For 30 years, Stephen Jones has made hats. maybe you’ve seen one of his creations in the pages of Vogue, or at a Christian Dior or Marc Jacobs fashion show. Jones makes hats not only for Jacobs and Galliano, but also for Giles Deacon and Comme des Garçons, and in the past he’s worked closely with many other designers including Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, and Vivienne Westwood. If you’ve seen Dita Von Teese photographed in a tricorn, Madonna dressed in her Evita-period finery, Christina Aguilera in a miniature top hat, or the late Princess of Wales in a beret, then you’ll have seen Jones’ work. Heaven, isn’t it?
Jones has been at the center of the fashion industry since his days as a student at Central Saint Martins, whether as part of the New Romantic scene in London in the early ‘80s—when theatrical dressing up was de rigueur and fashionable London life revolved around The Blitz nightclub—or making the hat for Mario Testino’s first ever cover shoot, or Kate Moss’ first ever modeling assignment. His hats have appeared in pop videos like David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes,” films—Jones did the hats and headpieces Cate Blanchett wore for the film Elizabeth—and world-class museums (in 2009, Jones co-curated the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum titled Hats, An Anthology by Stephen Jones which featured almost 400 hats, including many of his own. Currently, MoMu, the Fashion Museum in Antwerp is showing a retrospective of Jones’ hats from throughout his 30-year career). If that wasn’t enough, next year, an hour-long documentary called Stephen Jones: A Charming Man, directed by the photographer of this feature, Gitte Meldgaard, will be released, and will include interviews with just about every juicy name in fashion (John Galliano, Giles Deacon, Katie Grand), fashion journalism (Hilary Alexander, Anna Piaggi, Hamish Bowles), and show biz (Dita Von Teese, Boy George), as well giving viewers insider access to the milliner himself.
It’s the perfect title for a film about Jones. Small in stature, always smiling, and with his signature shaved head—the story goes, friends lopped his hair off for a New Year’s Eve prank in 1980 and Jones has never looked back—Jones is an insider who could not be more welcoming; the artist and consummate professional who refuses ever to be precious. “A hat can be anything,” says Jones about the eternal appeal of covering your head. “It can be functional, it can be decorative, and you can wear it if you are old, young, fat, thin, male, female, whatever. A hat is democratic. It’s like a super power times ten,” he continues. “You move differently in a hat, you feel differently, you act out a part. But more than anything, hats are about the person wearing them. What’s more gorgeous than Billie Holliday’s gardenia behind the ear?”
Not much, it’s true. But a good many of Jones’ hats qualify. To celebrate his 30 years in fashion, Jones spoke about some of his most seminal pieces. His most meaningful hat? He doesn’t hesitate. “The first hat I sold. That was back in 1980, and it was to Steve Strange, who ran The Blitz nightclub.” Jones used to go to the club with his friend, stylist Kim Bowen, who wore the “strict and gothic” hats that Jones made for her in his evenings, the only time off from his day job as a truck driver. He had fallen in love with millinery while a student and on a work placement at the London couture house Lachasse. “That hat for Steve was a little masked thing made from antique black-and-gold braid; [it was] a skull cap with a fin that went down and covered one eye. I sold it for £75, which was a fortune then. But it took me a month to make it.” Did Strange love it? “He did. It was the first hat I sold and the first hat I made for Steve—of many.”
The second most meaningful hat to Jones is a yellow-and-gold take on a turban from 1982. “It was my first cover,” remembers Jones. “Michael Roberts was the fashion director of Tatler magazine then, and though he wanted to use my hats, he couldn’t because anything featured in a magazine had to have at least five different stockists in the UK. Of course, everything has changed now. But then, though I had my own little shop in Covent Garden, I didn’t have any other stockists. The problem was solved by the stylist Robert Forrest who was then the buyer for Browns. He agreed to stock whatever Michael featured in the magazine. So, it was thanks to those two that I got my first cover in December 1982.”
The next in his list of meaningful efforts is the first hat Jones made for another designer, which propelled him onto the international stage. It was for Jean-Paul Gaultier in 1984. “I was in Culture Club’s video for their song ‘Do you Really Want to Hurt Me,’ looking very Café de Paris in Tangier in the early ‘50s,” says Jones. “Gaultier saw the video and said he wanted to base his first men’s collection on what I was wearing, which was a pale blue zoot suit and red fez, and so he asked if I would model in the show.” Jones pauses for a moment. “I never had a business plan,” he says. “It was more that one thing just lead to another. The older you get the more you realize how so much connects. When you’re younger you think you can create this great independence for yourself, but as you get older you realize that whatever you do, you just get clawed back into the world.”
Did he walk down Gaultier’s runway? “I couldn’t,” says Jones, “because I’d sprained my ankle. But when I was next in Paris with my assistant, Sibylle De Saint Phalle, we went to see Jean-Paul. He showed me the film of the show and then asked me if I’d be interested in making hats for his women’s wear collection. I said yes, and immediately sketched out my ideas for it.” The results, fez-inspired hats complete with bleeding eyes, that look like they might have been made yesterday. And yet, in 1984, on Gaultier’s runway, they were exactly of the moment. “Well,” says Jones. “What looks good then still looks good now. Because the things you trade on and use as references—historicism or modernism or futurism—those things remain the same. Those things never date.”
That is true and is part of the magic of a Jones hat. They are often wildly witty and imaginative, but they are grounded in a huge bank of knowledge and learning. Nor are they made for the sake of it. Not a single hat Jones has made has been an indulgence. First and foremost, he cares that his hats are worn and that they enhance whoever is wearing them. One of his most famous hats was a simple beret worn by the Princess of Wales in 1983. “Seminal hat number four,” says Jones. “Because she was the most photographed woman in the world.”
Seminal hats five and six were also photographed and seen all over the world. Both are hats Jones made for John Galliano—Jones has worked with the designer on every collection since 1993. “For the very first season, I made a 1930s-type black straw hat with pink velvet bindings and a hat pin. Unfortunately, I realized at the airport on the way to Paris that I’d left the hat pin on my desk.” What did he do? Jones laughs, “I went to the airport pharmacy and bought a pink sponge. On the aeroplane I cut out a ball from the sponge with a pair of nail scissors and put it on the end of a hatpin I made out of a coathanger. Amanda Harlech, who was working with John then, saw it and said to me: ‘Put the best hat on Christy—she gets all the pictures,’ and she was right. Back then, The Herald Tribune only let Suzy Menkes use one photograph a day, no matter how many good shows she’d seen, and the photo she used that day was of Christy Turlington modeling for John wearing my hat with the coathanger and pink sponge hatpin.”
Fast forward ten years and times have changed. Photographs from each season’s collections are shown in newspapers all over the world. When, in January 2004, Erin O’Connor walked down the runway for the Dior Haute Couture Egyptian show, she was dressed in gold and wore a Stephen Jones Nefertiti crown that looked like it was made from solid gold but in fact weighed no more than a pound. Photographs of O’Connor in her crown made the front cover of 110 newspapers around the world.
Is the golden crown the hat that makes Jones most proud? Not at all. He doesn’t have favorites and is much more preoccupied with what he is working on next than his own past. “I’ve just made a top hat for the Latin singer Ivete Sangalo,” he says, with pleasure. “I’ve made top hats for Kylie Minogue, Pink, Christina Aguilera. Anyone who wants a top hat comes to me. We make them in every size and adjust their scale to suit the wearer perfectly. That way, they are incredibly flattering.”
Finally, it is that which Jones cares about more than anything: the wearer. Hats are great, yes, but their wearers rule. “Of course,” says Jones. “Other milliners are very much about the hat, but one of the first things I learnt at Lachasse was that everything was about the client. It might have been fun to make Sangalo an elaborate headdress, but she’s Brazilian, she’d done that. What she needed was a top hat that suits her perfectly, and so that’s what we made her.”