In may ways, Hair by Sam McKnight is more of a Festschrift than a coffee table book. For one, it honours the work and achievement of one man – McKnight – via his close colleagues and collaborators, the likes of model Kate Moss, fashion writer Alexander Fury, photographer Patrick Demarchelier, designer Karl Lagerfeld and the like. It may not have the academic rigour of such a document, but does carry the gravitas of great achievement and widespread respect (no mean feat in the fashion game).
The tome, published by Rizzoli, and eponymous exhibition at Somerset House chart 40 years of McKnight’s career, spanning his editorial work for magazines, catwalk shows and advertising campaigns. Giving context to the role of the session stylist, both book and exhibition delve into the creative process behind hair, exploring the relationships between McKnight and the many models, photographers and designers he has worked with.
Grouped into thematic sections, the exhibition explores process, collaboration, shoots and the catwalk
The exhibition brings the pages of the book to life. 'It is perhaps the first big exhibition to look at hair and it's transformative power,' notes McKnight. At times you would think it would be more of a fashion retrospective – these are some of the most recognised faces and in-demand photographers of the world after all – but at its root, it is a captivating study of the evolution of hairstyles and movements through the years; nostalgic to androgynous, romantic to sexy, red to platinum. It just so happens that it is done through some of the most iconic (or culturally resonant, at least) images of the last four decades. Princess Diana’s short crop, for instance, or the countless Moss moments, Tilda Swinton channelling David Bowie and dozens more in-between.
'Hair by Sam McKnight' also comes festooned with a coiffed collection of wigs, which McKnight has become rather known for – just flick through his Instagram account for further proof. In one lively display, his wigs for Vivienne Westwood take centre stage, while another room is entirely dedicated to French fashion house Chanel. Beside the couture-attired mannequins are a collection of combs, as well as a cabinet that breaks down the many odd bits and bobs a session hairstylist packs for a shoot. (Plenty of hair straighteners, brushes of all shapes and sizes, a medley of products, the odd ribbon and even a few feathers, in case you were wondering.)
The real stand-out pieces remain the candid Polaroids from McKnight’s private collection. 'It's been fantastic trawling through the last 40 years to put the exhibition content together,' he notes. 'I've been reminded of how many brilliant people I have collaborated with over the years, the amazingly creative designers, photographers and stylists that I've been lucky enough to work with.' It may all be a tribute to glamour – if not style – but above all, it is a true testament to the art of contemporary hair styling.