Hair by Sam McKnight brings hair to the forefront of contemporary culture. McKnight is truly a pioneer in his approach to hair, being the first session hairstylist, not tied down to the paradigm image or style of a particular salon. When addressing the assembled press, present at the opening of his exhibition, this unchallenged champion of hair was refreshingly humble, focusing on the importance of collaboration and transformation as the true essence of his illustrious career.

Hair by Sam McKnight, 2016 exhibition view at Somerset House, London.

Hair by Sam McKnight, 2016 exhibition view at Somerset House, London.

On entering the exhibition, we are confronted with a cabinet displaying his equipment, many of which we might use every day: Batiste dry shampoo, tangle teasers, straighteners, hair pins and Elnett. In fact, it is the commonality of the tools in his arsenal that set his skill in sharp relief. Products one might use just to avoid a catastrophic hair day, or to prolong the interval between washes, become the implements of alchemy in his hands. Moving through to the second room, the staging resembles the backstage of a catwalk show, where director chairs are placed in front of beauty mirrors, with specially commissioned footage of McKnight at work. As spectators, we are propelled into his world and his position, both physically and professionally. Looking further into the background of the shot we can see his team observing his every move, like pupils drinking in the technique of a master of fine art.

Hair by Sam McKnight, 2016 exhibition view at Somerset House, London.

Hair by Sam McKnight, 2016 exhibition view at Somerset House, London.

This leads us through to the first major installation, bringing together the many looks McKnight has created for Vivienne Westwood’s collections. The most striking part of this extraordinary piece is its homogeneity. The clothes transition seamlessly into the hair, which has absorbed Westwood’s iconic mix of punk, Elizabethan era, femininity, and other-worldliness. A flame red shock of hair sits atop an exquisitely embellished gown where the breasts are almost exposed and the skirt juts out from the bodice at an unsettling angle; to me, this is a deconstruction of Elizabeth I herself – sexuality, femininity, controversy, and power – reassembled with an unfamiliarity which makes the ensemble eternally modern.

Vivienne Westwood collection at Hair by Sam McKnight, 2016 exhibition at Somerset House, London.

Vivienne Westwood collection at Hair by Sam McKnight, 2016 exhibition at Somerset House, London.

One of the most thought-provoking themes of this exhibition was that of identity, and its interplay with hair. A circular atrium acts as the epicentre of the curation, with four iconic faces, Karlie Kloss, Tilda Swinton, Kate Moss and Stella Tennant, each presented in a quartet of portraits, each taking on a completely separate identity.

Hair by Sam McKnight, 2016 exhibition view at Somerset House, London.

Hair by Sam McKnight, 2016 exhibition view at Somerset House, London.

Kloss moves from a psychedelic Marie-Antoinette, to a sixties vixen, to a Miss Hyde version of Daisy from The Great Gatsby, to a more recognisable, dishevelled, yet impossibly glamorous supermodel. This evolution of her identity in these images is reflected and created by her hair. Swinton undergoes a similarly shocking metamorphosis from a flurry of russet curls, to an eerie blond chop, through an ageing brown set of short, tight curls, to finish at the unmistakable revocation of David Bowie. These progressions depict the power of hair in deconstructing and exploring identity in a way words might never be able to convey.

Chanel collection at Hair by Sam McKnight, 2016 exhibition at Somerset House, London.

Chanel collection at Hair by Sam McKnight, 2016 exhibition at Somerset House, London.

Above all, ingrained in the exhibition and the man himself is McKnight’s humility and reverence for truly great art. An entire room is dedicated to collaborative works with makeup artists, designers, photographers, and stylists. It is an homage to the old proverb that the whole is so often greater than the sum of its parts.

Hair by Sam McKnight is open until 17th March 2017 at Somerset House, London.

Words: Flora Walsh

Copy edited by Elena Stanciu