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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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?
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.