Sam McKnight Predicts a Punk Rebellion

The man behind some of fashion’s most memorable coifs—and Princess Di’s ‘do—thinks we’re heading into a moment where anything goes.

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Sam McKnight cutting Karlie Kloss’ hair circa 2011. Courtesy of Sam McKnight.

As of this morning, congratulations are in order: Sam McKnight is the latest recipient of The Fashion Awards’ Isabella Blow Award for Fashion Creator—and with previous honorees including Pat McGrath, Nick Knight and Tim Walker, he’s in good company.

Known for his near-magical ability to transform his subjects with a spritz of wave spray or tousle of mousse, McKnight has spent the last four decades coiffing some of the most memorable manes in fashion and film: Kate Moss, Tilda Swinton, Linda Evangelista, and, of course, Princess Diana. His work has yielded a retrospective at Somerset House, a book, and a product line.

McKnight is also a mainstay backstage at the fashion shows season after season, creating styles for Halpern, Vivienne Westwood, and more—not to mention his enduring partnerships with Fendi and Chanel. From Chanel’s historic Resort 2017 presentation in Cuba to the understated, low ponytails at Karl Lagerfeld’s final Fendi show, McKnight has been instrumental in some of the most memorable runway moments of the past 10 years. “By the time I was working with Karl, we were being quite adventurous,” he says. “There wasn’t really a signature style we stuck to, we never did the same look twice.”

Check out some of McKnight’s backstage moments from his archive, his favorite shoots in W, and his 2020 trend-casting, here.

Sam McKnight with Linda Evangelista circa 1994. Courtesy of Sam McKnight.

Congratulations on the Isabella Blow Award for Fashion Creator! What does being a creator mean to you?

It’s all I’ve ever done, and I don’t really know anything else. My job is being part of a team that creates an image. So whether that’s shows or celebs or red carpet or editorial, it’s kind of all the same thing in different forms. And I think for me, probably the greatest part of it is getting to work with amazing, creative and talented people.

For the last 45 years, I’ve been really lucky to work with the best of the best. And it’s the collaborative aspect that’s just been incredible. It’s not a solitary craft. It’s very much about the team. And I’ve been very lucky to work with the most amazing teams.

What would you consider the main highlights of your career?

Oh, there’s so many and there continue to be many. I guess getting to help kind of be a part of the creation of the original supermodels in the 1980s. Just being a part of that creative process— I’m not holding myself solely responsible. There were lots of different people involved there.

And then going on through that to meet Princess Diana and work with Princess Diana for seven years. Then in the latter part of my career to be working with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Fendi for the last 10 years. And I’ve been really close to creating lots of images with Kate Moss. There continues to be that and lots more of that.

How do you feel about the fact that Princess Diana’s ‘do is one of your best known creations?

Oh, just incredibly honored. It was a complete and absolute pleasure. If I’m to be known for that, I couldn’t pick a better icon, could I really? And what a lovely, lovely person too.

Do you have a favorite shoot you’ve worked on for W? I’ve seen the Karlie Kloss shoot with Nick Knight, which I personally love.

I think for me that’s probably my favorite one. It’s pretty incredible. And I love the one I did last year with Cate Blanchett, with all the women photographers. So I would choose between those two. The cover by Jackie Nickerson of Cate Blanchett is beautiful.

Cate Blanchett photographed by Jackie Nickerson for W Magazine, September 2018.

But if I’m going to pick a really super creative one hair-wise it would probably have to be the Karlie Kloss Nick Knight one. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with Nick over the last 25 years, creating real iconic stories and images. Nick has his own singular vision, and I think those were just so incredibly surreal and beautiful and stick in everyone’s mind.

Karlie Kloss photographed by Nick Knight for W Magazine, October 2012.

The multicolored lobs you did for Fendi is just one of the amazing runway looks you’ve done this season. When it comes to runway shows, do you feel like you have more freedom to be avant-garde?

I think it depends on the show, really. Sometimes you get to be hugely creative like at the Fendi show, but we were prepping that for a month, so we had a lot of warning on that one. Sometimes with a show, you’re really only prepping it from the night before or even the morning of. You don’t usually have the luxury of a lot of time, whereas you do for photoshoots. So it brings different challenges and rewards.

Sam McKnight at Westwood – Gaia the Only One Gold Label show SS 2011. Courtesy of Sam McKnight.

Which products have been mainstays throughout your career and which do you wish you’d discovered earlier?

Well, I wish I’d done my own line of products earlier. We launched Cool Girl last year, and it has been very successful. So what I hope to be doing is to be creating my own products in the future to use, more of them. We created four and they’re on sale in the States at Violet Grey and Net-A-Porter. But I think I hope to be creating a full line of my own products, of the stuff that I wish had been invented. I’m being cryptic here.

What trends do you see for 2020 and beyond?

I think what we’ll see now are no rules, and the old traditions maybe being turned on their heads and mixed up, which happens every few years. I think we’ll see much more individuality. I think we’re almost having a punk rebellion moment and it’s almost a free for all. You can do anything that you’d like. The old rules of good taste are gone, and your own taste is the way forward, whatever that is.

Last question: per your Instagram and one of your last interviews with W, you’re an avid gardener. How are the flowers doing this year?

Oh, we probably got the last of them today. We had frost this morning so after today, it will be gone. But I have 4,000 tulip bulbs going in next week, so I’m looking forward to March.