Interview: Shonagh Marshall

Transcript: Curating with Hair

by Lou Stoppard .

Sam McKnight was part of a group of people who, in the seventies, moved away from just working in a salon. They travelled and were on set. I call it 'salon in a suitcase'!

Lou Stoppard: You're curating Somerset House's Sam McKnight exhibition. Tell me how it came about.

Shonagh Marshall: A great friend of mine, Tory Turk, was employed in 2012 to archive Sam McKnight’s collection. Over his 40-year career he’s kept all his tear sheets, press clippings, paper based material and ephemera. She [Turk] managed to archive it in just over a year, and when I went to her house and saw the collection all archived I just felt we had to do an exhibition. There was a bit of persuading on the Sam side - I don’t think it was something that he’d ever considered. A lot time, you see that creative people are considering their aim in life - their story in exhibition form - but Sam really wasn’t. On the eve of the Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore opening at Somerset House, I sold him this idea, the Sam McKnight exhibition. That was three years ago and it was initially going to be a smaller exhibition, in the East wing, but then as I started to research and develop the idea, the director of exhibitions just felt it had such gravitas that it should be in a space where it could be explored through more objects, with more space to breathe.

LS: What was it like to work on the exhibition?

SM: Sam’s is so prolific. He has worked for over 40 years non-stop and he has transcended time, so to get the story across is a real editing feat. In curating, part of the task is to really take the visitor on a journey. There are two main aims that are really overarching. One is to explore the context of hair within fashion. The other is to look at its role both socially and historically. Most people have hair, so it’s very very accessible. You can take an image of a catwalk model or an editorial shoot to your hairdresser and you can get it coloured, cut, styled in the same way, whereas you really can’t walk into Chanel and buy a boucle wool suit - it becomes a financial question. So, perhaps a third aim is to really train the visitor’s eye to consider hair and its role within the creation of an image. We’re very very used to going into retrospectives or grouped thematic shows on a photographer - that itself had to really gain its spot, much like contemporary art photography, which took many years to really become held up to great esteem, with respect for the craft and process and the artist behind it. The designer has obviously had a lot of time in the sun, and even the stylist now gets referenced and referred to often, for example with Penny Martin’s Simon Foxton exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery - there have been explorations of stylists’ work. But a major exhibition that looks at hair is quite different.

As a curator I was really drawn to this because I like to look at the untold stories. I also think it’s so great that it’s going to be in the Embankment Gallery and it’s being pitched as a major fashion exhibition because no one else has done that. There’s been lots of exhibitions on Vidal Sassoon for example, and there was an exhibition in Central museum that was about hair in fashion but they were very much focused on photography solely. If you look at Vidal, he was chained to a salon; this is a man who created a salon where you can go and have a very specific experience. But Sam McKnight was part of a group of people who, in the seventies, moved away from just working in a salon. They travelled and were on set. I call it 'salon in a suitcase'! Until then, models had always done their own hair and makeup; it wasn’t really a role that was on set. Sam worked at Molton Brown and British Vogue had been using lots of their stylists on shoots. One day, Kerry Warn couldn’t make it. He was working at Molton Brown with Sam so put him forward and Sam just got on so well with Liz Tilberis that he was invited back. This just launched into a totally new kind of journey for Sam and after doing it for a year he started to think ‘maybe I don’t have to do this in a salon, I could just do this on my own.’

Sam always feels the vibe. He really is very current, and with the zeitgeist - you see this, for example, with his use of social media and his views upon it. He talks about creating hairstyles for social media, like the A/W 16 Balmain wigs with Gigi Hadid being brunette and Kendall Jenner being blonde. That was an idea that worked so well on Instagram - the backstage and catwalk images went viral and that was because of the hair. So the transformative qualities are really amazing.

LS: What’s the role of hair within a fashion image?

SM: Sam really feels like it’s a finisher. The way he works is to be on set - he doesn’t like to fix a ‘do in his hair area just to come on to set and be like ‘that’s done’. He likes to see it transforming and reshaping itself in front of the camera. It’s all about his hands so he’ll always jump in. He talks really interestingly about the collaboration between hair and make-up; he says there’s always one that stands out, never both, and if it is both then it’s not working. He’s got these amazing relationships with Mary Greenland, Val Garland, Peter Phillips - he works with everyone. They’re really special relationships and he says that there’s always one shining through, either the makeup’s really statement-y or the hair is.

He’s all about movement. If you read press about him, for example in the early eighties, he’s the pioneer of a good cut, not only styling. He always talks about good cut, movement and flow and shape. He has certainly got a massive body of work that deals with the tousle like no-one else.

LS: People on the streets use their hair to make statements, say if you have a shaved head or coloured hair. How does that translate into the context of fashion - do you think Sam likes using hair as a way of being subversive or irreverent or even political?

SM: In some ways yes. I think Sam’s very mindful of communicating ideas through hair. He’s very mindful of the statement which it can make, however I feel he’s very much in tune to the person. I’m talking from personal perspective, in terms of looking at his body of work, I don’t think he’d do anything to someone if he thought it didn’t work for them. I think his relationships with his models over 40 years is extraordinary. I’d imagine they share secrets with him that they don’t share with anyone else, they love him so much. Nick Knight talks a lot about how, when he’s shooting with Sam, the girl comes onto set feeling amazing, she feels a million dollars, and he says that not every professional stylist makes people feel like that. Nick talks about how Sam will jump in and move or re-place the hair and the model relaxes, she lights up - he has a warmth about him. When Nick snaps away just as Sam’s moving out he says they’re always the best images. Modelling can become a bit dull, being sat there for half an hour at a time and when Sam pops in it just changes the dynamic.

To go back to political statements, he bleached and cropped Jenny Howarth’s hair and then Agyness Deyn’s hair. He cut off Honor Fraser’s hair and he’s done loads of work on Stella Tennant over the years. There’s a lot of moments - Madonna Bedtime Stories for example, or him working Princess Diana for ten years. I don’t know if they’ve been political statements but they’re personal statements. In doing what he did for Jenny, to Agyness, he made her a superstar! The first session he did with Princess Diana, was with Patrick Demarchelier, shooting for Vogue. He used her crown in that sitting to make her hair look a bit shorter, pushed it back off her face. It’s an amazing image of her sat on the floor with a white gown on, looking so natural and happy. At the end of the shoot Princess Diana asked Sam, ‘what would you do with my hair if you could do anything?’, and he said he’d cut it a bit shorter so she said, ‘go on’, and she sat down and had her hair cut by Sam. That began a relationship where he travelled the world with her, cutting her hair on state tours. I really wonder why she asked that - maybe it was a little test - but I really feel he gave her the honest answer because he really could see in his subjects what was going to bring out the best in them.

LS: We often talk about fashion photography and fashion garments setting trends. It must be the most amazing thing looking at Sam’s work because you can track societal changes, changes to women and how they view ideas of beauty.

SM: Some say that you can date an image much easier by looking at the hair than looking at a garment. I think when looking at Sam’s body of work you can see massive changes. Also, changes in technology is a big thing, and wet products like mousse or hairspray. With electrical products, it’s ginormous. Sam has 15 cases when he travels. When you’re lugging these across the world, a new hairdryer that’s got that amazing technology but is light and small is so important!

LS: Tell me about curating with hair.

SM: Sam and Eamon Hughes, who works with him are making a lot of wigs. Not only do these show the kind of tactility of what we’re talking about here, but it also shows the process. Video is also really helpful - they can really help the visitor understand the process. As can many other objects. I went to the studio the other day to see Sam preparing for the Chanel show and it was so captivating; they’ve got these stacked boxes of combs, brushes, bits of hair. They opened a comb box stacked full of combs. I was surprised that there were so many and Eamon laughed and said ‘well, every comb does a different thing’ - it’s like being a carpenter, these are the tools. It’s amazing how many brushes they’ve used, and how they’ve changed over time in 40 years. Eamon was talking about how the cool brush to use now is Japanese, really technical. You get trends in products as well as hair.

LS: Do you think Sam has a favourite style? I think he’s so good at hair that looks like it hasn’t been done.

SM: I agree, I think that he’s a real team player in the sense that it’s about getting the best image. It’s not about saying ‘here’s how great I am.’ But he is great. He’s so talented practically that he could kind of do anything. That kind of done-undone thing is nigh on impossible to achieve, it looks like nothing, but it’s so amazing - it’s what we all want our hair to look like!