Chinoiserie-on-Sea: Stephen Jones hats at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion

Stephen Jones stood among the Chinese-inspired rooms – the figurines dressed in Mandarin robes, the mahogany handrail carved like bamboo, the copper ‘pine trees’ in the royal kitchen, and the music room’s lotus-shaped chandeliers – all part of Brighton’s extraordinary Royal Pavilion.

“I grew up in a seaside town, but Brighton to me seemed exciting, exotic, and it symbolised art and freedom,” said the milliner, who in 2012 researched the curving creations of King George IV and the historic royal vision of Chinese elegance.

“I designed a collection called ‘Chinoiserie-on-Sea’, and showing my hats at the Pavilion is like a homecoming,” the designer continued. “I have never had an opportunity to display hats in the environment that inspired them.”

Some designers might blanch at facing so much competition – from the elaborate decoration that put drapes at every window, candelabras hanging in limpid shapes from the ceiling, and panels of Chinese wallpaper.

But the designer – who dressed petite Kylie Minogue in an explosion of a hat for the Sydney Mardi Gras in 2012 and who produced giant cherries for designer Thom Browne’s summer 2019 collection – was unlikely to be intimidated by a royal palace.

‘Stephen Jones Hats at the Royal Pavilion’ (7 February to 9 June) will be displayed, in partnership with Harvey Nichols, in the decorative rooms. The haute couture headwear includes wild pieces that Stephen Jones made for John Galliano shows, the milliner’s current work for Dior, and striking creations for British designer Giles Deacon or the Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck.

It might sound like a crazy leap into the wild, but Martin Pel, Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the Royal Pavilion and Museums, has been planning this event for seven years with the ‘mad-hat man’. Together they have found a place, and a meaning, for each object.

“The opulent interiors of the Pavilion will become even more fantastical as nearly 150 of Stephen’s incredible creations take centre stage, “ the curator said. “His craftsmanship and superior designs are perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the former royal palace.”

But as he explained, the approach has to be subtle. That has meant placing each hat in an appropriate position, but never touching pieces of royal furniture or decoration that were stripped from the building by Queen Victoria, installed in Buckingham Palace, and have since been discreetly sent back to George IV’s former residence by the reigning Queen Elizabeth.

Since the buildings, a significant tourist attraction, now officially belong to the town of Brighton, in the county of Sussex, Meghan and Harry, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have already paid the Pavilion a courtesy call. And, of course, Stephen Jones has already made Meghan a beret.

Chinese visitors will surely feel a sense of pride at George IV’s fascination with their heritage two centuries ago for his seaside pleasure place. Hats inspired by the interiors of the Royal Pavilion will be displayed, as well as a modern piece made especially by Stephen Jones for the New York exhibition, ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2015.

But when the exhibition opens in February, visitors may also be excited by the list of celebrities. The guests (read ‘hats’) at the long table in the banqueting hall include pieces made for model Cindy Crawford; Diana, Princess of Wales; Lady Gaga; Mick Jagger; Kate Moss; Rihanna; Tilda Swinton; and so many more.

Harvey Nichols’s Group Creative and Marketing Director Deb Bee sees the upcoming exhibition as more than a “major retrospective of incredible hats”. The store will create a limited-collection of ‘diva-like’ Stephen Jones hats, on sale from April.

For Chinese visitors, the concept of chinoiserie may seem strange, even alien. But to the hat designer, the exhibition seems like that proverbial dream come true.

“I feel amazingly privileged,” he said. “I am inspired by everything every day, but some things are special, and the Pavilion has always been one of the most special places that I know in the world.”

‘Stephen Jones Hats at the Royal Pavilion’ runs from 7 February – 9 June 2019 ( In partnership with Harvey Nichols