Meet the man who has dedicated 40 years to crafting art out of hair

Story highlights

  • "Hair by Sam McKnight" is a new exhibition and book dedicated to one of the world's leading hair stylists
  • In a career spanning 40 years, McKnight has worked with leading fashion designers, photographers, models and celebrities

Lisa Armstrong is Fashion Director of The Telegraph. This is an edited excerpt from "Hair by Sam McKnight," published by Rizzoli.

(CNN)The first rule of show hair: deep breathing.

When the designer calls for 60 identical black wigs in the final run-up and you have less than half that number, when a model arrives on her moped from a previous show with hair coiled into tiny braids and you have ten minutes to transform her into an '80s glamazon, when you've spent the last 24 hours dying and cutting those wigs and there are splashes of black splattered across your all-white Milanese suite...
Second, third and fourth rules: preparation, preparation, preparation.
    "With 40 to 100 girls on the runway, and overlapping schedules, it has to be meticulously planned," says Sam McKnight.
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    Picture the scene when the models do arrive -- and the creative choreography that unfolds around them: the makeup artists, the manicurists, the dressers, the stylists, the hairdressers, and the journalists prowling for instant quotes on next season's (make that this season, NOW) trends.
    It's a different world from his first fashion show -- in 1978 for the Emanuels.
    "I think there were four of us in total working on that production, in conditions best described as makeshift."
    These days he travels with a core team of twenty assistants that expands for bigger shows. Ideally he likes to have a discussion with the designer three weeks before. "It can be relatively specific --Tom Ford saying he wants an L.A. punk look -- or it can be more obscure."
    Vivienne Westwood might email him a portrait of Marie Antoinette, a Victorian child, and an African vase made from Coca-Cola cans in the expectation he'll pull the strands together in a single, exquisite, front-page holding image. And he does.
    "The finished results might end up having nothing to do with the original brief. What's helpful is to have a concept you can play with."
    Fendi's fauxhicans were the culmination of a riff that began when Karl Lagerfeld, a long-time collaborator with McKnight, said he wanted to incorporate some fur in the models' hair. A plait turned into the world's chicest feral Mohawks woven with mink.
    "They'll add a black eyebrow and you'll think that would look great if the Mohawk was purple... you build, and sometimes you take away."
    But not that often because bold statements work on social media and nowadays, hair is frequently a catalyst for an instant global conversation. When Olivier Rousteing asked McKnight to style Gigi Hadid in a dark wig and Kendall Jenner in a blonde one, the images were bouncing across social media before the show was over.
    Punks, princesses, pagans -- McKnight has created runway versions of them all, and always found a way to make them look beautiful. Nor is he fazed by today's pace.
    "Years ago shows were for press and buyers only. Now they're instant entertainment. Our work has become much more accessible."
    He likes that, too. As much as he loves an historical allusion, relishes research, and understands the cultural complexities of hair, he's just as happy creating simple, mussed up bedhead that any woman can copy—if she has 40 years experience and magic hands.
    In McKnight's world, simple is never that simple.