Hailing from a working class family on a council estate in the former mining town of New Cumnock, Scotland, hairdresser Sam McKnight MBE has forged a career that, in his chosen field, is second to none.
Born to happy, humble beginnings — a miner dad and a shopkeeper mum — Sam, possessing a robust work ethic and an ever-curious outlook, worked as a window cleaner, van driver, and a trainee teacher before landing a job as an assistant at a local hair salon. Since then, his trajectory has been almost mythical.
Moving to London in the early ‘70s to work at the prestigious Molton Brown, his first Vogue shoot was in 1977 — the start of a relationship that thrives to this day, with Sam having contributed to over 200 cover shoots for various international versions of the publication. The boy from Ayrshire has circled the world multiple times, collaborating with Chanel, Fendi, Balmain, Vivienne Westwood, Burberry, and more — a steadfast creative contributor to the world’s greatest luxury brands.
His editorial accomplishments, including his iconic work for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, are too many to list. He was center stage in the thick of the New York action in the ‘80s and ‘90s, working with the original supermodels Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz — and then Gisele Bündchen, Kate Moss, and the Hadid sisters who followed. He styled Madonna for the cover of her album Bedtime Stories and Lady Gaga for her album Born This Way.
He counts royalty, designers, models, actors, and many more who have commanded the culturescape of the last 40-plus years among his clients. Ready to retire at 52, he was convinced by Chanel’s creative director Karl Lagerfeld to work with him and so began a further 12-year tenure.
Lead by one of the greatest editors of her generation, the late Liz Tilberis, Sam was also notably part of a very small team — alongside photographer Patrick Demarchelier, makeup artist Mary Greenwell, and the late Vogue fashion director Anna Harvey — who helped transform and elevate Princess Diana into the glamorous style icon who will forever be remembered. Sam, who became a considered friend and confidante, traveled with the Princess for seven years and witnessed close-up her natural, inimitable empathy before her tragic death in 1997. He was also the first to give our future King William his first lick of hair wax!
I’ve known Sam, now 68 years young, for over 35 years, worked with him and witnessed and celebrated his growth from a youthful partier to a sober, incredibly respected, and much valued master of his art. In November 2016, Somerset House hosted a retrospective showcasing four decades of his work, accompanying his book Hair by Sam McKnight which features an encyclopedic look at the extraordinary looks he created with the finest photographers in the business. I’ve felt both warmed and awed by his career in a way that a proud relative would feel. The boy done good, from New Cumnock to Buckingham Palace, and a MBE in the latest New Years Honors list.
During lockdown, Sam entertained his almost 220,000 followers by using a variety of wigs to dress up his shiny pate. Self-deprecating, with a sparkle in his eye, he shared his beloved dog and late mum with us and cheered us up with his everyday shenanigans, in a manner reflective of much simpler, bygone, feel good days. His friends and social media audience were soothed by the changing flowers and fauna of his beautiful North London garden, a hobby he picked up later in life as a way to keep his mind and memory fresh. Sam is cheery, modest, has a fierce talent and continues to offer a pedigree that is tried, tested and always seeking to create something new.
When in London about a month ago, I reached out to Sam last minute. And within 24 hours — and despite him having three separate hair jobs that day with said supermodels — I met him at his house and interviewed him as the subject this week’s Who the F*** Are You? profile, answering the 20 questions that get to the heart of who we are.
Who the f*** are you?
I forget sometimes. I’m Sam McKnight. I’m a hairdresser. I’m just me, aren’t I? That’s all we ever are.
How are you feeling right now?
I feel good. I feel better in old age than in youth. I had a lot of feel good times in my youth. I was saying to my dear friend Mary Greenwell the other day, who’s my contemporary, that old age seems to suit me. Thank God. I’m lucky enough to have had an amazing life. Youth, middle age — the whole thing’s been an amazing ride and I’m really grateful that it’s still amazing. But when you get older, you don’t really give a shit what people think anymore. And I’m lucky enough to still be successful and still happy with what I do. Also, that comes from not doing stuff that doesn’t make you happy, so I’m lucky enough to have that choice. The criteria is, ‘Is it going to make me happy? Is it nice people? Or is it loads of money? It kinda has to be all three really!
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
I grew up in a very small mining village in south west Scotland. It’s called New Cumnock, and I still go back there. It was very much working class — my dad worked in the coal mine and my mum worked in the local Co-Op [grocery shop], from when she was 14 to the age of 60. A tiny little council house, but it was idyllic. We were very poor but everyone else was too so you’ve only got that to gauge it. We were shoved out first thing in the morning and we’d only get called in when it got dark.
What excites you?
Life excites me. New things excite me. I feel very much at the moment that time is ticking. You become more aware. I’m 68. I’m not into repetition. I don’t want to keep doing things that I’ve already done. I’m very interested in new adventures. Hence the product line. Hence getting a puppy. And hence discovering the garden in my 50s.
Gardening has been amazing with my memory. My dad had dementia from when he was in his mid 50s, so that’s always in my head. And I think doing new things helps create new pathways in your brain. So the flower thing was so new, and I started taking pictures of lots of them. I didn’t know what their names were. I didn’t know anything about it. I knew a rose and a daffodil, that was about it. So, I’m pretty much self-taught. I asked lots of questions of my gardening friends, Google is a wonderful thing, and I read lots of books and just made it up as I went along. But I’m learning all the time. I’m learning the names of things, I’m learning about soil, light, shade, all that kind of stuff. I’m by no means an expert but it’s been an amazing learning curve for me. As is starting a hair product line in my 60s. We’re here in the UK now but next year, look out USA! It’s called Hair by Sam McKnight launching in NY and LA in 2024.
What scares you?
Oh God… scary movies scare me. I don’t like watching them. I don’t know, does anything really scare me? Some people scare me sometimes. Some people you get a bad vibe from. It doesn’t necessarily scare me but I’m very aware of it. I suppose the ticking of the clock scares me a little bit, because I’m trying to fit in things that I’ve never done before. It’s just a thing you can’t explain to someone who’s younger. It’s a thing that only happens when you realize you’ve got a finite time, and you think I’ve got to make the most of this, which at the same time scares you. It makes you think you’ve got to make the most of this life. I suppose what scares me is the fear of not doing that. It’s about quality. The people have to be worthwhile. Time is the most precious thing.
What is your proudest achievement?
I suppose my proudest achievement would be lasting this long. Sometimes I can’t believe it. I had three jobs today. I just did a show this morning with teenage models and I can’t believe I’m still here and people are still booking me! I’ve just been with Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington and all the other girls this week, and I’ve worked recently with both Cindy’s and Christy’s daughters. We were laughing and talking about that and they’re really lovely, and I said, ‘Guys, I’m not working with the grandchildren!’ And then the next thought was, well maybe I will!
What is the hardest thing you have ever done?
God, life’s not really been that hard, touch wood. That’s a tough one. Is the hardest thing letting go of the past? I think it probably is for me — letting go of things that don’t bring me joy. Things that are draining. It goes back to things you are wasting your time on. I think when you’re younger, letting go is harder, but age has somehow made that easier.
Who was your greatest mentor and what did they teach you?
I had an amazing seven years working with Princess Diana. She was a great believer in self-help. She naturally helped people, she couldn’t help it. It would be not uncommon to have discussions about problems, mutually, and she was always there with great advice. She was quite sage. And I think that’s what the public saw in her too, because she couldn’t hide that, it was a natural thing. She took me to the most amazing places with her, to refugee camps in Afghanistan, to Mother Theresa’s in Calcutta. I had seen a lot of the world in the fashion business, but I saw a whole different view of the world with her — this was something else. I guess, unwittingly, she had an enormous effect on me.
Who are your fictional and real-life heroes?
I’m not really a hero worshiper. I just get on with it. I think sometimes I can become infatuated with people, I can get really interested in people. But I’m not really good with fantastical films, I’m a bit more real. I appreciate good humor. Clever people who don’t take themselves too seriously. Even people in real life — like you, you don’t take yourself too seriously, you’ve got that northern humor. I think there’s something about yourself I find very attractive and it makes you feel good, you know. I’m drawn to people who have a sense of humor. I mean, what else is there, really?
What is your favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?
I hate wearing clothes. I’m really happy to get home and get my clothes off and just have a pair of boxer shorts on. I had tons of the clothes from the 80s that I sold at auction a couple of years ago. They were really beautiful — old Comme des Garçons, Yohji, Gaultier, Westwood. So I sold all that and gave the money to charity because it was just hanging around in the wardrobe. I was just hanging onto it, and I was never going to fit into them again. But I’d take them out and look at them again because they were just such beautiful pieces that you don’t get anymore. Even though it wasn’t couture, the ready to wear was so beautifully made. It took me a while to let go of that and it made me feel really good, that the money was going somewhere, and the pieces going to people who may wear them — and a couple of museums bought items. So when you ask what my favorite item is in my closet, I don’t really have one.
What music did you love aged 13, and do you still love it now?
I used to swim a lot when I was a kid. There was an open air swimming pool in the next village. From the age of eight years old, I used to go on the bus and go to this amazing swimming pool which had a tannoy system. I pretty much lived there throughout the summer months even though it was freezing in Scotland. I still go because they have open air days, and I go swimming there on Boxing Day. It is heated now though! Anyway, it’s about 1968 I suppose, and there are certain songs by Sonny and Cher, Bang Bang, the Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas — all kinds of stuff like that from that era that takes me back, absolutely straight there. I can smell the chlorine.
I don’t spend enough time listening to music. Music, landscapes and laughter are three things that I love. I discovered walking about ten to 15 years ago. I do a lot of walking, that’s part of the reason I’ve got a dog. I do a lot of ten to fifteen mile walks in the English countryside, on the Upper Thames. I love to go visiting all the amazing gardens in the south of England and there’s always a nice walk attached to them — even walking from Kew Bridge to Richmond and Petersham and back. It’s incredible.
What’s the most inspiring book you have ever read?
Recently I read The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. A great book. And then I read the follow up called The Three Sisters. When you read these things, it’s hard to imagine it really happened, it’s quite extraordinary. They’re so beautifully written that they’re not gruesome reads. I almost think everyone should read them.
And then I read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas — all such beautifully written books about a terrible, terrible time which I think mustn’t be denied or forgotten. They really moved me, those books.
I read a lot as a kid and then stopped. And then probably 15 years ago I picked up a book and have read a lot since then. I really got into it later in life. I was probably too busy disco dancing when we were first working — there was a lot of that going on!
What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?
I’m not a big movie-goer. I’m not a big TV watcher. I haven’t been to the cinema for about 25 years. I like an old movie. Someone on Facebook the other day was talking about The Manchurian Candidate and that is quite incredible. I like old films and I like old music. I like a good ‘70s film. They don’t make films like that anymore. Network, Chinatown, that kind of film. The Rocky Horror Picture Show — I went to a wedding recently at the place they actually filmed it. That was in the theater in 1973 when I first came to London, with the original cast, and it blew my mind. It was absolutely incredible and it was just so ahead of its time.
I do like Instagram. My favorite thing about social media is being in contact with Cindy and Christy. Then I’m working with Kaia [Gerber, Cindy’s daughter] when she started doing Chanel, and suddenly Cindy’s backstage at the show and it didn’t seem like I hadn’t seen her because I’d seen her on Instagram.
What is your favorite word or saying?
I hope it’s not, ‘Do you know what I mean?’ I hope it’s not that. I’ve been known to cuss, a word or two. But I do like ‘thank you.’ I think thank you is really important. Especially when you’re driving, a bit of courtesy goes a long, long way. It kind of diffuses the anger which is everywhere these days. I think there’s a lack of communication because everyone is on their machines, their devices. God I sound really old!
What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?
Oh, I don’t really care. I mean, I’m going to have no control over it. I talked to my mum one day, not that long before she died, and Barbra Streisand’s Evergreen came on the radio. We love Barbra Streisand and she said, “I’d like that played at my funeral.” And I said you can’t have that, it’s really sad. And she said, “I don’t care, I’ll be dead.” And that’s exactly how I think about it — do what you want, I’ll be gone. She did have good food at her funeral, it was amazing. I left with my pockets stuffed on the train back to London.
And finally a quick fire five favorites …
Range Rover. Best car I’ve ever had. It’s my second one. I love it. And there’s my black convertible BMW three series from 1988 that I gave to one of my assistants. He still drives it in Liverpool.
I’m not sporty.
Definitely a bacon sandwich on white bread. No sauce, definitely with butter.
I would have to say my own really … but I haven’t got any hair. My favorite aftershave is Dior Sauvage.
Comme des Garçons. I still love Comme. It’s great.