One of my oldest friends is visiting me for a few days and as she’s already been to London a couple of times, we get to bypass the touristy things and focus on what we really love: art, food and fashion. I have had the Hair by Sam McKnight exhibit in the back of my mind for a while now, but with work and classes, I have’t had much time to go into the City unless I absolutely need to (my laptop hasn’t worked in over a month and I’ve yet to take it into an Apple Store – oy vey). Anyway, if you’re a fan of hair, fashion, Kate Moss, Chanel, Vogue, Vivienne Westwood, Lady Gaga or Princess Di, Sam is your man. He has worked with the biggest names in the fashion world and is truly an artist. We spent just over an hour here and I would honestly go back again to immerse myself in the beautiful worlds created with help from McKnight.
I worked at Somerset House in 2015 as part of an internship, so it was really lovely to go back for the exhibit. It’s a BEAUTIFUL building that always has so much going on and if you’re keen for a cup of delicious porridge or the best chai tea latte of your life, Tom’s Cafe is your spot. There are also work spaces available for rent for companies and free lancers, plus you get all these cool exhibits, so Somerset House is a really good place for creative types.
For the exhibit itself, you can enter through the Strand entrance via the courtyard, or on the other side opposite the Thames. You walk in and are immediately immersed in the hectic world of a runway show. Lighted mirrors and studio chairs line two walls with tables full of styling tools and products. Videos of models in the chairs having several sets of hands attending to every inch of their bodies are playing in each area, give you a feel for the madness that Sam’s endured while backcombing and crimping.
You then enter the world of Vivienne Westwood and the amazing wigs used for her shows over the course of several years. The exhibit opens by stating that hair is the finishing touch to an editorial shoot or runway that often gets overlooked, but is responsible for really pulling everything together and creating the look. Opening with Westwood really drives this point home as the bright colours, bold shapes and massive amounts of volume divert your attention from the strange forest and intricate fabrics that make up that portion of the space. The loud classical music helps set the whimsical tone, but let it be known that the hair is the real star.
Upon climbing a set of stairs, you’re immersed in an intimate space of polaroids and candid moments from the hair stylist’s personal collection. McKnight has worked with many models from their very humble beginnings, so he has naturally developed quite close relationships with them over the years. Quotes of his magical ability to ease and calm the models and make them feel special as he works with their hair are found throughout the exhibit, but are highlighted here. A room of editorial spreads follows, with looks done on Alicia Vikander, Tilda Swinton, Stella Tennant and Karlie Kloss found within the pages of a magazine and blown up to hang on the walls.
Tortured alt-punk music guides you into a room full of 10 massive posters highlighting the diversity of McKnight’s work on some of the biggest names in fashion. This area really highlights how well he works with the visions of a designer, makeup artisit or editor to convey the best possible story, often ending up with one that has changed as a result of McKnight’s influence. If you LIVE for crazy editorial shots, this is the room for you; it is INCREDIBLE to see some of my favourite images become even more captivating as they tower over me. You get wearable looks that really highlight the models themselves, but being able to see the impact of McKnight’s hair on the crazier shoots is truly a religious experience.
The next room is a digital experience as two screens demonstrate the hair’s movement with model Lily Donaldson and musician Bjork each getting their own screens. Both have certain fluidity, but both also tell completely different stories to show the wearable, lovely work McKnight has done as well as the zany, strange things he has brought to life.
The most incredible room comes next when a selection of the 190 Vogue covers McKnight has done for the publication from around the world. I counted 28 Kate Moss covers alone, but you also get your iconic Princess Diana shots mixed in with some Diane Kreuger, Miranda Kerr and Cara Delevingne. I spent 10 minutes sobbing in this room.
Following Vogue is a small tribute to McKnight’s work with Gaga and honestly, I had no idea he was behind two of my favourite looks from the Pop Icon: the lilac wig and Jo Calderon. A larger tribute to the late Princess Diana is in the next room, with signed candid photos, newspaper clippings and personal notes between the two friends showed alongside the most beautiful portraits. My friend and I attended the Diana exhibit at Kensington Palace the day before, so this was a perfect connection to that.
The last major parts of the exhibit are the two rooms dedicated to Chanel. The pink walls correlate well with the prints and pastel colours found in the clothes, wigs, sketches and editorial shots that make up this room. I remember the AW14 supermarket runway Karl Lagerfeld did for Chanel and apart from the strange setting, the hair really was a major point of interest for a long-time fan of the French fashion house. Upon seeing the wigs, I immediately recalled the rest of the looks because that’s how I was initially able to distinguish them. I finally fully appreciated what the exhibit set out to do: show people the important role of hair in the fashion world. For those of you who can’t recall the show, there’s a screening in a separate room that will fully immerse you in the world’s most fashionable supermarket.
The next two rooms finish where the exhibit began by reminding you of McKnight’s close relationships with the most iconic super models of our time. Snaps from his personal Instagram account makeup the wallpaper to one of the rooms, where a few select editorial spreads are hung on the walls. Kate Moss’s infectious laugh draws you into the final laugh as a video of the stylist at work plays in a room surrounded by more iconic shoots and in the end, we are reminded that McKnight has an impressive portfoli, but more impressive is the fact that he has developed these close, personal relationships and has been able to transition into the digital world. McKnight has embraced social media and shares BTS shots and styles on a regular basis, solidifying his relationships with the models of the moment and taking his fans along for the ride.