Talking with a modern beauty legend: Sam McKnight

When one of MECCA’s superlative PR team asked me if I had anyone I’d like to interview and I said “Sam McKnight!”, I presumed it was a pipe dream. After all, the man is a modern beauty icon, and a ridiculously busy one at that. After decades in the industry, he’s still creating magic backstage and on set, working with some of the world’s most stylish women and sitting at the head of his hugely successful, eponymous hair product company.
As well as creating the kinds of hair products you wondered how you ever lived without, he and his team had the time to dream up the Balmain Vertibow - inspired by the Balmain of the 50s and 60s subverted into the next century – for the house’s recent runway outing, and he also spends considerable hours tending to his gorgeous garden and four-month-old pup.
But it wasn’t long before I was doing exactly that – chatting to the inimitable Mr. McKnight via Zoom one morning, and realising we both had a print of Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl - mine found on Trade Me, Sam’s found in a flea market thirty years ago – on our walls.

You were in Australia not too long ago I believe, was the trip for business or pleasure?
I was there to shoot a campaign with the lovely Ms. (Cate) Blanchett, she had just finished a film there and we were asked to meet her in Australia. I was absolutely delighted. I have New Zealand on my list to travel to one day too, one of my oldest and best friends lives on Waiheke Island. They have been there for twenty years, and I still haven’t gone, but rest assured I’m going to do it, it’s just a matter of finding the time. It’s high up on my list.

You’ve also literally just come back down to earth at working the fashion week circuit I see, including at Balmain where you created those incredible vertical hair bows. Are you ever tempted to just sit it out, the frenetic nature of backstage looks exhausting!
No, because that’s how it is and I absolutely love it, it’s great. We do really well, and we are very calm in the eye of the storm. That’s just how my team and I work. It’s an incredible energy to be a part of. However, since the pandemic, I’ve realised I don’t want to be doing twenty shows a week – six is fine with me. Twenty is superfluous to me now, and after the pandemic the company streamlined things a lot, just like everybody else. It’s about taking time to enjoy the moment, to smell the roses as they say.

And you have a fabulous garden filled with roses, so you can speak from experience.
I learnt that from having a garden. It is about taking the time, enjoying the seasons and what you’re doing, making the most of it. When I was younger it was all about how much I could squeeze into a day, I started in the business when I was 16. I don’t want to be doing the same things as I was doing when I was 30, 40, 50, and now I have the space to create a really successful business doing what I love. Using my heritage to continue working but in a different way, if that makes sense. I don’t want to stop what I’m doing, but it’s more about the quality than the quantity these days.

The products that you have created over the last few years, have they come out of a need backstage during a runway show, or from the needs of real women? The “realway” if you will…
They have all come from real life needs because I don’t just do runway. Runway takes my focus maybe six times a year, but the rest of my time is taken up with photo shoots, real people, actresses… even my runway hair usually has an element of reality to it. My runway looks are about making high fashion looks that have a simplicity or ease to them, my idea of beauty is an approachable, natural glamour. That’s why I’m so inspired by Kate Moss because she has a real relatability for people, that feeling that you could almost be that person. That’s the kind of hair I like to portray.

What sort of check list did you go into product formulation with, any non-negotiables?
When we were formulating the products, it was essential that they all had a light feel to them, because a lot of the products I had been using were getting very heavy. We were having problems with them backstage, and I thought, if we were having problems with them then people out in the real world would be having the same. Models generally have terrible hair because it gets so tortured, so they are great guinea pigs for new products. If it works on them, it’ll work on anyone.

What is the next release in the works?
We have a few things in the pipeline that we are really excited about, including some that have never been done before. And like the existing line-up, they are all products that we personally use and need on set and backstage. That’s all I can say!

Kate Moss on the cover of Vogue UK, May 2016 - hair by Sam

Do you have a product that you would say is the one you’re most proud of?

It would have to be Cool Girl Barely There Texture Mist, because it’s been so phenomenally successful. It was our runaway success story for so many reasons: it’s light, easy to use and it works. I thought our Modern Hairspray was going to be the big hit, but Cool Girl has been such a hit that we’ve extended our Cool Girl offering into a growing collection. Someone sent me a clip of Bill Nighy at the recent Oscars name-checking Cool Girl Barely There – on SKY News!

Do you have a client you’ve worked with who is your ultimate inspiration?
Kate Moss was always in my mind when we created Cool Girl because to get that kind of look on Kate’s fine hair was such a process. We would have to wet it, put wet stylers in it, then dry and style it… we wanted something that worked instantly on dry hair that wouldn’t weigh it down. We created that and the Modern Hairspray and the Easy Updo because they were going to cut our styling time by twenty minutes backstage in an instant.

Last question, can you think of a woman - living or dead -whose hair you would really love to get your hands on?
I would have loved to have given the queen a makeover, although I have total respect for how she used her non-changing hair as an incredible steadying influence on the country. That’s the power of a great hairdo, right there. It would have been nice in private to have given her a blow dry or something though (laughs).


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