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.
The arrogance of youth is replaced with the neurosis of age. With age you’re much more aware of what can go wrong
“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.
PUSHING BOUNDARIES 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.”
Photo by Sølve Sundsbø, Art + Commerce.
Photo by Sølve Sundsbø, Art + Commerce.
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.”
WORKS OF ART Some hats designed by Jones are unlikely to be seen on the streets, or even attending society dos. There’s his Myra hat, created in 2003, which features a doll’s face complete with legs suspended from the crown. There’s also Thunderbird, designed in 1996 for John Galliano, made from icy pole sticks. And how could one possibly describe or even conceive the extraordinary Wash and Go hat? Designed by Jones in 1999, and made from clear acrylic, the design suggested splashing water around the wearer’s face. Jones used a clear acrylic to create this design, with the ‘droplets’ of the water appearing to defy gravity. “The Wash and Go hat holds a special place in my archives,” says Jones. Irrespective of whether a hat is destined for the runway in London, New York, or Paris, the design process is never identical. Some designers, for example, look at several of Jones’ hats before a show. Other designers, such as Marc Jacobs, use accessories such as hats and shoes as the starting point for each collection. “The clothes can then take shape.” Each season Jones takes a new turn, with decisions needing to be resolved. “This is the time my thoughts are literally in constant motion. And these ideas literally don’t stop until the show starts.” When Jones is collaborating with the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier or Walter Van Beirendonck, themes and inspiration on the designer’s mind are discussed. Jones, followed by sketches and toiles, then works up these ideas. “A discussion proceeds over what needs to be changed, from an extra top stitch to a tighter band or a higher feather,” says Jones.
SUMMER 2015 For the last two weeks, Jones has been working on his Summer 2015 collection. Titled Hot House, the theme reverts to the club scene, clearly with DJ’s Princess Julia and Suzanne Bartsch in the back of his mind. The 1959 film, Suddenly, Last Summer, based on Tennessee William’s play and staring Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, also play on his mind. Who could forget Elizabeth Taylor wearing a wide brimmed straw hat while taking afternoon tea in an idyllic setting by the water? “There’s a story there, and it lead to something new (in hats),” says Jones. But whether a hat is deemed part of a collection or for a private client, the design process is similar. “You are invariably looking in front of a mirror and adapting the idea, whether it’s the client wearing your hat or a designer suggesting a few changes for their collections,” he adds. While Summer 2015 is on Jones’ mind, Winter 2015 isn’t far away for those leading fashion, rather than following. “I always put a dossier together which includes all the things that might influence a collection. It could be something seen on the street, a film or even a certain book. Then I head to the workroom and start prototyping using different fabrics,” says Jones. And although many talented milliners in his workroom in Convent Garden surround Jones he still makes many of the prototypes himself. “It’s crucial for a milliner to keep using your hands. It’s the best way of honing your skills.”
I always put a dossier together which includes all the things that might influence a collection. It could be something seen on the street, a film or even a certain book. Then I head to the workroom and start prototyping using different fabrics
THE WORKROOM IN COVENT GARDEN The workroom is based beneath the salon, a narrow 18th century shop front. The slim entrance with angled steel windows artfully showcases a few of Jones’ fine hats. Like entering a jewellery box, the door opens onto a bright red carpet, appropriate given the number of celebrities that pass through this enviable threshold. Jones’ signature lilac-wash painted walls add to the refined ambience. And behind the shop is the showroom for private clients. However, beyond the ‘stage’ to back of house, is where Jones spends most of his time. “A millinery workroom is always in an attic or a basement,” says Jones, whose own workroom is divided into two sections, separated by a staircase. The rear section is referred to as the ‘soft workroom’, where soft unstructured hats are made and where model hats are blocked. On the other side of the staircase is the ‘model millinery workroom’, where each and every hat is made entirely by hand.
Given his talent and envious position of being in constant demand, Jones could easily please himself and purely design his own hat collections. “I really enjoy delving into other designers’ minds. It’s an extremely intimate relationship. But it also continually challenges me,” says Jones, who enjoys creating the unexpected. For Raf Simons’ first collection for Christian Dior in 2011, the models went down the catwalk with faces void of makeup and nothing worn on their heads. It was only at the finale, in the tradition of the bride, that 30 models appeared wearing elaborate antique veils fashioned into hat-like forms.
ENCORE! While the world has a number of fine milliners, few compare with not only the talent, but also the extraordinary output of Jones, as he moves endlessly across the globe conversing with the designers he collaborates with. The extraordinary retrospective held at the Queensland Art Gallery not only showcased Jones’ brilliance, but also his great depth of knowledge when it comes to the history of the hat, dating back not only to the early 20th century, but centuries before. To Mr. Stephen Jones, ‘we take our hats off to you!’
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