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Stephen Jones

The iconic milliner talks today's London Fashion Week Headonism exhibition, collaborating and how clubbing is the driving force behind London talent

Stephen Jones might not need an introduction, but he definitely deserves one. Fashion's favourite (and most prolific) milliner is known for both his own line – imagined from his jewel-like premises on Great Queen Street – and an A-Z of designer collaborations that takes in all the big guns, from Alaïa to Comme des Garçons, Dior, Marc Jacobs, Jil Sander, John Galliano plus Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler, his first Paris collaborations in the 80s.

Studying at Central Saint Martins, Jones found himself with a business during the Blitz club era, a time he realised he had a sample size head so could be his own fit model. This is the man that created the Westwood Harris Tweed crown, as worn by Sara Stockbridge, dressed clients from Grace Jones and Paul Simonon to Madonna and Boy George and surreally saw his headwear appear in adverts for Twix and Chiquita bananas. It's no wonder he was given a retrospective at the V&A.

Jones, who has a perfume produced by Comme des Garçons, packaged in a miniature hat box, gives back as an ambassador for British millinery. Today he lends his support to London Fashion Week's Headonism exhibit, focusing on a new generation of talent.

Producing runway headwear for the menswear and couture shows last month and curating the brand new issue of A Magazine Curated By, he continues with a string of to-be-unveiled catwalk collaborations guesting over the coming weeks. In the eye of the fashion storm, Jones made time to chat with Dazed Digital. It's no surprise he's also regarded as the nicest man in fashion.

Dazed Digital: Can you tell us about the Headonism project and how you got involved?
Stephen Jones: To go with the Hats Anthology by Stephen Jones exhibition I had at the V&A five years ago, we also did a Millinery in Motion. From that, the BFC, celebrating 25 years, asked me if I could put together a group of new London milliners. So we did this crazy little fashion show with Boris Johnson on stage – I can’t quite believe that happened! We organised an exhibiton as well as the show, under the group name I gave them. So it wasn’t as if we had some great plan, it just happened by chance, organically. The BFC decided that they wanted to carry on with it because it was like NEWGEN, since there were all these different things for people in fashion, but nothing for those in accessories, particularly hats. Then Ascot, our biggest market in the UK, got involved, and its worked out really well. So often sponsorship is just a question of person A giving money to person B. Yes, they give money to Headonism, but we also exhibit during Royal Ascot. So it works both ways.

DD: How does it feel to be an ambassador for millinery?
Stephen Jones: It makes me feel like a grandpa! It's great that you can give them [milliners] a bit of a showcase because there wasn’t one when I first started. Hats aren’t like shoes: they´re not decorative, they are always the runt of the litter and there are only two stores in London which have millinery departments. It's great to be able to help out fantastic milliners who believe in what they do and work all night for no money. Plus it's a really important part of London Fashion Week. I think that’s what people come for. They don’t come for a gorgeously made, perfect thing that they can get in Jermyn Street, but the wild and the wacky. More often when they come to London, they think of hats.

DD: It's really important for us to keep dreaming especially in a time when there's intense pressure to sell…
Stephen Jones: Oh, yes. But you know, the funniest thing with that is if a hat is dreaming, then it sells. There's absolutely a place to wear a jersey beanie on a Monday morning, but what hats are all about is dreaming – you’re somebody, you’re something, or somewhere else. Sometimes fashion can be an ethnic like costume too: if you put that sort of designer aesthetic into it, it looks charming.

DD: Did the Blitz get you into millinery?
Stephen Jones: I arrived at Saint Martin's and I didn’t know how to sew, so my tailoring tutor made me intern at a London couture house. I was in the tailoring workroom, and next door was the millinery work room, so I asked to be transferred and after the first day, I really loved it. I thought that that was what I wanted to do, even though I didn’t really know – it was all a bit made up as I went along. Around the Blitz time, suddenly I had a business and customers who wanted what I was making, like Steve Strange, Boy George and all that lot. 

DD: Is it true that you have the perfect sample size head?
Stephen Jones: Without hair, I do. I can’t grow hair anymore anyway. When I was younger, my hair was too big, but when I shaved it all off I became stock size. When you make hats, you have to try them on all the time to make sure they look right and balanced.

DD:There's a certain destiny and serendipity in that.
Stephen Jones: Oh, yes, I really believe in destiny.

DD: Who were your first designers?
Stephen Jones: Jasper Conran and Zandra Rhodes, though I can't remember for the life of me who asked first. Jasper and all those other club people I knew from around. It was his first ever collection and I knew he was interested in doing hats, so I asked if I could help out. But I hadn't a clue how to make them! I went and found out very quickly.

DD: What have been your most memorable collaborations?
Stephen Jones: Probably when I went to work in Paris in 1984, five billion years ago, with Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler. That was incredible. It was certainly life in the fast lane! They were the most famous designers in the world at the time, when the designer decade was in full-swing. Fashion was suddenly this big new thing in the media. It was extraordinary to work with John Galliano. I’d known him for years, then one day his assistant Steven phoned me and asked, ”Would you like to do something together?,” and I thought, ”Hey!”

Comme [des Garçons] is fantastic and I love Rei [Kawakubo]. She is someone that everyone simply looks towards. Her and Vivienne are incredible because they've somehow done their own thing and carried on doing it, producing the most extraordinary things that make us dream. I believe that's the purpose of fashion – if not we should all run around wearing GAP t-shirts, which are fine, but, you know… I need my visual input to be a bit stronger than that.

DD: Talking of which, you were a punk at college and then you moved into the new romantic era. Did a new ideology come with it?
Stephen Jones: Oh, completely. When I was at Saint Martins as a punk, all the tutors absolutely hated it, because they thought it was just this ridiculous street fashion. They thought fashion was only Dior or Balenciaga, coming anywhere else but from the catwalks of Paris wasn't valid. Which we thought was completely ridiculous, but then we thought our tutors were completely ridiculous anyway. So it changed everything.

In a way, I think my life was more influenced by club life than fashion design. Then again, I think every single British designer is. Look at Louise Gray, for example. She's completely clubby and even people who aren’t so much, like Jonathan Saunders or Christopher Kane, are fed by the input of London club and music life.

DD: Do you have a favourite type of hat? What is your staple in the millinery world?
Stephen Jones: That’s like asking if I have a favorite child.

DD: Well, there’s usually one...
Stephen Jones: I think probably a top hat and variations I've done on it. I always love it because it looks great on old and young, men and women. A top hat always looks sexy, like you're having a good time.
DD: You've just curated the new edition of A Magazine…
Stephen Jones: It was funny, because 90 percent of it was illustration. I was really annoyed by all my illustrator friends because they said they could do nice drawings of hats. I wanted everything but! They came back with 'oh, you, just have nice drawings of hats and be happy'. It was lovely doing it, and extraordinary to see how much time and effort everybody spent. I mean, Howard Tangye, head of womenswear at Saint Martins, spent a fortnight working every day on one illustration. I was never taught by him, but he's somebody I respect enormously. You think, "oh my god, he's doing that, so kind". Its great to be able to work with people like that.  In the beginning I was worried, because I knew that people themed issues – a "this" issue or a "that" issue. I realised I just wanted it to be a showcase, and that's what it is. It's not about editing things out, it's actually about putting more in. 

DD: In the new year you worked on menswear and the couture shows. Now women's. What are your tips for getting through the fashion months?
Stephen Jones: You have to love it. Sometimes when you're there at four in the morning and somebody's asking you to cut up the back of a hat, if you don't like it anymore, you want to kill them. So enjoy it. When you look back, you think, "what did I get my knickers in a twist about?"

Actually, that's my advice: don’t get your knickers in a twist. But that's why people are passionate about fashion, because they care. I remember a few years ago, a former colleague said to one of the girls in the workroom, "Oh, that hat's not nice. Take it apart," and she burst into tears. And the colleague said, "I don't know why she did that, it was just the hat I was talking about." I had to explain, "But you have to understand. Everybody puts their heart and soul into it. It's them – if it wasn't a piece of them, it wouldn't be any good. That's what makes Londoners, everybody puts their heart and soul into it.