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The Interview: Sam McKnight

Lauretta Roberts
14 September 2022

Sam McKnight is one of the most celebrated hair stylists in the world and has collaborated with the biggest names in fashion from luxury houses, such as Chanel and Burberry, to publications, including Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, as well as countless supermodels and high-profile celebrities. McKnight has recently launched his first hair care range, Hair by Sam McKnight, to complement his existing hair styling range and has reissued a book celebrating his career and showcasing some of his most iconic looks.

McKnight's career in hair began in the 1970s when he began working as a session stylist for Vogue. He became a household name in 1990 when he created a short, slicked-back hairstyle for Princess Diana for her Vogue shoot with Patrick Demarchelier and went on to be the Princess's personal hairstylist. During the 90s and beyond he worked with all of the supermodels from Kate Moss to Naomi Campbell and cites this as one of the most standout periods of his career.

He talks to about what inspired him to launch a haircare line at this stage in his career, how the pandemic has affected the way we care for our hair and how he approached his business, and the ambitions he had for his celebrated career moving forward.

Congratulations on the launch of your first hair care line, can you please give us a brief insight into the range and why you launched it?

The whole idea for my hair care line was to create a distilled version of what I have in my kit. These are the products that will get me through every situation, with every kind of model, and every kind of hair type, from shoot to fashion show.

I also want to change the way women think and feel about their hair. Great care products lay the foundation for styling, and I've created products that are easy to use with foolproof, lightweight, and buildable formulations that make an immediate impact. I want to give people the right products and tools to get the most out of their hair. So they can play, experiment and enjoy their hair because good hair is the ultimate mood booster.

It’s very interesting that you have incorporated ingredients that are more typically associated with skincare, why do you think we have started to see this “skinification” haircare emerge so strongly of late?

People are now treating their hair in the same way as their skin. I think it’s great that ingredients in haircare have been more attuned to what’s going on in skincare market. People have become more aware and care more about what they are putting on their head and realising a healthy scalp helps achieve healthy hair. Haircare products should not only care for the hair but for the scalp.

How long was the range in the making and how did you decide which products and hair concerns you wanted to cover off with the range?

The care range has been five years in the making. It’s my kit, it’s what I have carried with me for years, two shampoos, two conditioners. And I really wanted to create a great conditioning curl cleanse. We felt it was important to address the needs of textured hair as there are so many incredible women we work with with textured hair. These products cover most people’s needs and lay the foundation for styling. We can’t have shampoo that is too heavy or strips the hair too much. Our cleanses are for both the hair and scalp, they are formulations treat your scalp the same way you treat your skin. It is simply my edit of products.

Sam McKnight

The Hair by Sam McKnight haircare range

From a personal perspective, I wanted to thank you for putting a frequent wash product in the line. I’m afraid I wash my hair far too much, so I’m told! You’ve worked with so many women, famous or not, over the years, what are the typical kinds of concerns they ask you to address?

I have had lots of conversations with women of a certain age about the challenges they are facing with how their hair changes during the menopause. Hair loss and thinning hair is having a big conversation at the minute. People are no longer keeping to one hairstyle as they get older, they are expectating more from their hair which I think is great. The landscape of women of a certain age and their hair has opened up and I think its amazing. I also get asked a lot how to keep hair healthy and cared for if you are changing your style regularly. People are now much more adventurous with the hair, but they also want to keep hair healthy. Healthy hair is what gives you the foundation to style your hair in a modern way. People also want to know how to de-fluff and de-frizz hair.

As well as the haircare range, you recently added to your styling range with products such as the Lazy Girl dry shampoo wipes, which was a genius idea. It’s interesting (and great!) that you have taken a very pragmatic approach to your products and are offering simple solutions, do you think things like skincare and haircare had become too complex?

I do think that haircare has become too complex, what I wanted to do is to simplify and make it easier for people to understand. To create products that work well and are quick, people don’t have lots of time. I have also found that there is lots of negative narrative, around hair at the minute and people being totally overwhelmed by products and being told that their hair is bad and they need lots of products to fix it. What I have found is that most peoples hair isn’t that bad, and it just needs products that work and that are easy to use, are for their hair type and deliver the results they want. I want to demystify all the complications and bring back positivity around hair and talk about hair in a positive way. Haircare should be a joyful experience; it shouldn’t be a difficult experience. For me it’s not about making lots of unique products, it’s making a curated edit of products with formulations that work.

On that note, you’ve said that each woman should master four looks for her hair, I’ve yet to master one if am honest! What are the key styles/skills we should look to practice in order to have a great working hair “wardrobe”?

Everyone should have one easy everyday cool girl effortless hairstyle that you can master and some up dos. Watch ponytail tutorials and figure out two ways to elevate the ponytail. And learn how to do a chignon, it is super easy to turn a ponytail into a chignon. Learn simple tricks like putting hair into a top knot whilst you are getting ready and then pull it down to create waves. Learn little weak transformations – little things that make a difference. If you have wavy hair learn how to make it straight, if you have straight hair learn to make it wavy occasionally. Just learn to do things that you are not used to as you might like it and do things you wouldn’t normally do and just try it for a day.

Sam McKnight

The New Wave NFT based on Kate Moss created to mark the reissue of the book Hair by Sam McKnight

Your book Hair by Sam McKnight was recently updated, and you issued NFTs of some of your most iconic looks to celebrate. What was it that persuaded you to enter the world of NFTs and how did that project go?

To celebrate the re-issue of the book Hair By Sam McKnight we wanted to do something a bit different. The NFTs were drawn by artist Laura Leine of three images of Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Gigi Hadid that are in the book and the proceeds of the sale of the NFTs will go to Beauty Banks which is an amazing hygiene poverty charity.

Looking at the book and your career, is there a moment or moments that stand out for you as having been seminal in your career?

Definitely, being around at the dawn of the supermodel era and getting to meet all those girls when they were teenagers and work with them since. 1990 first working with Princess Diana and getting to spend seven years with her. Also, getting to work with amazing people like Nick Knight, Karl Lagerfeld, Vivienne Westwood. And finally, being invited to my exhibition at Somerset House, which was the first ever hair exhibition.

The Hair by Sam McKnight book

The Hair by Sam McKnight book

You have had a long and distinguished career, to what do you owe your longevity? I imagine it must be a combination of keeping up with, or ahead of change, but also staying true to certain things?

Embracing change and constantly reinventing myself and looking for new challenges.

I am sure many of the wonderful women whose hair you have styled have greatly inspired you, but have their been other hairdressers or entrepreneurs, for instance, who have inspired you during your career?

Charlotte Tilbury has been an absolute powerhouse phenomenon and my total inspiration. And also, my old friend Bobbi who I started off with in the 80s and who is a total trailblazer and inspires me all the time.

Hairdressing, along with most other businesses, had a torrid time during Covid, but the innovation has been coming thick and fast since. Do you think that period of lockdown inspired people to get creative?

Definitely I think lockdown inspired both myself and my team to get creative. We tweaked all our formulations to be vegan, cruelty free, gluten free and to use recycled plastic for the packaging. We also spent time to create lots of amazing innovations that are coming. It gave us time and breathing space to go through the entire range and think how we can improve it and what products we should launch.

You have already achieved so much, but looking ahead, as I’m sure you do, are there other ambitions for your career that you would like to achieve?

Growing and expanding my range Hair By Sam McKnight.

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