Stephen Jones: Celebrating A Century

What would Stephen Jones choose to mark his century? His 60th birthday and 40 years as a master milliner? With an irreverence that counters his strong work ethic, the “mad hatter” has worked with private clients, global stars and with some of the fashion world’s most famous designers.

Tracing his trajectory from his home in the North of England – with training at Liverpool College and London’s Saint Martin’s School of Art and Design – Stephen reinvented the hat as both decoration and bold statement.

Inspired by his punk and New Romantic periods in the 1970s, he absorbed the changes in British society and made his hats tell their own stories, whether flamboyant streams of straw worn by Boy George or a graceful bowler for a private client.

The two different strands were brought together in the 1980s, when Stephen was simultaneously designing elegant berets for new royal arrival Diana, Princess of Wales, and crazy, arty headwear for Jean-Paul Gaultier and John Galliano.

The names of Stephen’s hat collections in the 1980s, when he was embraced by Paris and its haute couture, define the drama, imagination and poetry of his work: “The Hanging Gardens of Babylon”, “The Heart of Woman and the Soul of Man”, “Passport to Pleasure” and “Sunset in Suburbia”.

Although collaborations with the music world, from George Michael to Madonna, have created startling headgear, the most powerful creativity has come in collaboration with designers, especially Galliano. I remember the flamboyant craziness of a Dior couture hat, around the turn of the new millennium, in which a furry fox and rabbit snuggled together; and the amazing grace of Japonism recreated as Madame Butterfly headpieces.

“Everything in the world can be a hat!” exclaims Stephen, whose personal choice for his landmark birthday party was a folded beret made of newspaper printed with Indian writing, brought over from Mumbai.

The Stephen Jones style has led to many rewards, from the honour of working in film, to his curation of the 2009 exhibition, “Hats: An Anthology” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, to receiving an OBE in 2010.

I have wept over Stephen’s poetic hats for Comme des Garçons and giggled over the creations the milliner would make for the late and much lamented Italian fashion artist Anna Piaggi.

Although I knew it would be difficult for him to choose 12 favourites for Luncheon magazine, I was pretty sure of what they might be. But my long conversation with Stephen revealed how deep and personal his feelings are for all the myriad works of art he has made, and the memories behind his decisions.

For the Twelve Days of Christmas, here are the hats of the milliner’s dreams.

All photography by Ben Toms. Styling by Mattias Karlsson

The First Day of Christmas

Stephen Jones for Jean-Paul Gaultier: A fur felt and silk tassel fez mask, Autumn/Winter 1984

The designer’s choices begin with a mystery – or “Mystère”, as the hat for Jean-Paul Gaultier was named – after the designer asked the then unknown British milliner to make hats for a 1980s show. Threads of raw red silk pour out of eye slits in a green fez, creating a sinister effect.

“It was my first season in Paris and Jean-Paul had seen me in the video of ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’ by Culture Club,” Stephen explains, saying that the hat, based on a fez but with a sexy spirit when worn by young Maghrebi model Farida Khelfa, launched his career in Paris.

“I was going to be a model for Jean-Paul because he had seen me wearing a fez and a three-piece suit, but I couldn’t do it because I had broken my leg falling off a motor bike. A few months later I was in Paris and saw the film of the show – it was pre-video – and Jean-Paul asked me to do some sketches. This was 1984, and I started to get known for ‘street style’, working with i-D and The Face in a world dominated by Vogue, Harper’s and Tatler.

“It was the beginning of my life in Paris. And that is so interesting as we head towards Brexit. I’ve always felt European, and for me Paris was the centre of the fashion world – and still is. That was where I wanted to be – at the epicentre – and at that time Jean-Paul Gaultier was the epicentre of fashion.”

And the silk-thread tears, did they have some deep meaning? “I remember playing around with the sketches, and behold, it seemed like tears,” Stephen says. “It would be lovely to think that everything was by grand design, but sometimes it is the slip of the pencil, too.”

The Second Day of Christmas

Stephen Jones for Comme des Garçons: A distorted beret in felt, Autumn/Winter 1985

The relationship Stephen Jones has had with Rei Kawakubo seems to me so important that I was disappointed that none of his creations were used by curator Andrew Bolton at the recent Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition devoted to Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons (a decision was made to show only the extraordinary hair creations of Julien d’Ys). Stephen has in fact been working for Comme des Garçons over more than three decades – and it started with the elongated beret.

“This is the first season, Autumn/Winter 1985, and it was strange because I was making hats for Diana, Princess of Wales and for Comme des Garçons at the same time,” Stephen explains. “Not the same hat, but the same enclosed space that a beret is. You know, it’s not a hat with a brim. It can be changed and squashed. But doing something for Comme des Garçons, I remember sketching it and thinking, ‘Well, it needs to be a beret, but off-kilter, because that is what she seems to be doing. She is doing a jumper with two sleeves on it – but it’s got holes in it.’ ”

The milliner’s work for Comme has been what he describes as “on and off” – “always different projects, sometimes the show, or Dover Street Market, or the Comme des Garçons perfumes, or Shirt (one of Kawakubo’s other labels).”

“I was always completely fascinated by her,” Stephen says, remembering when he asked Adrian Joffe (Kawakubo’s husband and Comme’s CEO) why, of all the different people in the world, she wanted to work with him. “And Adrian said, ‘Because sometimes – not always – she wants an English gentleman to create hats for her.’ That’s her perception of me,” Stephen says. “I remember, around this time, her assistant said that she would like to send me a present as a thank-you for working on the collections (and we did work very hard). I was intrigued to see what it was, whether it would be a sweater with holes in it or something else. And actually it was some peach pyjamas! I’ve still got the top. I don’t know what happened to the bottoms. I hope they’re not landfill! But this was a very long time ago.”

I ask Stephen which of the many Comme shows he had dressed with his hats had brought him fashion emotion. “For me, it’s this very first season and this particular hat, because it was really the beginning of something completely new,” he says. “You remember how the French were absolutely terrified of and hated Comme des Garçons? It was extraordinary, and I was so happy to be part of that – the outsider being let into Paris. I’d been a punk growing up, and I’d thought that Vivienne Westwood was the only contemporary designer whom I really wanted to watch. I knew about the world of Dior, because in the library at Saint Martin’s were all these old Vogues with these extraordinary images in them. But mid-1970s fashion was very different. It was Kenzo and Calvin Klein and beige and knitwear! Vivienne came along. But then came Rei Kawakubo, and she had just such a completely different aesthetic. So, for me, this first season was extraordinary.”

The Third Day of Christmas

Stephen Jones for Claude Montana: A layered tulle sun hat, Spring/Summer 1994

A fiery flash of orange and yellow, veiling both face and neck: a dramatic head cover that celebrates the transitory brilliance of Claude Montana, a designer who defined the 1980s but burnt out too soon. Explaining how they had come to work together, Stephen says: “I’d been working in France and I was told that Claude Montana would love to work with me – but the crazy thing was that I was so busy with Gaultier, I actually turned Montana down for quite a few seasons. I was quite aware that he was a major designer, but whereas Gaultier was a major designer and fun, there’s something very serious about Claude. I knew that whatever I made would need to be made perfectly. So eventually I agreed, and we did wonderful things together. This hat was worn by Yasmin Le Bon when she was just starting modelling and absolutely gorgeous.”

I always think of Montana as a designer of geometric precision and wonder how that worked with Stephen’s often decorative, funky and witty approach. “He was really a tailor, as opposed to a dressmaker,” he remembers, “but I wasn’t working with him in those early days in the late 1970s when he was doing huge, huge, huge shoulders in leather and all that. I was working with him when, in a way, he’d refined that, and he was doing beautiful coats in draped cashmere or a bubble skirt, but one that was perfectly cut. That’s why he did Lanvin as well,” Stephen says (referring to Montana’s work on the brand that was later taken over by Alber Elbaz), explaining that working for an existing house was the only way young designers could afford to have the workmanship they craved.

“Everybody talks about Balenciaga spending a month on a sleeve; well, Claude actually did spend a month doing a collar,” Stephen says. “However, unfortunately, his aesthetic didn’t really move with the times.”

The Fourth Day of Christmas

Stephen Jones for Christian Dior: A tufted Peruvian Mohican, Prêt-à-Porter, Autumn 2002

The multicoloured Mohican hat that Stephen designed for Dior was the ultimate expression of John Galliano’s mad and magical world. The colour! The fringing! The glory! “I think of it as a Peruvian Mohican,” Stephen explains. “John had mentioned doing some kind of Peruvian hat, because he had always loved them. Funnily enough, my sister had just been to Peru and had one made for me in grey and black. Apparently, when she ordered in those colours, they thought she was mad, because what they love is colour. She gave it to me as a birthday present. I showed John, and then I was sitting in my hotel room and my pencil wandered over the page – and it became a Mohican.”

“The construction is quite complicated, because of course wool does not stand up like a Mohican,” he explains, “so it’s got quite a complicated internal system of wires, padding and construction to keep it standing up properly. I always thought of John. When we were in Paris, we always felt like Londoners, and the Mohican was such a representation of punk London. It was such a mixture of fashion and what we knew and loved. It was the idea of something exotic – but joyous, too. I love the fact that it was knitted and quite homey, but at the same time in your face.”

Both the quiet and the colourful Mohicans made it to the Dior runway. “The coloured one was going to be worn by Giselle, and I have a fitting photograph of her in it,” Stephen recalls, “but in the end, she wore the grey and beige one and her beauty was enough to carry it off.”

The Fifth Day of Christmas

“Sew and Sow”: A gardening cloche in hessian, string and paper from the Stephen Jones “Handmade in England” collection, Spring/Summer 2005

What is this scarecrow of a hat with illustrated envelopes tucked in the band? “Oh, those are old seed packets!” Stephen announces. “After my rejection of Britain in favour of France, this was a return to England. There was a photograph of my parents and me in our local paper in Berkshire. It was taken at the local village fair and we’re looking at a plate of prize carrots and potatoes. I suddenly realised that wonderful Britishness of Kay Kendall and that sort of English eccentricity, and the whole gardening thing and Chatsworth. So this was a gardening hat, made out of potato sacking packets and bits of garden twine, all stitched together.”

So is the master of millinery really a champion gardener? “I do a bit – I prune,” Stephen says. “I’m quite a good pruner.”

The Sixth Day of Christmas

“Bang!”: Exploded X-ray and pointille boater from the Stephen Jones “XYZ” collection, Autumn/Winter 2010

Despite its title, this graceful circular hat with an airy centre hardly seems to suggest an explosion. “Well, the hat was sort of exploded,” Stephen says. “Every collection I do is slightly autobiographical, and for the first time ever I’d been in hospital having an operation on my leg.”

So this was about dissecting his body?

“You see, the brim was made out of X-rays, which were extremely difficult to get. I had to buy them from America because they are not allowed to be sold within the UK, because they are classified as doctors’ records and personal information. So I wanted to take a normal hat, like a boater, and explode it.” The result is a light-as-air concoction, an elegant hat with a decorative bow but with the X-ray material giving a transparent effect.

The Seventh Day of Christmas

“Charles James”: A down padded cap in silk satin from the Stephen Jones Haute Couture and Prêt-à-Porter collections, Autumn/Winter 2017

Why Charles James? I ask. Is the British-American fashion designer from the first half of the 20th century his hidden hero?

“When I was on a foundation course in High Wycombe in 1975, we came to London and I saw an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum called ‘Fashion, 1900–1939’,” Stephen says. “In it, I saw the Charles James padded jacket, and that’s what made me think that I could do fashion at Saint Martin’s. I thought that jacket was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen in my life.”

Stephen had backstage access to the Charles James exhibition and marvelled at the construction of the work. “Padding and hats tend not to go together that well, but I always wanted to do something inspired by that, as a tribute – because it is a wonderful thing. So I made this cap, completely padded, and it is one of the most wonderful, comfortable things you could imagine. And it’s from this winter.”

Now he has reached his landmark birthday, how does he feel about carrying on as hat-maker extraordinaire? “That’s the crazy thing about the fashion world: you are only as good as your last collection,” Stephen says. “It is the greatest privilege to be able, each season, to make a new story and to write a new chapter.”

And does he remember the first hat he made? “I had to show it to the woman who was the head of the work room,” Stephen says, describing “an old blouse of my sister’s glued onto a Cornflakes packet, with some plastic roses from my mother that I had sprayed silver”. “That really was my very first hat. And she allowed me into the millinery work room!”

The Eighth Day of Christmas

Stephen Jones for John Galliano: A refracted hat in straw and pleated newspaper, Spring/Summer 2001

The double wheel hat, with two circles balanced on the end of a paper ‘boat’, is an exaggerated version of various other abstract hats created by Stephen. “That was for Galliano in a collection that was very much inspired by Constructivist art: it was a bit like ‘Hat Descending a Staircase’,” the designer says. “It was sort of three hats morphed into one. It’s quite a complicated construction, because it has to be worn on the head; it was so funny when the model picked it up and said, ‘Good Heavens! It’s really light!” Stephen remembers.

“When you work on something so far away from the head, you work technically on how it is going to stay on. It’s easy doing it stationary for a photo session, but when you have a model going down the catwalk, it’s got to be stable and balanced. So that Galliano hat was quite difficult to do, and that is why, in part, they are made from paper, because it makes them as light as anything.” 
Stephen stops to explain that the range of what he achieved in hats for haute couture no longer exists – and that perhaps this is a good thing, now that he has turned 60.
“It’s absolutely a challenge and a wonderful thing to do, and I always have a great time doing it,” he admits. “It is always a mixture of being the most wonderful time in the world and completely terrifying – and you never get used to that. I remember once hearing that Luciano Pavarotti was almost sick before he went on to perform, every time. Yet he was the greatest tenor in the world. It’s extraordinary to see that he felt that he could never do it again.” 
Stephen, I point out, might be proclaimed the Pavarotti of hats.

The Ninth Day of Christmas

“Pas de Deux”: A moiré and velvet ballet slipper cocktail hat from the Stephen Jones collection, 1982

“This was very much a club hat. I always made smallish hats really, because people needed to wear them in nightclubs – they weren’t made for the runway,” Stephen explains. “For me, it was a real life that we’d created. Growing up during New Romanticism and New Wave, if you couldn’t dance in it, there didn’t seem to be much point.”

The milliner recalls the process of creating “Pas de Deux”: “I was walking down St Martin’s Lane, and in the window of Freed dance shop they had miniature ballet shoes. I’d just been looking at some photos of the Schiaparelli shoe hat, and for me that was my favourite hat of all time, and I thought, ‘Ah! I could do my own version.’ So that’s how this hat happened; the fabrics came from Paris, while before it was vintage shops and old ribbon suppliers.”

I ask who was the inspiration for this charming and feminine hat – and who ultimately wore it. “This particular one was worn by the girl who was my muse,” Stephen says, saying that whether it’s for a designer or a private client, the process is always the same.

“You’re wondering not how that person is, but how they want to be. But obviously a dress designer is thinking about multiples as opposed to just themselves. But for me, it is very close. Is it for me? Is it for somebody else? If I’m doing something for a particular client – that’s very specifically for them and about them – that is the sort of relationship we have. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t influence me in general. I wouldn’t really copy it, but I would think, ‘Oh, that was a great idea; maybe I need to use that.’ That’s how design works.”

“I’ve always thought you should be as open to as many influences as possible. So working with a private client is actually a great discipline, because you put something on somebody. Are they wrong? Is the hat wrong? It’s always a very good lesson, and in a funny way, if it’s too right for them, maybe it doesn’t make them dream. You need to take them a little bit out of their comfort zone. As Diana Vreeland said, you have to give people what they never knew they wanted.”

The Tenth Day of Christmas

“Royal Crescent”: A scrolled organza bicorne, from the Stephen Jones “Chinoiserie-on-Sea” collection, Spring/Summer 2012

“I’ve always loved going to Brighton, and I spent a weekend there, and really started to love the Royal Pavilion and the museum and all of the Georgian period,” Stephen says, explaining the origins of this graceful, curving hat. It grew out of researching George IV and the highly decorative royal summer palace he commissioned as Prince Regent, with its domes, towers and minarets.

“I had always loved the chinoiserie thing when I was growing up, so the design of the hat is a conflation of a military bike horn with the lines and scrollwork of Rococo chinoiserie,” he says. “I fell in love with the Pavilion. I thought, ‘What on earth conspired to make those extraordinary candelabras, the dragons, the paintings – everything?’ You know, you can actually go up into the roof between the outside and inside of the dome and see the graffiti that the workers made when they were building it.”

The Eleventh Day of Christmas

“Myra”: A Mohican in plastic and yak fur, from the Stephen Jones “Poseur” collection, Autumn/Winter 2003

“ ‘Myra’ is almost like a Mohican headdress made out of dolls’ legs and a doll’s face. This is a tribute to my friend Myra, whom I knew when I was 19 and 20. It was just pre the Blitz club. She was a very good friend of Boy George, and she used to wear a beehive with a plastic doll’s face in the front. It was wonderful because everyone used to be so upset by it, and we thought it was hilarious. I mean, she could have run down the street naked and people would have been less upset!”

I ask whether Myra still wears his hats. “She used to be a client years ago,” Stephen says, “but people always hold on to their hats. They never throw them away. You might throw away every other article, but hats have got too much memory and too much meaning. People don’t throw them away – even though they get squashed beyond belief.”

The Twelfth Day of Christmas

“Rose Royce”: Spiralled top hat in velvet and satin from the Stephen Jones “Contours” collection, Autumn/Winter 1996

No! This chic black velvet hat with a twirl of lipstick pink is not called “Rolls-Royce” – although this sleek creation might seem to be made for the stately vehicle. “Rose Royce, a little top hat – it’s just another favourite,” Stephen says. “It’s a little velvet top hat and the crown is made like a rose; it’s just swirled round. Somehow, this has been my favourite hat I’ve ever made. It’s pretty and feminine and sexy, and it is in fact extremely difficult to make – but it looks effortless.”

When I ask Stephen whether moving 15 years ahead, to the 1990s, with this hat is a sign of a change in his own aesthetic, he replies: “Funnily enough, it is parallel with the time I started to work in haute couture, because 1996 was my first year working with Dior. And I think it was John ’s year with Givenchy .

Whereas I’d always been racing to make a hat, somehow, with money from LVMH I was able to take things slightly slower and really work on techniques like this. They are actually techniques from the 1950s, which nobody in their right mind would use now because they take too long.”

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the fourth issue of Luncheon magazine, Autumn/Winter 2017 (https://luncheonmagazine.com)