What Makes a Cool Haircut? Princess Diana’s Legendary Stylist Sam McKnight Tells All

The veteran British hair stylist on what constitutes cool hair today.

About Face - Blow-Up - June 2017
Photograph by Sharif Hamza, Hair by Sam McKnight; Styled by Melissa Levy at Streeters; makeup by Val Garland at Streeters; model: Stella Lucia at VIVA Paris; Digital Technician: Victor Gautier; photography assistants: Simon Wellington, Laurent Chouard; fashion assistant: Heidi Feldman

In W‘s June/July issue, celebrity hairstylist Sam McKnight re-created a feathered Farrah Fawcett-inspired hairstyle, for a modern woman. “I started with a proper, old-fashioned blow-dry, and then destroyed it a bit,” he explains. “Ideally, you want to look like you left the salon three days ago and have been riding around in an open-top car.” McKnight has always been a master of easy glamour–in the ’90s, he was responsible for transforming Princess Diana into a beauty icon, when he cut her hair into a short, masculine style, and once styled Kate Moss’s hair with only seawater. Here, the veteran British hair stylist talks about what constitutes cool hair today, his summer travel tips, and his true happy place–his London garden.

You’ve clocked in a lot of hours jetting around to exotic locales. What are three of your most memorable trips?

  1. Costa Rica. I went to Costa Rica for three weeks this past January. It was the first time I’ve ever taken a winter holiday, and it was one of the best holidays I have ever had. It was a real action-packed trip, where I trekked through the jungle and zip-lined through the jungle canopy. I witnessed the most beautiful sunsets, and had the adventure of a lifetime.
  2. Ibiza. I’ve spent the summer in Ibiza for the past fifteen years – it’s a truly magical place. I always rent a villa and often go with friends. Once I’ve been there for a week, I begin to feel like a local. Nowadays, I’m not attracted to the party side of the Island, but love going to the local beaches and hanging out by the pool and catching up on my reading.
  3. India. I was lucky enough to spend seven years working with Princess Diana and travelled to many places with her. In particular, one trip to India stands out where we met with Mother Teresa in Calcutta and also had a private tour of the Taj Mahal. I was incredibly privileged to be part of her world.

4 Easy, Glamorous Hairstyles To Try This Summer, According to Celebrity Stylist Sam McKnight

Sam McKnight offers four options for ’70s-inspired jet set hairstyles.

Photograph by Sharif Hamza, Hair by Sam McKnight; Styled by Melissa Levy at Streeters; makeup by Val Garland at Streeters; model: Stella Lucia at VIVA Paris; Digital Technician: Victor Gautier; photography assistants: Simon Wellington, Laurent Chouard; fashion assistant: Heidi Feldman

Sam McKnight offers four options for ’70s-inspired jet set hairstyles.

Photograph by Sharif Hamza, Hair by Sam McKnight; Styled by Melissa Levy at Streeters; makeup by Val Garland at Streeters; model: Stella Lucia at VIVA Paris; Digital Technician: Victor Gautier; photography assistants: Simon Wellington, Laurent Chouard; fashion assistant: Heidi Feldman

Sam McKnight offers four options for ’70s-inspired jet set hairstyles.

Sharif Hamza

Sam McKnight offers four options for ’70s-inspired jet set hairstyles.


What are three things you always take along on the journey? I always have a good book and a great playlist with me when I’m on the go. Plus, I bring my own teabags.

How much equipment do you typically travel with for a shoot? Four suitcases, normally, sometimes more. I also pack: The Modern Hairspray, Easy Up Do, Lazy Girl and Cool Girl from my new product line; Magic Move Pomades; Philip Kingsley Elasticizer; Bumble & Bumble Surf Spray; a good hair dryer and pair of curling tongs; a great hairbrush and some pins. But my hands are my best tool.

Is there a funny story you can remember about doing hair from a suitcase, so to speak? On a trip to St Barths for Vogue, none of the luggage arrived, including my kit, so I had to go to the local pharmacy and get a comb and a spray bottle which I filled with seawater and used as a texturizer on Kate Moss’s hair. It worked brilliantly.

What is your fondest memory of doing Princess Diana’s hair, or just being in her company? I absolutely loved my Princess Diana shoot I did with Patrick Demarchelier in 1990. Mary Greenwell was doing the makeup and Anna Harvey the styling. It was such a memorable moment. I even have a fridge magnet of that shot.

The boyish cut you gave her was iconic. What is different about the short, layered cuts you do nowadays? When I cut her hair short following a Vogue shoot it became an iconic hair moment. In fact my world went a little crazy for a while afterwards as suddenly the princess’s image was everywhere and the world’s media were talking about her new haircut and about me. Even on the front page of The Times! Diana looked incredible, of course, and the haircut was much copied thereafter. Nowadays, short hair is much choppier and razored, which gives a more feminine edge and makes short hair look less polished and more grunge. It’s a world away from the masculine, short hair of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Tell me a bit about your new product line. What is your absolute favorite and why? Now that I’m not consulting for other brands, I’ve had the time to work with a lab and actually formulate my own range. I’ve been playing at mixing my own products for years, experimenting backstage and on shoots with different products to find the perfect combination of hold, silkiness, speed, buildability, ease of brushing out — all the things that are important to me and the women that use products. Each product has its own purpose and you should have all at your disposal. Cool Girl gives you the hair that everyone wants. It’s rock‘n’roll and sexy. The trick to Cool Girl hair is making it look like you haven’t even tried. It’s the antithesis to done hair. An effortless, barely there texturiser that creates style that lasts all day.

There was recently a major exhibition of you and your work at Somerset House in London. You must be so proud! Opening the exhibition was the first time in my entire working life that I had to pause. When I stand back now and look at it from an objective point of view – seeing all my work – it shows my journey and how incredibly lucky I’ve been to have worked with such great people.

This Is the Man Who Coiffed Everyone From Princess Di to Tilda Swinton

Kate Moss by Nick Knight, Vogue UK, September 2000. Courtesy of Nick Knight.

Gisele Bundchen © Alexei Hay, Trunk Archive.

Tilda Swinton, Vogue Italia, February 2003 © Craig McDean, Courtesy Art + Commerce.

Karlie Kloss for British Vogue, November 2015. Photograph by Patrick Demarchelier.

Kate Moss by Patrick Demarchelier © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd.

Agyness Deyn

Tilda Swinton.

Tilda Swinton in Hair by Sam McKnight. Courtesy Somerset House and Rizzoli.

Do you approach hair any differently now that you have a zillion shoots under your belt, so to speak? I can do anything, but I like my hair to be based in reality – to be real and have a sense that it’s achievable.

What do you think constitutes cool hair right now? Slightly undone, easy and effortless

That said, runway hair certainly isn’t always simple. What was the most difficult or challenging runway hairdo you’ve done? Creating hair looks on 100 models at the Chanel couture show with complicated hair looks including hair pieces and wigs that might take a week to prep, can be really challenging. Each season brings fresh challenges.

Name five things you can’t live without. Flowers, iPhone, Eau Sauvage by Dior, my passport, Yorkshire decaf tea bags.

I knew one would be flowers! I love when you post pics of your London garden on Instagram. Do you tend the flowers yourself? How do you find the time? My garden has something beautiful blooming all year round and I find taking a few minutes in my garden really lifts my spirit. Traveling as much as I do, I do need help with my garden, especially in the summer and I have someone who does this each week for around four hours.

What are your favorite summer flowers? I have fond memories of my grandmother growing sweet peas and Lupins which are still my favorites to this day. Tulips also make an appearance throughout my garden in the Spring.

What are some special gardens you’ve seen in your travels? The rose garden in Regents Park is one of my favorite open spaces in London. It’s still relatively hidden. I also love to get out into the country and visit places like Sissinghurst Castle in Kent and also Great Dixter in East Sussex is truly inspirational.

Do any of your friends garden? I always send Kate Moss bulbs for Christmas – she has a lovely garden.

Is there anything similar about doing hair and creating a garden? Color, shape and form run through what I do for a living, and are also important in gardening. I like the synergy of hair and gardens constantly evolving–you cut them, they grow, and so it continues.

Do you like lots of one color or lots of many colors in your garden? The more the merrier.

Favorite hair color du jour? Pink.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be? Dorset, overlooking the sea, with a large garden, of course!

If you could come back having any professional life you want, what would it be? I’m really happy as I am.

Princess Diana’s Legendary Hairstylist Sam McKnight on His Favorite Hair Products of All Time

Gisele Bündchen, the best photoshoot hair-flipper, according to hair expert Sam McKnight.

Trunk Archive

John Frieda Frizz Ease Secret Weapon Touch Up Crème, $7, target.com I recently used this as the DSquared AW’16 show. We applied it through the hair, section by section, to give natural body and movement.

L’Oréal Professionnel Tecni.Art Shower Shine Lacquer Shine Spray, $24, us.lorealprofessionnel.com This product gives great texture and shine. I used it at the Balmain Autumn/Winter 2016 show from the mid lengths of the hair through to the ends to add more of a gritty textured finish.

Moroccan Oil Hydrating Styling Crème, $34, moroccanoil.com This is great for calming flyaways and to create soft, clean texture to hair. Perfect for creating a smooth look.

Kiehl’s Creme with Silk Groom, $24, kiehls.com This is another one of my go-to products at shows. It helps to create a soft texture and reduces flyaways without being overly heavy.

Oribe Dry Texturizing Spray, $44, oribe.com Like dry shampoo but with more guts, this spray is brilliant for when you’re building a graphic hairstyle. And it stays in place until it’s washed out.

Fudge Salt Spray, $14, fruugo.us Salt spray is another hair styist’s fashion show staple. This one provides great texture which is buildable, but easy to brush out– which is essential when models are going from show to show.

Bumble and Bumble Thickening Dryspun Finish, $31, bumbleandbumble.com Great for creating a full, airy finish. I use it a lot on shows to create light volume.

Magic Move, $20, rickys.com Three different tubs of creme and clays here. White is the lightest styling creme that gives hair definition and a lived-in quality; Yellow is a crème-clay mix, drier in texture and more matte in finish. Red, being clay, has the driest texture and finish. These are my go-to pomades for short hair and men’s, but they’re also great worked into hair for varying degrees of texture.

Cock Grease Hair Pomade, $8, cocknkitten.com Adds definition, great to control flyaways and hair around the hairline, works beautifully on afros and coarser hair types. Effectively aids braiding. It’s a product that keeps giving.

L’Oréal Professionnel Homme Gel Strong, $19, us.lorealprofessionnel.com lt’s difficult to find good gel that’s invisible on the hair, but this is brilliant when combed through from the roots as it will ensure the hair lays flat to the head. Fantastic for slicked-back styles.

L’Oréal Professionnel Tecni.Art Volume Envy Extra Strong Hold Volume Mousse, $24, us.lorealprofessionnel.com This gives a great foundation to the hair. Needs to be applied to damp hair, starting from the roots and worked through to the ends, then blow dry the hair with a round or flat brush according to style preference and this will give you serious hold.