21-Jul, 17:45

10:57, November 02 118 0

2016-11-02 10:57:15
‘Hair by Sam McKnight,’ the Story of an Image Maker

LONDON — Somerset House, the lavish palace perched on the banks of the Thames River that houses restaurants, the Courtauld Institute of Art and numerous galleries, has been home to exhibits on Big Bang Data, Bjork and the possibilities of a future Utopia. But until this week it had never been a frame for … hair.

On Wednesday “Hair by Sam McKnight” was unveiled, a retrospective on 40 years of cutting, drying and pinning artistry by the Scottish stylist, and the first show to contextualize the critical role of the hair guru in shaping today’s fashion industry. It is testament to his position as one of the most important image makers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with more than 190 international Vogue cover credits to his name.

Indeed, Mr. McKnight has had a hand in shaping and shifting our perceptions of some of the most recognizable people of the modern age, including Diana, Princess of Wales, Madonna, Tilda Swinton and Lady Gaga. He was responsible for the hair color swap between Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid in March at the Balmain show in Paris that went viral on social media, as well as Lady Gaga’s extensions the night she wore a dress of meat to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards.

“The transformative power of hair — how quickly and easily it can turn you into something or someone else — has always fascinated me. It keeps fascinating me today,” said Mr. McKnight, 61, who left his small Scottish village for London in the mid-1970s. After early stints as a window cleaner, van driver and teacher trainee, he realized he had a talent for hair after taking a Saturday job in a friend’s salon.

A devotee of British Vogue, he soon took a job at Molton Brown, because he had noticed in the magazine’s editorial credits that it often used stylists from the brand’s original salon for editorial shoots. A career as a session stylist followed.

“The empowerment factor of a person’s most adaptable asset is a big part of what attracted me to, and has kept me on, this path for the last four decades,” he said. “Hair doesn’t just change the way you look. It can change the way you feel, too. That is an amazing thing to be able to control.”

Perhaps it also explains why women like Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Kate Moss are not only Mr. McKnight’s work colleagues but his friends, as evidenced by the scattering of playful personal snapshots throughout the galleries. (The exhibition runs through March 12.)

Mr. McKnight said he had been struck by the generosity of his longtime friends and collaborators, many of whom had contributed to the project. “So many of the people photographed here are like family to me, part of my world and what I do,” he said. He added that the show was not his idea and that he had been approached by curators at Somerset House.

To that end, much of the exhibition is devoted to showcasing the many hands — the model, photographer, set designer and stylist, as well as hair and makeup artist — that contribute to a final, showstopping look.

The first exhibition room, for example, is set up like the backstage of a fashion show, full of styling equipment, glass cases with wigs that reveal step-by-step techniques for different techniques, and canned chatter on the soundtrack; the results are then shown on mannequins with gravity-defying styles decked out in 1990s Vivienne Westwood.

A later gallery centers on instantly recognizable photographs, the result of relationships between Mr. McKnight and the industry’s best-known stylists and photographers such as Nick Knight and Patrick Demarchelier, while the final room is devoted to his work with Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel.

“Sam is by instinct motivated by the pressing issue of modernity. Nothing is ever ‘retro’ with him,” Mr. Lagerfeld wrote in the foreword to a book charting Mr. McKnight’s career, published by Rizzoli as an accompaniment to the exhibition. The two men have worked together since 2009, creating the hair for six Chanel catwalk shows a year and related advertising campaigns. “He can reinvent hairstyles and periods with a fresh and renewed eye.”

Still, amid the photographs, sketches, wigs and documents of his career — part of the most comprehensive show to date to celebrate the role of a hair stylist in the coifing of contemporary culture — Mr. McKnight sounded a note of nostalgia.

“Sometimes I wonder if we’ve lived through the golden age of fashion and beauty,” he said. “We can work for days and days on creating a certain look for a project, just like we always have. But today, that snapshot can be tapped, ‘liked’ and discarded in seconds. Who knows what could be next?”