The Mad Hatter

Stephen Jones talks to Dazed about curating an exhibition for the V&A and his upcoming 30 year anniversary

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Stephen Jones is far from crazy but there is no doubt he’s the Mad Hatter of London, if not even the entire world. Madness is surely a positive word in design circles; it removes creative barriers and sets the imagination free. For Mr Jones, who celebrates three decades on top of the milliner barricades next year, this is certainly true. The man has worked with just about anyone worth mentioning on the international fashion scene, and considering his current tempo, there are no plans to stop or slow down. Need proof? Well, take a stroll down memory lane and visit South Kensington’s V&A Museum, where Jones rumbled through extensive archives for two years and curated his very own hat heaven.
 
In conjunction with the exhibition, he wrote a book with the same name 'Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones' and its introduction is fittingly penned by his dear friend John Galliano.  The pair met in the early 80’s and has collaborated on almost every single Galliano collection since, including Dior’s Couture shows, which is where this video is from. Dazed Digital sat down with the smiling and ever so pleasant designer in his showroom and discussed hats, while he simultaneously solved a problem regarding the inadequate flower decorations for three hats, due to be delivered later on that day. All in the day of milliner Stephen Jones…
 
Dazed Digital: You started your career by studying fashion design at Central St Martins?
Stephen Jones: Yes, and I was completely amazed to be accepted. I was the only boy there and I couldn’t even sew.  I was more of an all-rounder at college; good at art, graphics and interiors.
 
DD: So how did you end up working with hats?
Stephen Jones: Well, my tailoring tutor at college managed to get me an internship at the couture house he worked at, but half way through my three months I realised that tailoring wasn’t for me – I was more interested in working with the hat makers that sat in the next-door room.
 
DD: So you just changed and started making hats?
Stephen Jones: I realised there were many designers more talented than me, and life just took me in a different direction - hats!
 
DD: But now that you are so successful, do you ever feel like branching out or going back to fashion design?
Stephen Jones: I already do other things than just hats. There was a while when we did shoes and my handbags are big in Japan. I’ve done two perfumes, one in collaboration with Comme des Garcons, and I love working with cosmeticbrands because hats are almost more like cosmetics than fashion!
 
DD: You mentioned Comme des Garcons. You have collaborated with them many times; hats for collections, exhibitions and shops in Dover Street Market and perfumes. Do you have a special bond with Rei Kawakubo?
Stephen Jones: She is amazing. When Comme launched in Paris in the mid-eighties there was no one else doing what she did, it was totally different. I love my independence as a small company, but it’s great to work with bigger labels like Comme. She really does modernist clothing.
 
DD: You studied in the late 70’s and started your business in the early 80’s – was the hats as crazy as the times?
Stephen Jones: People are definitely less adventurous today, but back then they had to be practical because people wore them almost every day, it was a way of life. The hats reflected their political and aesthetic standpoints. But there are a generation of club kids today that see fashion as a means of expression, which is good.
 
DD:  You celebrate 30 years in the business next year – what have been your high lights?

Stephen Jones: I have highs and lows every day – you’re only as good as your last collection! The high lights must be my first Tatler cover in 1982, going to Paris to work with Jean-Paul Gaultier and John Galliano, making hats for the Princess of Wales [Diana] and receiving the Outstanding Contribution to Fashion, Award at the British Fashion Awards.
 
DD: Speaking of Galliano, how did the two of you meet?
Stephen Jones: We just missed each other at CSM – I left in 79 and he started in 82 or 83, but I knew him socially, through the club world. For a while we swapped staff when he needed help but in 1993 he called and asked me to come over. I’ve done all his shows since, except for a cruise collection once. It’s almost like a full-time job; not a day goes by without me thinking or working on his hats, including Christmas Day!
 
DD: How come you two click so well?
Stephen Jones: Because we connect on so many levels; friends, design, aesthetics and his knowledge of hats – he wears one every day!
 
DD: You have hats in museums and galleries all over the world – are hats as much art as fashion?
Stephen Jones: They are definitely eye candy. That’s why the V&A exhibition has been so successful; everyone loves looking at them and can relate to hats because what you see is what you get – they don’t have any ulterior motives. They also work as a social comment and have a position in our time, like art.
 
DD: Do you think all outfits need one?
Stephen Jones: I do think they look more interesting with a hat, that’s why I wear one every day.
 
DD: The V&A exhibition features two hats from Nasir Mazhar – are there any other young British milliners you rate?
Stephen Jones: There are some great people out there. Nasir with his art perspective, Justin Smith has a classic expression and makes real-life hats and Noel Stewart who makes display hats – somewhere in between traditional hats and art.
 
DD: Do you prefer to make hats for men or women?
Stephen Jones: I made more men’s hats in the beginning – men buy more hats for some reason. But, of course, there’s more creative freedom with the female ones.
 
DD: I read you were upset Michelle Obama didn’t wear a hat at Barack’s Inauguration speech – would she be your dream customer?
Stephen Jones: She would be, yes. I’ve never seen her wear a hat and I just don’t accept people who say ‘I’m not a hat wearer’. But she would probably go to an American milliner if she wanted one, which is a shame!
 
DD: What’s your favourite piece from the V&A exhibition?
Stephen Jones: It’s a shoe hat that Salvador Dalí designed for Schiaparelli , but it has just left the V&A to start a tour of Canada.
 
DD: Your SS09 collection, VANDA, is also inspired by the hats anthology at V&A!
Stephen Jones: Yes, I was going through their archives for over two years and I was inspired by specific hats when I made VANDA. I tried to make old hats more contemporary.
 
DD: The exhibition has four sections; Inspiration, Creation, The Salon and The Client. Let’s see how they apply to you. First up, Inspiration?
Stephen Jones: It’s the big question every six months; sometimes it’s easy, sometimes difficult. I look at architecture, films and everyday events. It could be an interview, a sandwich, a painting or something else with emotion or texture.
 
DD: Creation?
Stephen Jones: First, I normally sketch or do a toile. We have three different workrooms in the studio; one where the hats are hand made, one for trimmings and a third for machine made hats. Otherwise, it’s quite similar to making clothes – you have a prototype, or a block, where you stretch out the fabric, and then you sew it together.
 
DD: And The Salon?
Stephen Jones: This is where it’s all happening – it’s about the people working here, they put their character into he making of these hats. And I adore the shop – at the beginning of each season I arrange the hats, it’s such a great sense of refreshment.
 
DD: Finally, The Clients?
Stephen Jones:  I love making hats for Dita Von Teese and Anna Piaggi, but hats come alive on everyone, not just celebrity customers. I also enjoy working with other designers. And it’s not just Comme and Galliano – I’ve worked with Marc Jacobs for the past three years.
 
DD: So what’s next?
Stephen Jones: Many things. I have an exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp at the end of next year, there’s another fragrance coming out and the V&A exhibition is about to tour the world.

Video of the Dior Couture S/S 09 Show by Maria Eisl

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