trivial subject makes for a worthy focal point and provides food for thought in an ever-changing fashion world. Full marks to Sam McKnight, a hair expert who appears to follow the desires of each designer, not his own ego. And for Somerset House for creating an exhibition that is both entertaining and intriguing.