From the realms of art to the everyday living, throughout History people from all cultures have graciously crowned their heads out of both extravagance and need, complying to the neverending demands of vanity and status anxiety, as a safety net towards uniformity and protocol, or as a survival fighting response to the harshest of weather.
Millinery, or the art and craft of designing and skillfully executing a hat that perfectly contours one’s face – gently enhancing it with equal amounts of quiet exuberance and a dash of mystery – is an ancient art, and one that is present in the collective imaginary through sung and unsung heroes such as cowboys and Indians, Matisse’s and Manet’s paintings, Norman Parkinson’s post-war feather-headed subjects, circus flamboyance, Corinne Day’s famous portrait of a young and freckle-faced Kate Moss for The Face magazine, Ascot atendees, or a self-proclaimed head of state like Napoleon Bonaparte. These days, and after the millinery strive of the 1880s – when businesses were owned by women and employed more people than the clothing industry – hat making is so much more than a business: it’s an integral part of both the fashion and show business industries, defining moments and shaping the brightest of stars.

And no one knows this better than Stephen Jones. Cheshire-born, and the sheer embodiment of today’s millinery, Jones is well-known for his tongue-in-cheek, humorous designs. Classically trained at St. Martin’s, where he fell in love with hat-making after discovering – during his women’s fashion course – that needles and thread weren’t his creative medium of choice, his career path reads like an exciting novel of the fashion literary kind. In a time when New Wave and the New Romantics had taken the space left by the departure of Punk, and the Big Smoke’s creative energy was at its peak, it was certainly a very exciting time for young Stephen. By day, he perfected his craft on the schools studio, whilst in the evenings – dressed to the nines in his unique style and own eccentric hat designs – grabbed everyone’s attention at London’s nightclub du jour, the Blitz, where he gained a legion of stylish followers who, hungry for a slice of his individuality, had become his very first customers. Fast-forward a year and, in 1980, Stephen – backed by Blitz’s owner Steve Stange – opens his first millinery salon in the heart of Covent Garden, filled with poupées, wooden blocks, and an array of materials capable of being polished into heavenly sculptures in the hands of a master. It didn’t take long for the word to spread, and once it did, the salon became the go-to place for showstopping headpieces, and graced by the presence of much-publicised names such as Lady Diana and Boy George. Needless to say, the music industry promptly took notice of Jones’ work and, just one year out of school, he was commissioned by performers such as Spandau Ballet and Visage, followed by Culture Club, Grace Jones, Brian Ferry, Madonna, and more recently, Björk, Alison Goldfrapp, and porcelain-skinned burlesque superstar, Dita Von Teese.
Citing tradition as the anchor for his creative process, and Schiaparelli as one of his design icons, Jones’ creations are whimsical and historically-relevant, as witnessed in the Tudor headpieces worn by Cate Blanchett in the movies ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’, so one could say that, when muted and constrained by the limitations of historic accuracy, Jones’ work is both regal and poised, but it’s the minute his creative genius is set free to wander like a style flâneur, that one is taken aback and set on an enchanting journey through shape, colour, and material. It isn’t surprising then that the industry with which Jones’ work has been more intimately connected has been the fashion one, where other style historians have realised that, the same way they can drape a woman’s body to aesthetic perfection, Stephen is able to achieve it on her face, softly contouring it amidst a sea of paradise feathers, tulle maline and gaufré velvet, handsomely constructed into a sculptural piece that becomes second-nature to the wearer.

Passionate about drawing and the creative process that precedes the actual headpiece taking shape, one could say collaborations are an essential part of his work: “ I have a long history of collaborations and in part I invented it”. From Walter von Beirendonck’s Entomology-inspired headpieces, the human-hair creations at Balenciaga, to the catwalks of Vivienne Westwood, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, and Rei Kawakubu – with whom, in 2008, he launched his first fragrance for Comme des Garçons – his work has graced the heads of quite a few generations of fashion muses, but it is the collaborative effort with John Galliano (a long-term one, which began when he was invited to join the fashion designer at the House of Dior for the Autumn/Winter 1996 show) that has produced some of the best moments in the industry’s history. “For me it was a dream come true. Walking onto the grey carpet and up the staircase in the Avenue Montaigne, remembering all those famous pictures of Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Cocteau and Monsieur Dior himself sitting on those stairs”, he says. It’s inside these four walls that the milliner finds true freedom, as the brief at Dior is one of extravagance and excess, where not even the sky is the limit.

The creative process begins approximately six weeks before the show, when Galliano heads to an exotic location and initiates his visual research, whilst Jones focuses on a head which might fit with that particular season, and be it through the ethnic adornments of the country or its fine arts, the inspiration sources are endless. After concept boards, hundreds of sketches, team meetings, thorough research on materials, and hat construction with a team of highly-skilled Parisian crafters – who assemble and trim them – the collection is taking shape but still very much work in progress. Then, two days before the fashion show – upon the models arrival in Paris, and for the first time – the creations are granted a human dimension through a ‘make or break’ fitting, where hats and headdresses are pinned, adjusted and, depending on Galliano’s approval, finished to perfection, or re-worked and retrimmed, so nothing is definitely finished until the actual runway show. Mastering a labour of both love and almost obsessive attention to detail, Jones was once described by the late Anna Piaggi as the “maker of the most beautiful hats in the world”, whose award-winning work has been exhibited in Museums the world over, including the Louvre in Paris, the Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan, the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, and London’s Somerset House and V&A, the latter in Hats, An Anthology by Stephen Jones, for which the milliner researched the museum’s archive collections – made up of thousands of hats – in search of “a delicious brim line, spectacular detailing, an intriguing provenance, designs that somehow linked past, present and future”, and delivering a visual journey that turned the viewer into a witness of 17 centuries of the prettiest skull adornments, plus a beautifully illustrated book to accompany the exhibit.

As you read this, Stephen Jones is an accomplished milliner who, besides his Model Millinery collection, designs three others, has received an OBE, boasts design collaborations from heaven, and creations made up of feathery dreams. One could be forgiven for asking what else is left to achieve, but as long as there are skulls to be exquisitely adorned and beauty to be astonished by, this milliner’s work will remain a head turner.

( Words by Lola Roftoples Mealha in Essential London magazine – issue 3, Oct./Dec. 2012)

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