He is one of those people who you introduce saying, ‘this man needs no introduction’, but he definitely deserves one! From creating some of the most iconic and recognisable images, working with true legends throughout the years and truly shaping the way our industry is today, Sam McKnight took some time out of his extremely hectic schedule to talk to us about the circle of editorial and fashion work, how you can get into it and his advice on making a career out of it.
Take us back to when you were first completed your training, when as a newly qualified stylist the bigger world of hairdressing can seem out of reach to you, what event or series of events triggered off this incredible career that has bought you to this point?
I had a bit of a staggered training, I trained a bit in Scotland and then I trained a bit in London. Over the course of my first three years I trained in fits and starts. I went to Molton Brown, which was one of the ‘it’ salons of the ‘70s in London and I re-trained there for a while before I was allowed to go on the floor. Pretty much as soon as I had done that, around 1977, I found myself doing photo shoots through the salon.
The first shoot I went on, I went on because someone was ill, so I got sent on that. I really loved it. I quickly decided that that’s what I wanted to do. For me, it was about an opportunity that arose. I could have quite easily said no but I was all up for doing something new and I think that’s what it’s all about; being open to new suggestions. Did I feel ready? No. I still don’t feel ready! I still like pushing myself into things, even if you think ‘I don’t know if that’s the right thing for me’, do you know what, just think, ‘I’ll do it and then I’ll decide’, instead of making the negative decision before you’ve actually even done the thing.
I had a bit of a plan I have to say, I had singled out Molton Brown because I was looking at Vogue magazines and I could see that most of the hair in Vogue at the time was being done by a few different people at Molton Brown. So I thought oooo I would like to find out what that is. So I went and pushed myself into a job there. It wasn’t all by chance! I put myself in the place where the chances and the opportunities I wanted were likely to be. If you want to do something, you have to do a bit of research and find out where the best place is to be to have access to what you want to be doing.
How can assistants, stylists or colourists who want to break out from behind the chair branch out into the world of fashion and editorial?
Fairly early on I decided that I didn’t want to be working in a salon all my life, I wanted to be creating images for magazines. That was a conscious decision that I made. Some advice? Look at places that are active in editorial photoshoots, be around it. It’s a different thing now because back then there weren’t really fashion shows to be assisting on…but there are now.
A good way of getting into it is just to be on the phone to the agencies that represent people like me and just put yourself out there as a lowly assistant. Even if you’ve been a qualified hairdresser for ten years, you can still go in. If you do good work in your first season of assisting you can be noticed. There are 20 or 30 other assistants who will be watching what you’re doing and it will all be reported back. That’s a good way to do it now.
I see everyone and I would be part of the decision of who assists me. What would I be looking for? A big plus is if you get along with people, if you’re amenable, nice, quiet, calm, obviously able to do what you’re asked to do hair wise, that goes without saying. Also, a willingness to learn and no attitude.
Education is obviously extremely important to you and you have put a lot back into the industry for the next generations of hairdressers, can you tell us more about the reasons why you feel so passionately about ensuring the future of our industry is in safe hands?
I’ve got a team of 20 to 30 young, mostly British hairdressers, travelling around with us doing shows and they’re amazing hairdressers, they’re great people, they learn a lot from us during the course of the few years they work with us and it’s not just education, it’s not just sitting in a class, it’s hands on… learning by your mistakes and learning to do new things, things that you might not have tried before.
With the exhibition at Summerset House, we’re tried to make it semi-educational in a way to show what we do in our industry, from the opening of the kits, to the backstage area, to the wigs, (we obviously can’t show everything) but we’ve tried to make it as full as possible of information people can take away. I think there’s a hunger for that. There’s probably more of a hunger for it now than there ever was before; probably because of the internet. I think education has come into its own in hairdressing, from the internet. So I think it’s made people hungrier to learn. It’s been unbelievable and so touching. The comments people are making are really, really amazing. People are going there for a reason and they’re coming out feeling fulfilled, which for me is great.
When they first approached me to do it I was thinking, ‘Do you think people will understand this?’ But it seems they do, which is great, it’s really encouraging. Ours is a great business to be in and it gets neglected a bit, we’re a bit bottom of the list sometimes, I think it’s been a really lovely way to show just how important and fantastic our industry is. I hope it’s elevated our craft a bit too.
Maybe we need to get hairdressers doing exhibitions in their own salons, having a goal to work towards once a year, where everyone does a picture? What a good idea that would be.
The response from the exhibition has really meant a lot to me.
You have been able to access some of the most globally recognised style icons and help shape their looks and the way people see our industry, what do you think it is that you have done differently which has won you their trust and inspired so many hairdressers to try and emulate your many successes?
I don’t know if I’ve done anything differently, I think I just have a keen desire to make people look and feel good about themselves, that’s what hair is really. It’s about that. It’s a real tool to make you look and feel great and it’s as simple as that. That’s what I try to do. No pretentions, we’re just here to make a great image.
How much of what you do is based on fundamental technique and how much of it is down to your own confidence and creativity?
I think probably half and half; half technique and half being open to new ideas. I’m still learning all the time… I make a lot up as I go along. The night before the exhibition, we had some spaces on the wall and we took things that were lying around and had such fun just doing things off the top of our heads to fill the space!
Can you leave us with some wise words to encourage and inspire hairdressers all over the country, from mobile hairdressers to managers to artistic team members, so that they feel like they can achieve the most out of their lives as hairdressers?
Don’t be afraid to do anything, just follow your instincts and don’t be afraid to make those mistakes! You can’t be afraid of making mistakes in this business, if you do make one; you’ve just got to move on. Good comes out of making mistakes, you’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t make some. If you’re careful, you’re mistakes are not disasters, they’re just little mistakes and you can cover it up, move on and change it into something else.
If you haven’t already, head to Somerset House in London, Sam’s exhibition is running there until March. If you’re passionate about our industry, need some inspiration or just fancy taking your team for some encouragement, it’s definitely well worth the trip!