Decorated British milliner Stephen Jones has created headgear for everyone from Princess Diana to Rihanna, collaborated with some of fashion’s greatest houses, and contributed to exhibitions around the world
It’s 40 years since Stephen Jones – one of the fashion industry’s most prolific and inventive milliners – entered the hat game. Does it feel like yesterday? “No it doesn’t,” the 62-year-old replies. “It definitely feels like I’ve had a career doing this. But the thrill and the terror of making a hat is just the same as when I started.” Why the terror? “You’re dealing with a piece of white paper, you’re working with a often world-famous client, a high-profile designer, and you do learn how to do it, but in a way you don’t because every hat is opening night.”
Between his own namesake brand, artistic directorship of hats at Christian Dior (after 24 years of partnership he was appointed last year, making him the house’s first), numerous designer collaborations, and special projects including head treatments for the Met Costume Institute’s exhibitions, means there are around 1 500 Stephen Jones “opening nights” a year. And the stars of those opening nights read like the invite list to a fantasy dinner party: from royalty (Princess Diana, the Duchesses of Sussex and Cambridge) to musical icons including Rihanna, Madonna, and The Rolling Stones, not to mention those “high-profile designers” – John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Thierry Mugler, to name but a few.
So what are the moments Jones OBE (for services to the fashion industry) remembers most fondly from his career to date, and how does one celebrate such a milestone? We met at his atelier in London’s Covent Garden to find out.
What is it about making hats that, 40 years on, never fails to fascinate you?
“I make hats but it’s people’s appearance that I find so fascinating, and how a hat can be transformative. It’s really about the person and how they feel when they put things on, seeing their face light up. I studied fashion at Central St Martins, not millinery, which is why I work with fashion designers so often. I remember asking John Galliano why he was so interested in hats once and he said, ‘That’s a funny question coming from you. It’s at the neckline that the body becomes really interesting. Just like at the end of the sleeve that the arm becomes very interesting. These are the body’s points of communication.’ When I draw a hat, I always draw the backbone and the face first, so many milliners just think about the hat, but it’s the line of the back, the line of the body and the line of the shoulder that make the hat sing on the body.”
And people’s mannerisms completely change too when they put on a hat…
“Yes, I always tell people to rehearse before they go out in the street – how they want to look, how the hat feels on their head. Very important.”
Are there any hats from the tens of thousands you remember making most vividly?
“I think the hat that was most difficult to make was the one Erin O’Connor wore for the Christian Dior SS2004 Egyptian collection. I fitted the cardboard model to her, but the hat was only ready two hours before the show and she was the opening look. The hat (and fake beard) was made from very fine plastic plated with metal, which made it very heavy.”
From the house of Dior to Marc Jacobs, and rising stars like Grace Wales Bonner and Matty Bovan, how do you switch between the aesthetics of your different collaborators?
“I get an in into the brains of the world’s most exceptional designers; almost nobody else has access like that. If I don’t have that I can’t do my job, so first I let them know that they have to let me in. Working with someone like Matty Bovan, for example, is fascinating because I have an idea of what I think is beautiful but he has a different point of view. There’s a negotiation, a compromise between the two ideas of beauty. It’s good to be challenged – we’re from different generations and I don’t have children so I can learn a lot.”
Is there anyone whose headgear you hold in particularly high regard?
“The Queen of course. When I had my exhibition at the V&A, Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones in 2009, I asked Her Majesty to loan one of her Hermès scarves and a hat from the Queen Mother’s collection (she chose the hat her mother had worn on her 100th birthday). The Queen’s scarf arrived in a lovely box – it was a real pinch-yourself moment. The Queen is the only person who can tie an Hermès scarf around her head with a perfect bow under her chin. I was like ballerina Darcey Bussell rehearsing this movement for months. When you’re tying a scarf, it has to look completely spontaneous otherwise it’s dreadful.”
You were a regular at the legendary Blitz club in the 1980s along with the likes of Boy George. How does music continue to play into your work?
“People I’ve had a long working relationship with, like Kylie Minogue, have become friends and you learn a lot from them. It’s complete collaboration because I’ll have an idea, the set designer and makeup artist will have another idea, as will the lighting designer and choreographer. Katy Perry, for example, is always dancing so whatever I do for her has to be quite discreet; her backing dancers can wear something bigger. The singers I work with are determining their own lives, they are playing themselves rather than acting a part.”
Rihanna is another collaborator – she’s worn your designs and you worked on her Savage x Fenty SS20 collection.
“I met Rihanna backstage at a Dior show many years ago just after she’d been featured for the first time in Vogue US – Anna Wintour said she had to go to Paris to learn more about the industry. I saw her walking towards me and I knew who she was but she wasn’t so famous then. ‘I have to say you’re wearing one of my hats,’ I told her. ‘My name is…’ and before I could finish she said my name. I asked how she knew who I was and she said because she loves fashion (and shopping), and had bought the hat from Dover Street Market.”
How are you celebrating your 40th anniversary?
“I’m going to be showing my FW20 collection in the store – most people don’t know this but I produce two collections a year – and I want everyone who comes to try them on and take lots of selfies. I’ve taken a hat from each decade and remade it, but the cocktail is slightly different because I’m in a different mood – they’re made from different fabrics with different people making them. There’s a hat I originally made in 1980 and by the fourth time of making it I got it right, so therefore we called it At Last; the Giacometti fedora I made for Claude Montana in 1997; an oval brimmed hat called Caren D’Ache from John Galliano’s collection in 2007; and one from my own 2017 collection called Angel or Devil, originally from a collection called Shade. Not throwing shade – it’s about the lightness and darkness in everybody’s character.”
Originally published in the June 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia