Gen Z culture and casual social media jargon mean the phrase ‘icon’ gets thrown around - a lot. While the meaning of the word may be increasingly disassociated with merit and more so with a moment of internet sensation, there are prolific figures who still truly warrant the status. Stephen Jones OBE is one of them.
Jones is considered one of the most iconic milliners of the 20th and 21st centuries, so it is no surprise he has some fabulous anecdotes up his impeccably tailored sleeve. From Princess Diana to Boy George, Rihanna to the current Princess of Wales, the venerated Liverpudlian designer has bedecked them all with his exquisite headwear.
A self-professed clubbing boy of the eighties, Jones curated his career during the rise of androgynous glam rock, joining a wave of London-based Blitz Kids such as Spandau Ballet, Steve Strange and Duran Duran in the plight for eccentricity. Many of his fellow New Romantics would later become clients. Jean Paul Gaultier and Annie Lennox to name a few.
Speaking in a conversation attended by HELLO! with presenter Scott Wimsett, Jones detailed his spectacular career, working with the crème de la crème of British fashion and how to make a sartorial splash at Ascot this year with the help of the Royal Ascot Millinery Collective 2023.
How did Stephen Jones fall head over heels in hats?
I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. I probably wanted to be an astronaut because I grew up in the sixties. I went to fashion school, but I couldn’t sew. I became an intern. I was the only person I knew who worked in industry. Nobody did that in those days. I was 18 and just keeping my eyes open.
Next to the tailoring room was a millinery room. They worked hard and they played hard. The milliners seemed to have fun, they communicated, they worked with interesting materials, their work was dimensional, and they talked with each other whereas the tailors and dressmakers did not talk with each other. It was a solitary craft. So, I asked for a transfer from one department to another. After the first day, it was a bit of a eureka moment. At the time I was doing womenswear at Saint Martins and hats were my hobby, really.
You were a clubbing kid of the eighties with the Blitz club and all those creatives you were hanging out with, talk to us about Stephen Jones as a clubbing boy...
Well, I was a club kid who made hats! I did love hats. It was amazing that so many of those people like Annie Lennox, Duran Duran, Visage and Boy George were acquaintances as they were all club-goers. It was all right place at the right time. That’s why my hats were always smaller because you can’t dance in a big hat. My hats were made for clubbing in. Fairly early on in my career, I was making hats for the Princess of Wales and I was making hats for Boy George.
Were there any similarities between the hats you made Boy George and Diana?
They have to be light, there has to be an element of fun about them. They should tell a story without being this imposing thing. It was definitely about the person who was wearing it, as opposed to the thing you were putting on your head. That was always a guiding light, even if I was doing the craziest hats for Dior or something else.
When did it all start to feel like this is my career and destiny?
It hasn’t yet! I don’t know what else I would do. Within four months I had a shop after leaving college. It was with Steve Strange. He had a shop, PX in Covent Garden, and said the basement isn’t being used and then all these things fell into place. We invited about 250 people to the opening – we blocked the street.
That’s how it started. Then I met Zandra Rhodes and Jasper Conran and started to do hats for their fashion shows.
How do you keep the creativity and joy in the industry and the craft you do?
When I’m creating a hat it’s about the relationship you have and the hat is the product of that relationship. Whether I’m working with a private client or with a designer, you chat, and you get to know each other. You become friends within five minutes. And then you put a hat on top of it. It’s a very quick and intense temporary marriage.
I don’t know if I chose hats or hats chose me. As long as the world keeps turning, there will be an occasion to wear a hat, especially in Britain.
You’ve worked with everyone from Rihanna to Lady Gaga to Mick Jagger to Diana, when you look back, what are the components you’ve learned from working with talent with that kind of impact and influence?
It’s quite a journey when you’re making a hat for a celebrity. It’s not only what they want, but also what the choreographer wants, what the lighting department wants, it’s a whole raft of different people. Quite often, the artist’s voice is submerged within those people, and I like to get them looking in the mirror and asking them what hat they like. How do you want to look?
I remember once with Rihanna, we were doing a fitting for the Met Ball and I had prepared about five hats. Everyone was saying she should be wearing this one or that one. We went into the bathroom and were looking in the mirror and asked her which one she wanted to wear. She said, “That one” and I asked why and she said, “Because I feel pretty in that.” It’s such an essential thing to ask somebody how they wanted to appear. It wasn’t ‘dynamic’ or ‘modern’ or anything like that, it was just that she wanted to look pretty. That was a great revelation for me and also a lesson. You live and you learn.
You’ve worked with Westwood and Dior, would you say it’s still intrinsic to a runway performance to have millinery incorporated into that?
It isn’t intrinsic, but it certainly makes a point. Hats can be used so many different ways in fashion shows. Every season I’m always surprised about how a designer can use them. I had a fitting with Kim Jones for Dior Men as I also make men’s hats and we were talking about which hats are going to be used. The show is going to be very unusual so the hats will be used in a way I have never imagined before. Dior and hats go together. Monsieur Dior was a hat designer before he was a fashion designer. If you look at his sketches before he had the House of Dior, the hats tell a complete story. The hats after he joined Dior had more simplicity to them because the story wouldn’t work.
What's the most memorable fashion runway millinery moment for you?
Our dear friend Erin O’Connor coming out for John Galliano for Dior fashion show in 2004. That was extraordinary. I also thought I was going to die on the spot through tiredness and being terrified the hat was going to fall off. She tried it on the night before and it really didn’t work. Hats are also very last moment but they are a party on your head.
What advice do you give to a client about getting themselves prepped?
When you go to buy a hat, take a hand mirror with you. Think about what an occasion you’ll be at. Is it too much or enough? What suits you? There are small guidelines like if you wear glasses wear a smaller hat or an upturned brim hat, and don’t wear a cloche because the two things will react against each other. However, if you are wearing a cloche with dark glasses you can be a fantastic creature of mystery. It depends on what story you want to tell.
I know what hats should suit people, but if a client comes in and feels fabulous in something, do I have the right to them that they don’t look good in it? No. They’re going to have a ball and they feel confident in it.
How important is it to be in the room with the person buying a hat?
Personal contact is so important and in a way that’s what people pay for. People grow up in jeans and T-shirts but not wearing a hat. It’s not only education, it’s putting people’s minds at rest. Often people feel stupid putting a hat on or they say that they don’t like hats and that’s because they have never experimented with hats.
Many years ago, I remember Samantha Cameron really did not like hats and I went to number ten and I took twenty or thirty hats with me, not only Stephen Jones hats, and we had a big trying-on session. Then she relaxed about them more or less.
How did your friendship with Royal Ascot start?
I was probably around 16 when I first when to Royal Ascot. I remember going in the seventies and seeing the Queen Mother and Princess Anne who always looked extraordinary. Princess Margaret and Her Majesty the Queen. It was about that time that people started to bet on the colour of the Queen’s hat.
What advice would you give to people attending Ascot?
Wear something you’re comfortable with. Have rehearsals at home, wear the hat while doing the vacuuming.
One thing I’m always concerned about when making a hat for Ascot is how heavy is it? You’re not wearing it for half an hour you’re wearing it for seven hours. So, something that is easy to wear is very important. It has to be visually and physically light so it’s not too imposing. If it has got a big brim, make sure it’s not too big for people to kiss you. I often make oval hats for that reason.
Can you share your thoughts about sustainability and millinery?
Sustainability and millinery go together so well. Hats are sustainable by their very nature because nobody ever throws a hat away – ever. They always pass it on to somebody. They pass it on to a sister or a daughter, even when they are squashed, they still have a life. For the effect they have they use a tiny amount of material. People don’t through them away as there are too many associations.
When I first started off, I bought hats from Oxfam and reblocked and remade them. Milliners when they are starting off will take their old trimmings of clothes and make hats from them. Hats are automatically sustainable.
What is the most important hat of your career?
The next one I’m going to make! I have never felt that I have reached a plateau. Maybe that one for Erin O’Connor for Dior couture, that was important. The first hat I made for the Princess of Wales, that was important. The first I had on the cover of a glossy magazine which was Tatler. There are so many milestones.
The 2023 Royal Ascot Millinery Collective launches April 20th 2023 at Fenwick, New Bond Street.
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