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'I would love to work with Duchess of Cambridge, she has amazing hair'

As an exhibition of his work begins its run, hairstylist Sam McKnight tells Emma McCarthy about his friendship with Princess Diana and working with the icons of the fashion industry

This week the great and the good of fashion piled into the Great Arch Hall at Somerset House. Not to attend a London Fashion Week show or to visit an exhibition of one of their photographer friends, but to marvel at the work of one of the industry's most influential hairstylists.

While hair has long been considered a sideline of the fashion machine, the decision to honour one of its stylists speaks volumes. Of course, Sam McKnight - a man who has manipulated the manes of everyone from Princess Diana to Madonna - is no ordinary hairdresser.

We meet in his studio days before the exhibition. Our conversation takes place around a flurry of wigs and hard-working assistants who preen hairpieces at his command as we talk.

Despite his legendary reputation, McKnight is still humbled by what lies ahead. "Somerset House asked if I would be interested in doing an exhibition and of course, you're not going to say no, are you?" he tells me. "It had never been done before; there's never been such a big exhibition on hair. It was a no-brainer really. It was an honour."

McKnight (61) was born in Ayrshire, Scotland. His father was a coal miner, his mother worked at the local Co-Op and he held down a job as a window cleaner before picking up his first pair of hairdressing scissors at the request of a group of friends who ran a salon.

"My friends owned a hair salon, a disco and an American-style diner - it was the mid-seventies and that post-sixties Woodstock Americana thing was happening," he reminisces. "I ended up working at the salon on Saturdays to make a bit of money. First I was driving the van, and then I ended up cutting hair."

It was on his first trip to the capital that McKnight's career goals crystallised: "Coming to London was my light-bulb moment. I'm from a small town and it was the classic cliché - bright lights, big city. London had a spark."

Two years later and true to his word, McKnight made the capital his home. Following stints at a succession of high-profile salons, including Molton Brown during its mid-seventies heyday, he "started to work for Vogue and I must have done something right because they asked me back, and I'm still going back to this day".

Ask anyone in the know to name the most prolific hairdresser working in the fashion industry right now and they'll give you McKnight's name. But despite the "industry's first session stylist" tag, his career has been far from one-dimensional. Moving to New York in the early 1980s, McKnight secured representation with leading agency Bryan Bantry and was introduced to stylists Liz Tilberis and Lucinda Chambers, who were instrumental in hiring him for work on high-profile editorial shoots.

Along with his magazine work - an occupation that has spanned more than four decades and more than 100 Vogue covers - he is also the go-to stylist for a host of catwalk designers, including Karl Lagerfeld, who would entrust his countless collections for Chanel and Fendi to no other hairstylist.

Is King Karl as contrary as his reputation suggests? "He's not difficult at all. He's lovely, he's funny and very, very clever. And so polite." McKnight's complimentary words are reciprocated by Lagerfeld in the foreword to a book charting McKnight's career, to be published by Rizzoli alongside the exhibition.

But Lagerfeld is not McKnight's only celebrity supporter. In fact, his CV reads like the VIP list at Annabel's, name-checking everyone from Madonna to Lady Gaga and Tilda Swinton. His most famous client was Princess Diana, whom he met by surprise on the set of a Vogue shoot. "We were doing shots of young society ladies and had one more person to do," he explains. "I didn't even think to ask who it was, and suddenly this leggy blonde who was all smiles came bounding into the room."

It was on that day that McKnight cut off Diana's hair, creating the cropped style that would be copied all over the world. "It was all about timing. She wanted a change and I happened to be there," he shrugs. From that day on, he would become the princess's personal stylist.

"Diana was lovely. It was a funny, eventful seven years. We laughed a lot. Everything about her was iconic. Everything she touched was iconic. Women like her are few and far between. She was the most photographed woman in the world for years. She was beautiful, young, royal and tragic at the end. She had all the ingredients for a true icon."

What does he make of the Duchess of Cambridge? "Kate Middleton is very different. It's a very different time. I think everyone has learned not to put that sort of pressure on someone - it did get out of control. I'd love to work with her. She's great. She's got amazing, extraordinary hair."

We move on to another Kate - Ms Moss, who has McKnight to thank for her signature rock-chick bedhead.

"Kate is … she's just great," he smiles. "She brings so much to the shoot. These girls work so hard. They're not around for 20 years for nothing. Kate's very involved in the process and loves getting into character. She won't leave the shoot until the best shot that can be done is done. We have a lot of fun too."

He tells me about a time he and Moss arrived in St Barts to shoot a story for Vogue, only to find that the airline had mislaid their bags. "We had no equipment, no clothes, Val Garland had no make-up, nothing," he says. "We ended up filling a bottle with sea water and spraying her hair with that and letting it dry in the sun. It was a fantastic shoot. It was on the cover."

McKnight counts Naomi Campbell as a close friend, too. "Naomi and I go way back. I've known her since she was 15. She's wonderful, love her," he says. And he is equally well versed in the new generation. "Kim, Kendall, Gigi, Cara - these are the icons of our time. They're pioneers of the social media world. They've made it their own."

Do they have the same staying power? "It would be incredible if they did. Social media is very powerful but it's also very disposable. Nothing seems to last. But they've been around for a while now; they're not a flash in the pan. Time will tell."

While McKnight may have long swapped the salon floor and the daily cut and blowdry grind for supermodels and session styling, it is hair and its ability to shape the way a person carries themselves that remains his passion, whether it happens to be on the head of a celebrity or not.

"You can say a lot with your hair, without actually saying anything at all," he says. "It's the most adaptable asset we've got. It has transformative powers."

Undoubtedly, McKnight has carved a whole career from pioneering such transformations. Is the Somerset House retrospective a sign that he is planning on slowing down?

"I'll never stop," he laughs. "I'll go on until I'm chucked out."

  • Hair by Sam McKnight at Somerset House runs until March 12, 2017

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