Interview by Iké Udé
Stephen Jones is a milliner extraordinaire. His finely wrought hats are wildly imaginative and exceptional in form and sheer virtuosity. Even a relatively standard issue Stephen Jones hat embodies that je ne sais quoi.
He designs a broad array of hats for various occasions—ranging from ones for Ascot, weddings, picnics to wedding hats and headdresses.
Born in the Wirral Peninsula in Cheshire, England, Jones was educated Liverpool College and attended the famed Central St. Martins. He was a habitué of Blitz nightclub, then London’s heady hothouse of creativity. Talents such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Isabella Blow, Boy George, and members of such musical groups as Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, frequented the Blitz and would become some of his early clients who bought his hats. Indeed, it was none other than the Blitz owner, Steve Strange who championed his first millinery salon, which met with resounding success.
By the 80s, Diana, Princess of Wales had become a regular client and Victoria & Albert Museum commissioned him to execute hats expressly for the newly refurbished Museum’s Costume Court. He’d collaborated and designed hats expressly for the likes of Dior, Commes des Garcons, Thierry Mugler and Marc Jacobs, in addition to designing hats for Madonna; Mick Jagger; Nicole Kidman; Boy George; Christina Aguilera; Usher; Marilyn Manson; and Dita Von Teese. He also exclusively designed Kylie Minogue’s “Showgirl” tour.
The Antwerp, Belgium based Mode Museum is now home for largest collections of Jone’s exquisite hat collections. He’s been the recipient of numerous awards, including Outstanding Achievement Award by the British Fashion “Oscars” ceremony. And to be sure, his radically impressive work earned him the royal appointment, Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2010.
Your hat pieces are obviously not for the masses or for quotidian purposes. How would you characterize your particular type of practice as a milliner?
In fact all my hats are for daily use, it just depends what sort of day you are having. Obviously a haute couture hat is for a couture occasion, but even among those, I make hats for the beach or après ski. But it is true that most of my handmade hats are worn for special events. My diffusion collections, Miss Jones and Jonesboy, do have a simpler aesthetic though and absolutely are made for everyday, days of style and chic.
How do dream up or realize your literally FANTASTIC headpieces or hats?
My design process is quite lengthy and actually my greatest pleasure. Most seasons start with a theme which is somewhat autobiographical. For example this winter’s collection is called Topsy- Turvy which is based on a Comme des Garcons bag I bought. It’s made all inside out, and I though why? Then I realized in Rei’s mind, why not? And at the time I felt very topsy-turvy too! So the hats were upside down and inside out. A Russian fur hat made in transparent fabric with orchid embroidery, an outline of a hat in rhinestones, a felt fedora using straw plaiting techniques. I research, sketch, toile and then my workrooms make the final hat.
Is there a methodology or philosophical framework within which you work?
Yes there is in making of collections. Fashion by its very nature is exclusive, but I try to make my collections as inclusive as possible. Nevertheless, my hat’s ultimate and simple purpose is to make people look and feel good and enable them to be the person they want to be.
It’s as if suddenly you discovered the poetics of hats for our present age. Considering that beautiful hats were relatively ubiquitous, once as important as beautiful clothes and shoes, what explains the long absence and decline of hats such as yours until you entered the picture?
Hats experienced a big decline in the fifties and sixties. Post war freedom expressed itself in more casual clothes and hats seemed to represent conservatism and etiquette. Of course there were fashion hats too but even they were less ubiquitous. I think in the early eighties there was a sea-change in hats. Vivienne Westwood started to create hats for young people, Diana, Princess of Wales was a hat-wearing modern icon and I started to make statement hats for young fashionable club goers. My hats were playful and told a story, an adventure in design I hoped!
“I always think a hat is not finished until it is worn…”
Do you sometimes alternate between working from a sketch and working directly from memory?
I never really work from memory, I sketch or toile directly in muslin.
What are your favorite materials for your designs?
Sometimes new fabrics, sometimes old. Plastics and metals, electronic and novelty fabrics are fascinating and make a wonderful effect but the traditional ones like white cotton or black velvet are totally relevant too. What is more charming as a straw in summer and as appropriate as a fur in winter?
And when you employ mixed media what are some of the winning combinations that you use?
There is a hat in the Hats exhibition called Tourist Trap, which has straw, glass, shells, wood, feathers, silk and glass on it. Is that enough?
How did Geert Bruloot, by far, the biggest collector of your work—having more than 200 of your hats—became passionately so interested in your work?
He owned a shop called Louis in the eighties in Antwerp, where he promoted the Belgian designers he had discovered: the Antwerp 6. In 1985 we were introduced by Vicki Sarge from the jewelers Erickson Beamon and he started to stock my hats. Unfortunately Belgians don’t really wear hats, but he loved them as objects in themselves and proceeded to buy them as a collector instead.
How often does he buy from you and are there comparable collectors such as him who collect your work with such zeal and dedication?
He buys maybe five from each model millinery collection twice a year. I have other extremely local clients. Sueyoshi Nishimura in Japan, Deborah Quinn in Australia, Julia Muggenburg in London, and of course Anna Piaggi in Italy. But Geert really is the ultimate.
Are there instances when he’d specifically commissioned hats from you or does he always buy whatever is available?
Normally from the collection, but sometimes I develop certain themes for him. He has a shoe shop now so I made him a series of shoe hats based on modern interpretations of Schiaparelli’s shoe hat
Are there hierarchical scales in the quality and artistry of your hats?
Not really but the diffusion ranges have a simpler aesthetic.
You also work in the fine tradition of a fashion couturier designing commissioned pieces for specific clients. In this context, how much input do the clients—if at all—contribute to the overall result?
It’s normally a happy compromise. The clients will always contribute—that is a fascinating aspect of the creative process. In any case, they probably have an outfit with which the hats must coordinate.
Would you say that first and foremost, you design to please your artistic temperament or the market?
Definitely my temperament, but I always think a hat is not finished until it is worn….
“…the most iconic hat in the show, is Gala Dali’s Schiaparelli shoe hat purchased specially for the exhibition.”
Hats: An Anthology is an exhibition that originated in London—collaboration between you and the Victoria and Albert Museum. How did you come to work with the museum in the capacity of a co-curator?
We had been talking for a long time about collaboration, and they approached me to research their archive and create some hats based on this work. The whole thing snowballed with my co-curator Oriole Cullen, but really we just made it up as we went along. The idea that it would become a major touring exhibition only happened quite late it in the process.
Considering the awe inspiring headpieces/hats collections that the Victoria and Albert Museum must have, what momentous discoveries did you make in the process of selecting all the magnificent headpieces—more than 250–for the exhibition?
Some are not the most obvious: a fantastic Tudor serf’s knitted beret is such a fine knit that Marc Jacobs would be proud of; a second world war bridal hat; an extravaganzas like the Queen Mother’s tulle hat from 1938. And of course the most iconic hat in the show, is Gala Dali’s Schiaparelli shoe hat purchased specially for the exhibition.
Given all the great hats in the Victoria and Albert museum, what was the “elimination process” like? How did you and the museum decide what ended up in the exhibition and what didn’t?
Maybe it told a story, maybe it was particularly beautiful or represented a theme but often it was just my personal taste. Alternatively, sometimes they didn’t make it because of lack of space, sometimes they were too fragile, but it was very difficult to decide!
Going forward—in spite of your brilliant accomplishments and exquisite reputation, as it were—what other newer avenues do you desire to chart in order to keep things as exciting, as fresh and as extraordinary?
How kind! Well, I have to say just making the next collection is a huge challenge and I never get used to it. However, my career in millinery has been evolved into other facets like curating this exhibition. From that came another venture, which is called Headonism in association with the British Fashion Council, where I mentor and promote young milliners, some of whom are shown in the exhibition.
Since we all come in different shapes/forms, what is the secret for choosing “the right hat” for each individual’s head and face?
Take a hand mirror so you can see the back but my recommendations are as such:
Round face: broad hat makes your face look slimmer
Long face: asymmetric hat, adds rhythm
Square face: soft textures
Short: tall hat
Tall: knitted or draped hat
Oval face: you’re lucky!
What historical personages would you love to have designed a hat for?
Elizabeth the first. I did hats for Kate Blanchett in the film ‘Elizabeth the Golden Age’ but to have designed it for the real Elizabeth would have been amazing too. Maybe a veiled feathered number for Marlene Dietrich and a simple felt for Garbo.
Who are your favorite contemporary personages that you are immensely pleased when you see your work on their heads?
I think Dita von Teese always looks amazing, and Carla Bruni too. But Katy Perry at the recent MTV awards looked amazing in the resin cube I did for Christian Dior Haute Couture.
What makes for an extraordinary—as opposed to—ordinary hat?
The way it’s worn
How would you redesign the ubiquitous baseball hat if asked to?
I couldn’t, it’s perfect. It’s the crown of America!