“We wanted to pick apart what it takes to make an image,” announced curator Shonagh Marshall to a roomful of (predominantly) women at Somerset House earlier this week, ahead of the preview for her latest exhibition.
As anyone who’s been privy to the set of an editorial or commercial fashion shoot will attest – and anyone who’s thumbed the credit list of a magazine page can confirm – what exactly it takes to create an image is, generally speaking, a big team. Photography by X, styling by Y: Hair By Sam McKnight.
It’s the latter which struck Marshall’s interest – and which claims the title – for the show at the Embankment Galleries, in which all areas of a hairstylist’s career gain a nod: the exhibition begins salon style with large mirrors spelling out the installation’s moniker, and concludes with a Mason Pearson pop-up in the gift shop (the brush being the stylist’s chief tool, if you will).
Thought up three years ago while exploring McKnight’s archive, Hair By… is a professional retrospective unpacking a 40 year career (you’ll find no baby photos or pre-teen quotes); despite a section labelled ‘Intimacy’ and multiple references to social media, these remain in relation to the industry, of which Sam is a celebrated and in demand figure. Which is not to deduct anything from the relationships he has made throughout the last four decades; collaboration in creation is key, after all.
“When models work with Sam,” recognises Vivienne Westwood in the section under her name, “you can see they are in heaven. They know that they are going to be goddesses in ten minutes, after he has worked his magic.” Reaffirming the friendship nearby a spread from a 2004 edition of Harpers & Queen sees McKnight note of the designer: “Vivienne Westwood is as insane as she is brilliant… I admire her for not being affected by what’s going on around her.” If that doesn’t impress in the same space is a three part ‘how to’ that’ll make the best beauty blogger ask questions.
Elsewhere upstairs, full colorama sized fashion images are accompanied by testimonies from photographers and stylists McKnight has worked with – Nick Knight and Edward Enninful amongst them – while a whole section is given to Sam’s personal albums: snaps with supermodels in exotic locations, polaroids from the make-up artist’s chair, mid-‘do shots of Sam at work on Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Stella Tennant from the 2012 Olympics. If nothing else confirms the weight of the stylist’s career (and there are newspaper clippings and ID cards from his time with Princess Diana to prove this isn’t the case), his presence within the supermodel segment for London’s closing ceremony shines an epic light.
Downstairs we’re let behind the scenes, sort of, with a series of videos and lightbulb clad dressing table situ’s (for anyone who’s wondered what goes on backstage during fashion week, these offer some perspective from Fendi and Dries Van Noten); a five tier glass cabinet hosts McKnight’s case of tricks, while on the wall nearby 26 combs (framed) could be mistaken for a piece of art.
Numerous wigs make for a Hansel and Gretel trail throughout the space – pastel coloured hair ‘bows’, a yellow Lichtenstein inspired number, and a selection of multicoloured hairpieces compressed in a glass case; others sit on a series of mannequins, ten of them in the mammoth Chanel space which boasts Wes Anderson worthy pink walls with matching stairs and chairs, followed by a viewing room (more pink chairs) and a video from one of the many Karl Lagerfeld productions McKnight has collaborated on.
“This career didn’t exist when I was a boy,” stated the man of the moment at the informal press conference, a noteworthy detail when, later in the show, visitors are greeted by walls smothered with his Instagram feed-as-wallpaper (the handle @sammcknight1 has over 100,000 followers). Today the career not only exists, but is sought after: haircuts make headlines, hairstylists are flown across the world for their talents, fans click and scroll to keep up with the latest on the reg.
Like many fashion exhibitions today then, Hair By Sam McKnight – which claimed ample hashtags, location tags and Insa hearts from the off – invites a contemporary audience to celebrate the tangible elements of a trajectory more commonly glanced on the page or, increasingly, the screen. And it does so without the awkward moments found at your local hair salon.