Designers / Entreprenuers / Milliners / The Sunday Times

Stephen Jones: A Fantasy of Hats

The world of high fashion is divided into people who have worn a hat by Stephen Jones and those who have not. In the former camp are the aristocrats you’d spot at Ascot and a dozen actresses including Nicole Kidman, Keira Knightley and Cate Blanchett. There’s Carla Bruni Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s wife Samantha, who made a terrible faux pas when she turned up at the Royal Wedding hatless (she now relies on Stephen to keep her in suitable headgear). There are fashion labels like Dior, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano, whose models wear his designs on the ramp. There’s an astonishing congregation of pop stars – Madonna, Usher, The Rolling Stones, Diana Ross, The Spice Girls, Beyonce, Barbara Streisand, U2, Celine Dion, Janet Jackson, Kylie Minogue, Wham!, Bjork, Tori Amos and most recently Lady Gaga who wore his creation to the launch of her perfume.

All set for Ascot. Pix courtesy Stephen Jones millinery

The man who made Princess Diana’s hats has only one name left unchecked on his list of dream clients – Michelle Obama. Still, Stephen hasn’t given up on her just yet. “She’s never worn a hat. She’s worn a baseball cap occasionally, but no, she’s never worn a real hat,” he says, hopefully.

You wouldn’t expect to encounter one of the world’s leading milliners in a lobby of a hotel in Mount Lavinia. (In fact, he is fresh from Paris where his designs were the crowning glory of Dior’s new spring collection.) When we meet him, Stephen is dressed in lilac and carrying a straw hat of his own design in a deep metallic purple. He has another seven hats packed away and waiting in his car outside – he’ll wear them down south where he will do a session at the Galle Children’s Festival. Stephen loves Sri Lanka – he first came here 20 years ago and has returned more than once. He even created a collection in 1997 – ‘Lotus Eaters’- that was inspired by the island’s staggering natural beauty.

Stephen’s creations are rather extraordinary – they cover the spectrum from the flamboyant Royal Ascot hats (which can cost their wearers upwards of ₤900, approx. Rs.180,000) to simple knitted beanies which are quarter the price. A new customer marks the launch of an investigation for Stephen – “I have to be an amateur psychotherapist,” he says, explaining that he believes his job is to help her choose to be whatever she wants to be. “I’m a part of that, part of the fantasy.” In particular when it comes to his famous clients, he says “They want a costume as well, even if it’s for their private life. If they’re having a bad hair day, they can still rush out of the hotel and into the limousine and still look well dressed.”

Stephen:A flair for the flamboyant.

When Stephen gestures, you notice immediately that the fingers on his right hand are deformed, ending in stumps a little above the knuckle. Born with a congenital defect, as a child he had to have surgery to separate his fingers. However, this seems to have taken very little away from his ability to do fine, intricate work. (His only real challenge, he says is in scooping a hardboiled egg out of its shell.)

To be a milliner, Stephen has said more than once, is to be a master of all materials – to know how to work with felt and flowers, plastic and metal and to manipulate fabrics of every description. This year, working on Designer Marc Jacobs’ fairy tale themed collection saw his hands full of fur: “real dead animals” – it was all mink, fox, yak fur, and long-haired goat.

Stephen has built an amazing career on the conviction that a hat can change how its wearer feels and is perceived by those around. “That’s why hats are so special – because they do tell a story,” he says. The military commander atop his horse might wear something that adds to his consequence, a Japanese samurai chooses his head gear to intimidate, but Stephen believes that for most women, a hat is a chance to try on a different personality.

“In the women’s magazines they always say ‘Embrace who you really are, be the real you.’ Actually most of the girls I know, know who they are and would quite like to be someone else and a hat can make you feel like somebody else. It’s a costume,” says Stephen. It helps that the right hat can provoke the most extraordinary response in others: “You always get to the front of a queue, you always get served first, men do crazy things for women in hats,” he says. “It takes you out of the ordinary.”

However, for Cheshire-born Stephen as young boy, hats were a part of everyday life – he wore one to school in Liverpool and his mother and grandmother had their own for church. It was only in the 70s and 80s that hats suddenly became fashion accessories again. At the heart of the movement were a group of young, ridiculously flamboyant people who were dubbed the New Romantics and were to be found at the Blitz nightclub in Covent Garden. Stephen was one of the 40 odd ‘Blitz Kids’, a group that included Boy George and Princess Julia, the British DJ.

“Everybody just loved dressing up and we just did what came naturally – our self-expression was our clothes,” says Stephen, who once wore 6ft golden wings to the Blitz. While attending St Martin’s College of Art, Stephen began to produce head gear for friends. “In fact, when I was in college I almost learned more from my friends and going to a nightclub than I learned from my teachers,” he says. It was his cameo appearance in a 1982 Culture Club video “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” that led to a collaboration with Jean Paul Gaultier, for whom he designed many hats including the iconic fez with the traditional tassel reworked into a teardrop.

From his Lotus Eaters’ Collection: Hats inspired by Sri Lanka

Though success has stalked his every move, Stephen was an unlikely fashion designer. He had left home and a temporary postman’s job (the highlight of which was his inadvertent mis-delivery of an IRA letter bomb to someone who quite calmly took it out into the garden and called the cops) for London and a career in fashion. He had been enrolled in a boys’ boarding school – “where we never sewed, we play rugby” – and so had trouble threading a needle where his new peers were already accomplished tailors. To compensate, he began to train under a seamstress at a couture house but soon chose to switch to the millinery department. He knew within the first day that this was where he wanted most to be – he felt he could master a solid object like a hat in a way he couldn’t a fluid garment.

When he opened his shop – having sold his car to raise funds after his family refused to fork out the cash – it was the Blitz crowd who were his best customers. But that changed when he got a call from Princess Diana’s wardrobe mistress. He would soon become a regular visitor to Buckingham Palace (“You drive through those gates and you can’t help but pinch yourself”). His memories of Princess Di include a young, newly married girl listening to Wham Rap! on her Walkman and later of a mother riding herd on her two little boys, trying to make sure they didn’t play with the scissors. “Diana was great,” he says. “She only got more beautiful as she grew older – beauty is also about confidence and grace and she became more confident and able to work within the royal circle.”

Royalty make an appearance too in ‘Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones’ a successful touring exhibition that Stephen put together for the Victoria and Albert Museum. On display are a number of significant pieces like the Salvadore Dali inspired ‘shoe’ hat, Theodore Roosevelt’s top hat and even something from the film My Fair Lady. “It was amazing pulling together all the most extraordinary hats from all over the world and putting them into an exhibition,” says Stephen.

As the exhibition wraps up, Stephen is only going to get busier. In October, tickets will go on sale for the 2013 Royal Ascot. 30,000 visitors a day, for five days, at least half of whom are women, means good business for milliners. Stephen approves of the change in the rules that will increase the formality of the dress code – “so these ladies don’t look like they’re going for a cocktail party,” he says. At 55, his team of 20 still creates hundreds of hats a year but the London-based designer is most pleased to be able to do more teaching and says he looking forward to working with the children in Galle. “When I was a little boy I always liked making things,” he says, remembering playing at being both airplane and pilot. It’s a pleasure he wants to share. “It can actually be quite simple and still be this amazing fantasy,” he says.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on October 14, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Nilan Maligaspe and courtesy Stephen Jones Millinery.  

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