Stephen Jones may be England’s most beloved milliner; he is certainly its most radical, and its most playful. In the late 1970s, he famously at- tended Central Saint Martins by day and the Blitz club by night, where his extraordinary self-made hats attracted the attention of New Romantic royalty including Boy George, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, as well as future fashion legends Isabella Blow and Jean-Paul Gaultier. The year after Jones graduated, Blitz owner Steve Strange offered him backing to open a millinery shop under his own name, and the rest is history.
Jones is now entering his fourth decade of endlessly inventive collaborations with Gaultier, John Galliano, Thierry Mugler, Comme des Garçons, Vivienne Westwood and more, which he produces alongside biannual collections for men and women under his own name, and a seemingly inexhaustible flow of one-off designs for modern icons such as Grace Jones, Björk, Beyoncé, Kylie and Princess Diana.
Jones: It was really completely by chance. When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut, not a milliner. I went to Saint Martins and my tailoring teacher said, “You’ve got to prove yourself, because otherwise you’re going to fail in the first year,” so I became an intern at a couture house in London, as a tailor’s apprentice. But what happened was that I changed their millinery approach, and I guess that’s how I got into millinery. Really, millinery chose me. I was doing women’s fashion at Saint Martins but what everybody wanted from me was my hats, not my clothes. Everybody said, “Your clothes are OK but your hats are amazing!” And that was 33 years ago.
Motwary: In your opinion, what makes a great hat?
Jones: God knows! For me, I think it has to have an element of fantasy to it, or the person who wears it must feel some kind of fantasy. It doesn’t matter whether it is a big thing you do for a fashion show or whether it’s a baseball cap. It has to turn you into somebody. It applies whether you are young or old, a man or a woman—it’s got to have some magic to it.
Motwary: What about a great milliner?
Jones: Someone who is a complete masochist! I think you have to really love it because it’s really tough to do. In a way it’s more difficult than being a dress designer, although in another way it’s easier, in terms of competition. The amount of time and trouble that goes into making a hat is often more than it takes to make a dress. So financially and in business terms, it is really difficult.
Also, if you are a milliner you always work in a team—you have the designer, the make-up artist and the hairstylist. You have to be a good co-worker and a good listener. If you are a “grand diva”… but you should ask my staff. They would probably say that I’m not a diva, I’m a nightmare.
Motwary: Why have you succeeded, do you think?
Jones: Thanks to a good sex life and God! (Laughs) Really, all the people around me wanted me to succeed. It’s difficult, almost impossible, to do something by yourself. Your friends and family help you to become your dream. Some of the people along the way who helped me out were [Vanity Fair fashion director] Michael Roberts; the Browns boutique in London, who bought Galliano’s first collection— Mrs Browns really helped me—Thierry Mugler; John Galliano; all these people.
But there is no magic formula. People say, “I want to be a successful milliner,” and they look at Philip Treacy or at me. We do it for different reasons and in different ways and we became successful for very different things. Have fun and try to make great hats first, and then you might be a success. I think I have good genes as well.
When I was a teenager I hated everything about my parents’ experiences. I didn’t hate them, you know, but I wanted to create my own life. I remember being totally horrified at the age of 14, when my mother told me I reminded her of my father. I thought, “Shit, now everything is lost.” You know, at 14 everyone wants to be fabulous. Eventually what you learn is that the genetic thing is stronger than anything else. So the most important ingredient for success is to pick your parents very carefully!
Jones: I’m not interested in protecting it, frankly. In a way, I am given that talent, or whatever it is, and it is my privilege to be able to share it with people. When I am copied it feels fantastic. I did a hat for Jil Sander this summer, a little beanie hat with a veil on it, and lots of people from Anna Dello Russo to Bryanboy wore it every day for six months. There are even websites now on how to make your own Stephen Jones for Jil Sander for $5 instead of the $500 it costs in the shop. I think it is the most fantastic thing ever – it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. When someone says, “They stole my silhouette” or “That’s my idea”… I mean, shut up and move on!
Motwary: Do the next thing to be talked about, right?
Jones: Yes, do the next thing. This is what’s the most fantastic thing about this business. The memory of fashion is so short—it only lasts six months—so you have to move on and do the next thing. But it’s funny how everybody is so protective. I remember what Malcolm McLaren once said on the radio, that what people forget is that the vocabulary of fashion nowadays is extremely small. Which is so true! Is it a big story whether someone is doing pink or red? I mean, how stupid is that, in the real world? So for designers, they feel they have to carve out some area of design, and protect that area, because so many people want to come in and take it. I don’t think like that. I don’t need protection.
Motwary: How do you manage to create so much, for both your own clients and the designers you collaborate with?
Jones: It can be crazy. Marc Jacobs, Comme des Garçons, Jil Sander, Walter Van Beirendonck… People often ask me, “How do you do it?” Imagine you are going to a party, and lots of people are standing in a room. You would have a different sort of conversation with every person, right? Naturally, with each of them you share a different experience. In a way, the hats I do for individual clients are like individual conversations. I will never have the same discussion I am having with you that I’d have, let’s say, with Hamish Bowles. I am not saying we are not all interested in a similar thing, but it’s different. The hats are sort of an extension of that relationship.
Motwary: Is it difficult to maintain so many relationships?
Jones: With private customers, some I’ve known for a long time. For example, Dita Von Teese, I work on her stage shows, and we are friends; Kylie Minogue; even people who are not famous, I become friends with. I tend not to go so deep as with designer clients, because there aren’t enough hours in the day. Even though I really like working with individual clients, the girls in my shop hate it, because a client will come in and I’ll say, “Of course you can have pale pink with blue stripes on it!” and the girl behind me is saying, “No, no, and certainly not with that frown.”
Motwary: After 30 years, what keeps things fresh for you?
Jones:It’s just that thing of creation. I love to keep a note- book in my bag and every day I do some sketches in it. There is always a creative need, something that takes creativity out of me as well as me offering it.
Motwary: Is there is a methodology or philosophical frame- work within which you work?
Jones: Yeah—what’s a good hat? My philosophy is that whatever I do is about trying to make fantasy come true. I try to always be open-minded and inclusive. One of the things about fashion that is not very nice is saying, “I have power over you, and I am right and you are wrong, because I have this season’s Prada shoe and you are wearing a shoe from five years ago.” I have always had a problem with that. Fashion has always been about personal expression through appearance for me. It is crucially important. So my philosophy about what I do with hats is to allow people to express themselves, or express the person they want to be.
Motwary: Is there a hierarchy with your hats, or do you treat each design with the same care?
Jones: No, I don’t treat each hat with the same care. Things work better from being worked on, sometimes, and developed in a very calm way, fitting after fitting. But the best work, actually, is completely spontaneous—don’t think about it too much even if it’s your first idea. You have to secure the energy of it.
Motwary: Is fashion a necessity or an excuse?
Jones: Fashion is absolutely a necessity. As RuPaul said, “We are all born naked; the rest is drag.”
Motwary: Do hat people have anything in common?
Jones: They are all crazy fuckers!
Motwary: I’m going to use that, I like it!
Jones: Well, they all are. Everybody who works with me is crazy. But it’s great; I love it. Other people could live in suburbia and have 2.2 children, but most of the people around me do not have that. If I create some kind of world where people can feel comfort- able, that’s a blessing.
Motwary: Has the meaning of hat-wearing changed these days?
Jones: Completely. It used to be about etiquette; doing the right thing in the right way. Today it’s still a bit about etiquette, but it’s also about fun, or creating a particular look, or just enjoying your appearance.
Motwary: Who do you consider the greatest hat designers in history?
Jones: My favourite was [Elsa] Schiaparelli and the shoe hat that she designed for Dali. She was a dress designer, not a milliner, but she was a fantastic hat designer. There was also this French milliner, Lilly Daché, who worked during the 1940s and ’50s in New York. She made these hats that had real American glamour to them. Where European work was more controlled, she really had that Hollywood excitement going on in her hats. She was extraordinary. Nowadays, Philip Treacy is incredible, Noel Stewart… Vivienne Westwood is a good hat designer as well. John Galliano of course.
Motwary: During my intern days at Galliano in 2004-05, I had the pleasure of seeing you at work. The two things that really made an impression on me were your politeness and the fact that you were a good listener. What has this business taught you?
Jones: Oh God, everything! That I am very lucky to be one of the very few who can combine my life with my work. Also I’ve learnt that people don’t always do the right thing. And I have learnt to forgive… There is one particular person, Shirley [Hex], who was actually the lady who taught me how to make hats. Frankly, if she was a miner I would have been a miner as well. She was one of those incredible teachers who really took me off to another planet. It was Shirley and me who introduced John Galliano to [his longtime right-hand man at Dior, the late] Steven Robinson. I met Steven when he was 16, at a college where Shirley had asked me to go, to judge a competition that was all wacky hats. And there was one particular hat, which was discreet and neurotic, and I gave it the first prize, and the person who had created it was Steven Robinson. Part of this prize was being an intern with John Galliano. I was very fond of Steven. I mean he was crazy and used to get on my nerves but, my God, he got me to do some of my best work.
Motwary: What sorts of references in art inform your creative process?
Jones:Certainly art is very important. Looking at paint- ings is an important part of my creative process. I am working on the spring/summer 2013 collections and they’re actually based on artists’ colonies, whether the colony is in Britain, where all the European artists went during World War II, or in Laguna Beach, California, where all the American Impressionists went… Next summer is strongly about art movements. And surrealism, of course, as the art of hat-making is surreal anyway. [Balances a Coca-Cola can on his head.] You can put anything on your head!