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In Conversation With Joanne O'Neill

Meet Joanne O'Neill. Local hairdresser and team member of renowned hairstylist, Sam McKnight. Inspired by Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, a love of the avant-garde took Joanne to new heights. After exploring hair locally and through competitions, she would find herself working on runway shows for the likes of Chanel, Fendi and Dries Van Noten. We sat down and spoke to Joanne about her pathway into hairdressing, working as part of the McKnight team and the advice she would give to aspiring hairdressers.

Tell us a bit about your journey into hairdressing?

Back in the 80's, alongside school, I had a part-time job working in the family business at my dad's wallpaper shop. Across the road was a hair salon. I'd often watch the girls popping in and out in their colourful clothing, makeup and, most importantly, hair. I was passionate about music, art, fashion and design so I asked if I could join the salon for a week to explore this path as a career option. A week later I was hooked. The buzz, the smell, the artistry - I'd found my place.

After a while, although I loved working in the salon, I found it a bit creatively constricting. I tortured my boss Sticky Torrens (what a name) to help me enter an avant-garde styling competition. With the salon team behind me I managed to secure first place! It was a huge learning experience and the beginning of my infatuation with the avant-garde. I was keen to learn more but travelling back then was tricky. I was young for one, relying on my parents to drive me about, but more pressingly, Belfast wasn't the safest of places with the Troubles in full flight. However my determination to make my dream a reality couldn't be watered down. I grabbed the opportunity to get my driving license and started travelling to every available training session or competition in Belfast and Dublin. 

Competition opportunities came in fast from there on in. Through a successful entry I was selected for the London National Hairdressers Federation Hair artist team, lead by Wendy Cummins. This opened up a whole other world; travels to Germany, Italy and London to work on shows for product brands became the norm. Soon after I was selected by the Irish Federation President, Maeve O’Healy Harte, to act as a member of 'Intercouiffure Ireland,' which led to more trips. This time to Chicago and Paris to do international and world hair shows which led to a European Gold Medal.

A while later, I was invited to present at the 'Wella Studio' in Dublin where I met the likes of Sinead O’Sullivan and Cleo McCormack who invited me to become a Wella Guest artist. It was such a rewarding experience, with days spent conducting inspirational days for hairdressers who wanted to up-skill or learn about photo shoots.


It’s clear from your portfolio that you are passionate about the avant-garde, what drew you to this medium?

I have always loved the power that hair holds and the way in which a hairstyle can transform someone. Hair was my medium to create art and experiment, but admittedly, that desire wasn't satisfied in the realm of salon hairdressing.

I would pour over my boss 'Sticky's' Vidal Sassoon, Trevor Sorbie and Hairdressers' Journal books during my Saturday job in the local salon. It was Sticky that also introduced me to ‘The Alternative Hair Show,’ a title that speaks for itself. A while later, he took members of the Salon team to The Royal Albert Hall in London. Unfortunately my parents didn’t allow me to go, I was still in school at this stage, so the girls brought me back a book full of 'out there' hairstyles. You can imagine the excitement. I was finally seeing beyond the traditional hairdressing route. During that time you'd often find me in the local library, rifling through the editorial spreads of Vogue, Harpers Bazaar and I.D.

It was in these pages that I fell in love with photographers, Paolo Roversi, David Bailey, Nick Knight and David La Chapelle, and their collaborations with fashion designers, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. When I finally had the chance to put avant-garde hairstyling into practice I felt I had channeled my creativity. Through eclectic hair pieces and wigs I was able to experiment with colour and form all the while keeping the models happy as it didn’t involve their own hair!

Years later, I finally got the chance to attend ‘The Alternative Hair Show’ at the Royal Albert Hall London, but this time as a competitor, not as a viewer. Little did I know I'd be leaving the hall as the first person from Ireland to walk away with the Visionary award. 



When you approach a new collection, what does your design process look like?

More often than not I'll collaborate with photographers, designers, makeup artists and models. I'll start by putting together a brief to make sure we're all on the same page, then create a hairstyle, texture and form mood board. 

I predominantly draw inspiration from the past, pulling out shapes and textures that resonate with the brief. I've been collecting tear sheets and images since my love of hairstyling began - a bit of an old school way of doing things but it's not to be underestimated! Nowadays, Pinterest and Instagram seem to be the way forward. It's allowed me to see where others draw inspiration from, what influences them, what sparks a look, a trend. It makes the finished piece that bit more intimate. 

When it comes to competitions and runway shows, I practice the hairstyles, nothing is left to chance. I like to be very prepared. Things can change very quickly in these busy environments so you need to be able to adapt a look quickly. This is why preparation is key.


Of all the projects you have worked on what has been the most memorable and why?

Where to begin - there have been quite a few memorable moments along the way!

Most recently, I became a recipient of the 'Icon Award' by the Irish Hairdressing Federation, as well as having my hair imagery selected for the Erarta Museum of Art in St Petersburg for a global exhibition dedicated to hair art. 

But my most memorable moment to date has to be as part of Team McKnight. It's not everyday you get to walk into the Grand Palais in Paris for a Chanel runway show. And yes, the glass ceiling really is that spectacular!

In the middle of the voluminous space a mirrored runway sat, with organic curved seating stacked high in tiers, gently curving around the room's border. It was magnificent. Backstage was equally as graceful. Chanel's signature black and white palette touched everything, from the makeup chairs to the elegant mirrors.  And the catering table, even it was something to behold! Fresh coffee, croissants and a plethora of fruit - the Parisians know how to do breakfast!

Silently backstage sits, awaiting the humdrum and chitter chatter of onlookers voices out front. And then BOOM, the Grand Palais erupts. Models, makeup artists, hairstylists, photographers, the place is alive! 

The hair Sam McKnight created was called, ‘Misty Morning Romance’ to reflect Virginie Viard's idea of freedom - the core theme of her AW20 collection. Declaring liberation was the sort of "wind in the hair freedom that a horse rider feels as their steed bounds through the landscape," Viards collection saw tweed skirt suits, jodhpur pants and white lace blouses grace the runway. The only colour apparent was pink and a pale stem green, a nod to Coco Chanel's love of horse racing and the romantic, Edwardian attire that accompanied it. 

Using Sam’s signature 'Cool Girl Texture Spray' we created a romantic, half-back, French Chic hairstyle. Each model was carefully styled in a similar light with slight adjustments made to suit the models hair length and texture. Oversized Chanel black bows were added to create harmony between hair and garment. The finished look, an overall no-nonsense and unpretentious collection made for modern living. 




Who has had the greatest impact on you throughout your career? 

I have been fortunate in that I have met an abundance of creatively inspiring people throughout my hair journey. I couldn’t single out any one mentor as they have all guided and supported me in some shape or form.

What I have learnt though, through my mentors, is to routinely strive for self improvement and unashamedly aim to work with the best. And above all enjoy the work, you won’t be your best if you aren’t having fun!

You’ve worked with hairdresser Sam McKnight on runway shows for the likes of Balmain, Fendi, Chanel and Dries Van Noten, what did you learn from these amazing experiences?

Unsurprisingly, last year it was a very different Spring/Summer season in the fashion world. There were little to no audiences at the shows, with some collections streamed digitally. PPE, social distancing, sanitising stations and temperature checks became the new norm. It was a learning experience I don't think any of us anticipated. But we're adaptable us runway hairstylists so on we went!

Like with most runway shows you need to be prepared for rapid change and quick turnarounds, so despite the new precautions we plowed ahead and created some beautiful work. 

Just before lockdown I flew to Milan for the Fendi show at Fendi HQ. Silvia Venturini Fendi,  presented clothes inspired by family and personal reflection. It consisted of snug satin quilting and barely dyed, beautiful pale lace embroidered linens. The catwalk was lined with windows covered with sheer layers, creating gentle, moving casting shadows and reflections. 

The hair Sam McKnight Created was inspired by Hollywood Icon Merle Oberon. The models hair was up-swept into 30’s inspired rolls reimagined into a sleek, low up-do. Retro but modern. The hair had a clean middle parting with the lengths pulled into low ponytails at the nape secured with fine elastic.  The rolls were placed in a myriad of shapes and sizes which were chic and flattering. Finally the up-do's were finished with a spritz of 'Modern Hairspray,' a spray made to smell like Sam's McKnight's garden! So in that sense, I've learnt a lot about the finer details. 

After Milan I flew to Paris for the Balmain show. Designer Olivier Rousteing presented an amazing and powerful collection in 'Jardin des Plantes' in Paris. Millions of crystals and infinite pixels garnished the top to toe neon, black, white and grey printed ensembles. The form, a strong pointed shoulder up top with a relaxed denim bottom gave a seventies feel to the collection. 

This time Sam McKnight created the Ultimate French, 'Cool Girl,' power hairstyle. We created a side parting and blowdried the hair, directing the roots back off the face. Holding sections of the hair in s-bends and gently applying heat with a Dyson Styler we created ‘barely there’ waves. The hair was then sprayed with lots of 'Lazy Girl Texture Spray' by Hair by Sam McKnight to create a modern matt texture with volume & movement in the hair - another lesson in form construction and the techniques used to create the desired look. 

That was the last show before lockdown sadly so I really cherish that moment we watched the Balmain Army ( a troupe of well renowned models) disappear onto the runway. Through the dry ice filled night sky they reappeared, the wind in their hair, their presence demanding. It was thrilling! The front row audience was an ingenious virtual front row made up of large screens, where amongst others sat Cindy Crawford, Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian and Penelope Cruz. 



What advice would you give an aspiring hairdresser?

My advice for today's hairdressers is to educate yourself. Knowledge is power.  Learn the techniques of cutting hair and understand the science behind colouring. It’s simply not enough to think you know how to do hair without the knowledge to back it up.

Be prepared to work as a team and leave your ego at the door. In the runway world this is paramount. Timings are key and you will be expected to do anything and everything to have the models hair ready to go. Keep a tidy, reliable and good quality hairdressing kit. Learn to travel light and most importantly, have a bar of chocolate in your bag as you run from one show to the next!!

And, finally, if I've learnt anything it's to never turn down an opportunity - say yes! Network and collaborate with other creative people, photographers, fashion students, musicians, anyone you can. Take every opportunity to be creative and keep setting goals to strive towards!

There's no doubt about it, hairdressing work can be demanding and intense but the rewards outweigh any stresses once you see your work going down a runway! 


And finally, what does 2021 and beyond hold for you?

I have lots planned for 2021.

I will be working with Wella Professional UK & Ireland, creating content for online training programmes through Facebook and Instagram while I await the re-opening of the Wella Studios in Dublin and London. As well as this I'll be working with talented fashion designers on creative shoots. Hairdressers are going to be very busy once lockdown eases! My own Hair Salon specialises in bespoke Cut and Colour for private appointments so we're also preparing for that currently. 

But most of all I'm looking forward to seeing new emerging fashion trends and travelling with Sam and Team McKnight again when that time comes!



 Thanks Joanne for speaking with us, we wish you all the best for 2021 and can't wait to see more of your work on the runway! 

To see more of Joanne's work visit:


Picture Credit: Sam McKnight