In the early eighties Jones was a regular at London’s Blitz club. The pulsating rhythm from bands such as Spandau Ballet created ripples on the music scene. The millinery of Stephen Jones was about to create the same ripple in the fashion industry. Today, this ripple has turned into an enormous wave, with Jones’ hats receiving applause worldwide.
A WHO'S WHO OF THE FASHION WORLD
Pinning down a time to speak with Stephen Jones isn’t easy. As soon as he returns from Fashion Week in Paris, he sets off for Japan, literally with no time in between. But when you start to compile a list of the world’s leading fashion designers he collaborates with, patience is obviously required. Raf Simons, Walter Van Beirendonck, Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Jean Paul Gaultier and Rei Kawakubo are just a few of his friends and collaborators. He has also worked with Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana and extensively with John Galliano, the latter who graduated from Central Saint Martins School in London a few years later than Jones. “I still remember John (Galliano) asking me if I’d make hats for him, soon after he graduated. From memory, I think I said, ‘I don’t think that’s likely dear’.”
When Jones counts up the number of hats on ‘board’, needed for the various designers, it’s staggering, getting close to four hundred a season, and that’s just for the catwalks. “The arrogance of youth is replaced with the neurosis of age. With age you’re much more aware of what can go wrong,” says Jones, who is not only prolific, but is as creatively charged as the day he started. His passion for his craft is beautifully expressed in the book Hats an Anthology, published by the Victoria and Albert Museum.
“It is the momentary glimpse in which the customer is hooked and driven to pursue their hat. It lies in capturing the imagination and fantasies of the customer, while also assuring them that their choice will inspire admiration on the onlooker” (page 78, 2009).
BLITZ CLUB—NEW ROMANTICS
Like many creative people starting out in the 1980s, the admiration for theatrical dress started at the Blitz Club in London, a drawcard for the ‘New Romantics’, and Jones’ stomping ground. Steve Strange, lead singer of Visage and owner of the club, was a client of Jones’, as were members of Spandau Ballet and androgynous performer Boy George. “My first hat for Steve was a skull cap in black and gold, with an eye patch attached,” says Jones, who from the start of his career commanded impressive prices. “I think it was 70 pounds, quite a lot at the time.” Jones’ designs are sculptural masterpieces. Every piece is literally a work of art, even those pieces designed as simple day hats.
Jones’ Crown for Comme des Garçons Spring/Summer 2006 collection presented the Crown as a skeletal form rather than the bejeweled and heavy designs worn by royalty. His Arrow hat for Christian Dior’s Haute Couture Autumn/Winter collection a year later, inspired by an original Dior design from the late 1940s, is as commanding. Jones’ hat is cheekily ‘pierced’ by a marquisate arrow resting on the model’s bare shoulder. As whimsical is his ‘blanket hat’, designed for John Galliano’s Autumn/Winter 2002 collection. Who else but Stephen Jones could conceive a felt blanket fashioned into a hat and bound with an animal skin? Jones also continually explores materials, like an architect who discovers the possibilities using the latest technology. Even in the early nineties, he was finding new ways to work with bulrushes, beautifully expressed in his Kon-tiki hat, where each bulrush is curled not dissimilar to a Doris Day hairstyle from the late 1950s.
HATS AN ANTHOLOGY
When Jones’ Hats an Anthology exhibition was showcased at the Queensland Art Gallery in 2010, almost three decades after his career begun, it was easy to see why this master milliner, recently knighted by the Queen, is in such demand. His own hats, along with other designers from Victoria & Albert’s permanent collection attracted record crowds. Even in Australia, where hats don’t receive the same allegiance as in Europe, the power of this collection of designer hats was unprecedented, with the exhibition attracting an impressive audience of 9,500 people per day.
In the exhibition was a Balenciaga straw beret from 1950, as well as the famous Shoe Hat by Schiaparelli from 1937, the latter purchased by the V&A for 40,000 pounds. Designed by Dali, it was an astute purchase. “You wouldn’t get a Dali sketch for that price,” says Jones, who sees this design as an amazing form in the first instance, as well as an ingenious way to express a shoe. The exhibition also brought back memories of the Blitz Club, with Leigh Bowery’s ruffled orange ‘tutu’ hat included in Hats an Anthology. One can almost see this larger than life character on the dance floor just by looking at this hat. “It wasn’t just about following fashion. As important was how you put things together,” says Jones.
Unlike the 250 hats in the Hats an Anthology exhibition, curated by Jones and Oriole Cullen, Curator of Modern Textiles and Fashion at the V&A, Jones’ personal collection of hats is relatively modest by comparison. “My collection is primarily of ‘working’ hats,” says Jones, picking up a neat black cloche style hat from the 1920s. “I’m just as likely to reach for a great beach hat from the 1960s or even something quite simple, such as a baseball cap.”
THERE WOULD BE NO HATS WITHOUT HAIR
Jones’ Roxette plastic wig hat (circa 2002), plastic hues in varying shades of red and pink, beautifully captures the fashion trend of hair highlights of that time. In the exhibition, Roxette was thoughtfully placed next to a wig made from an unknown designer from the early 1920s. Made from metallic thread, the bob-style, with its gentle curls ‘speaks’ to Jones’ design. As mentioned by Jones in his book, released for the Queensland exhibition, ‘there would be no hats without hair’, instantly conceding exceptions while running a hand over his own smooth and hairless crown. “The milliner needs to work with, rather than against, the client’s hairstyle” (page 105, 2009).
MUSES—DJ'S PRINCESS JULIA AND SUZANNE BARTSCH
Baseball caps might be flipped around on rap dancers, but rarely form part of a couture collection. Jones, although a graduate of the Central Saint Martins School of Fashion, has always identified more with London’s club scene. In the eighties, it was the Roxy or the Blitz Club where Jones gravitated. Not surprising, decades later, his two muses are Princess Julia, a well-known DJ in London and Suzanne Bartsch, a DJ in New York, who continue to ‘set the rhythm’. “Both have an incredible sense of style, even after all these years,” says Jones. Baseball-style hats have appeared in a number of Jones’ collections, both his own, and for other designers. However, rather than the rudimentary sporting hat, Jones’ version, like Rei Kawakubo’s Winter collection for 2007, featured oversized bunny ears made from black satin.
COLLABORATING WITH REI KAWAKUBO
While satisfying expectations for his own collections must be daunting for someone like Jones, working with some of the world’s greatest designers is also enormously challenging. “You have to be a great diplomat. It’s important to leave your ego at the front door,” says Jones. Trying to get inside the designer's mind can also prove a mistake. Rei Kawakubo, founder and designer for Comme des Garçons, is a case in point. “I might think a certain hat that I design has a ‘Comme’ feel. It’s those hats that she often doesn’t respond to. What she wants from me is the ‘spice’ in her collection, creating a ‘bumpy’ ride down the catwalk that almost subverts things, rather than a smooth ride,” says Jones, referring to the success of his bunny eared hats for Winter 2007. A few days before each Comme show, Kawakubo makes a selection from the hats she responds to. Those designs are then made in multiples for the parade. With technology, the process of collaborating with designers has also changed. In the early days, even before the use of fax-machines, there was no way of sending sketches to designers such as Rei Kawakubo. “If I was sending a sketch to Rei, it would take at least eight days by post,” says Jones. Collaborations with other designers, such as Walter Van Beirendonck, are considerably easier to predict. “There’s no holding back with Walter. He has these crazy visions, which explore the edges of pure fantasy. Maybe it’s because we’re both born in the same year (1957). But we both have a strong almost cartoonish silhouette in our designs,” says Jones. “We both believe that clothes not only protect you, but provide this unique form of self-expression. There’s usually a sense of play in how we present ourselves.”