When I interviewed Sam McKnight last year, I was most interested in his relationship with Karl Lagerfeld. McKnight had a deeply personal connection with the German-born designer, working with him on every single Chanel show for over 10 years, not to mention countless photoshoots and Chanel campaigns. I was fascinated by the way Karl worked solus, but also how he worked with others. “He’ll send a beautiful drawing and I’ll interpret that,” McKnight explained to me. “I’ll take that drawing, and from that, I will kind of get his tone.” But that sketch could be as abstruse as a few scrappy lines on a page. “Sometimes it will be really vague – just a few lines – and sometimes be really specific, and I’ll kind of get where here’s going from that.” Working upwards from a scribble seems flawed. But for McKnight, it was all just part of the process, it was the way they worked as this kind of formidable, intuitive team.
Lagerfeld, who was “involved in everything – very much so,” trusted McKnight wholeheartedly. He would hand over his idea, then let Sam bring it to life – with a little artistic banter in-between. The hair looks would come down to a creative back-and-forth, often through digital bytes, where McKnight would get a girl in his London studio, do a few looks on her and send the pictures through to Paris. Then the inevitable waiting game, followed by: “Has he made up his mind yet?” And when he did, it was on. And it was magic.
One such example was Chanel’s 2018 Spring runway. Karl reimagined the Gorges du Verdon with mossy slabs, sprawling pine and six running waterfalls inside the Grand Palais. Lagerfeld said to him, “We’ll just do a simple ponytail.” But of course, a simple pony it was not. A tube of perspex, a splash of water and a vacuum later, and Chanel’s perspex pony was born. An inspired take on Lagerfeld’s sketches of the waterfall set, it was reflective of this true creative camaraderie and an insight into the inner mechanisms of the Lagerfeld machine.
When McKnight published a tome of his work two years ago, he asked Lagerfeld whether he would write a few words about their journey. He said yes, willingly. The words that followed were so kind, so generous, so profound, McKnight was truly taken aback. He spoke of McKnight as an “artist”, because “hairdresser is the worst word I can imagine.” He called him “gifted” and “so open-minded”, a quality he said escaped many of the “gifted ones”. He spoke of their “special game together,” and “as a photographer and as a designer you feel more gifted if he is around.”
In this outpouring, one particular phrase struck me: “He is by instinct also motivated by the pressing issue of modernity. Nothing is ever “retro” with him. He can reinvent hairstyles and periods with a fresh and renewed eye. His mind has the necessary aesthetic renewal so important in our world of fashion. Beauty is for him something outside of all orders of convention. This is what makes Sam unique.” Interestingly, this is exactly how I feel about Karl.
I never met Karl Largerfeld, but I adored him. As a pure fan of fashion, I had an admiration for him hard to describe. Of course, working in this industry, to meet the man behind the myth was a dream for many, myself included. I used to pore over his art, zoom in on his intricacies, revel in the his splendour. Even from a glance, his discernible eye for detail was great. It was like every single thing had its place, every tiny detail contrived and considered. Not a beat was missed, and I loved that. He was ruthless in his quest for his own kind of perfection, an unapologetic mercenary who knew what he wanted and executed it with the utmost clarity. But with this level of genius, these “gifted ones” summon a certain level of drama. They are notoriously fussy, difficult to work with, obnoxious, blinkered and narrow-minded in their creative pursuit. But according to those who knew him intimately, Karl was anything but this. Not only a paragon of creativity, but a gentle, funny one, at that.
Beyond the tweed twin-sets, quilted handbags and little black dresses, was a gentle fashion giant. For all those who knew him (and there were may), a similar sentiment arises: kind, mischievous, whip-smart, generous. A calm, quiet genius with a rapier wit and wicked sense of humour, his was a true gift of repartee. He was also deeply respectful to his craft. Something which McKnight cites in his process, I see in his work. Assuming the position of one of the most storied houses in fashion history, he never forgot where the house came from. Sure, he dismembered her slightly, but he kept her skeleton in tact. Despite casting afresh the codes of the house, the true Chanel-isms lived on, albeit through his own, unique lens. Unlike others whom have taken the reigns of legacy brands and ripped their sartorial semiology – and heart – apart, Karl had respect for his predecessor and her ideology. He had once noted that she would “hate” him, had they ever crossed paths, but sartorially, they stood in solidarity. He kept alive what she so firmly believed in: creative provocation, liberal freedom, modernity – but also reimagined the canvas with newfound rigour. And like Coco Chanel, he too was a revolutionary, a formidable force with a restless, fecund imagination.
Through art and fashion, we saw glimpses of this brilliant, pulsing imagination. 54 years at Fendi. 36 years at Chanel – a feat which seems utterly unfathomable in the context of our collective restlessness – saw a montage of pure, bouclé magic. From the puffy taffeta gowns of 1999 to the Parisian pea-coats of 2017, or even the simple gesture of nimble-footed models removing their plexiglass heels to walk on Karl’s soft sand last year, it’s a reel worthy of greatness. The eternal vagabond, he took us to places we could only dream of. Our ephemeral passport heavy with the stamps of Scotland, Seoul, Havana, Cuba. We even ventured back in time, revisiting Antiquity in coloured column heels and refashioned togas, and set off in space, in Karl’s rocket ship. Even the mundane was rendered with beauty; remember le supermarché? A Chanel-only line-up of Cheetos, tinned soups and milk lined thy hallowed halls of his market place. Then of course, the iceberg. A giant iceberg shipped from Scandinavia to the Grand Palais for Cruise 2019. And a beautiful, rare moment of introspection, a trip back to where it all began; his hometown of Hamburg.
A ceaseless worth ethic – six collections a year at Chanel, plus Fendi and his eponymous label – he tempered his one great fear of being bored with a rampant zest for life – and fashion. Even in his old age, he looked zingy, spirited, cheeky. I used to feel tired looking at his body of work. He would walk out, show after show, season and season, and I would think, how does he do it? It was exhausting but exhilarating all the same.
I loved his voracious creative appetite, his attention to detail, his drama. Every few months, I would wait for his spectacular Chanel spectacle. Unlike other fashion shows, the whimsy did not come from clandestine locations, underground art galleries or artistic collaborations. It was always the same: the Grand Palais. The tweed. The 2.55. But it was different, every single time. He transported you to places inside his imagination. He’d pepper them with colourful moments you’d likely never experience. You danced the conga down the paseo in Havana. You sailed the high seas aboard ‘La Pausa’. Heck, you even went to the moon wearing knee-high, toe-capped glitter boots. It was pure fashion escapism. It was pure escapism full stop. Unlike a vacation gone wrong – lost passport, bad company, inclement weather – you’d never have a bad time. And even when it rained, he had water-wicking raincoats and plastic bonnets on hand. How you can top that?
You really can’t tell a lot from the back of someone’s head. But when you can, you know they are special. That low-slung silver ponytail as iconic as the black sunglasses and starchy white collars; Karl was a man of all angles. In what Vanessa Friedman describes as “the orchestrater of his own myth”, he played up to this caricature of himself with the kind of finesse one would expect of a consummate perfectionist. That cigarette denim, the fingerless gloves, the Cuban-heeled boots; the myth became the man, and I loved this.
At the end of Karl Lagerfeld’s foreword in Hair By Sam McKnight, he concludes: “Thank you, Sam, for what you are and what you give us all. Much love, Karl.”
Today, Sam McKnight paid tribute to his friend. “Thank you Karl, for what you are, and what you give us all. Much love, Sam.”
Karl, I did not know you, but I would have liked to. I – we – fashion – will never be the same. Now, take your Cuban heels and walk straight into heaven. You have someone by the name of Gabrielle to meet.