Tim Blanks chats up the world’s hottest milliner, Stephen Jones
STEPHEN JONES IS ALWAYS SOMEONE I look forward to seeing during hectic Fashion Weeks. Never mind that the hats he designs to accompany the collections of everyone from John Galliano to Comme des Garçons provide so much fodder for an exchange more random and entertaining than the usual designer interview; he himself is always so calm, witty and gracious that he can reduce anyone’s pre- or postshow stress in a scant few minutes.
That’s why the new exhibition Jones has curated at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is a must for anyone who decides to surf the credit crunch and see the world while prices are plunging. It’s called Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones (closing May 10) and it’s a virtual history of human civilization told through headgear, from an Egyptian mask dating back to 600 BC to pieces Jones recently collected from young millinery graduates around the world. There are more than 300 pieces in all: the core of the display comes from the V&A’s collection and Jones’ own archives, while the remainder are from private collections (among them, the Queen and Dita Von Teese). To give you an idea of how many he had to draw on from his near-three-decade career: in 2008 alone, he created more than 500 distinct styles. Consider this: nine collections a year for Dior (including a ski range and Baby Dior), four for Marc Jacobs, six for Galliano, six for himself and so on. “There are so many collections each season,” he said when we talked in November, “that millinery years are like dog years.”
Stephen’s way with a one-liner gave me the feeling he was rehearsing the speech he was going to make the following week when he was to be given the Outstanding Achievement Award at the British Fashion Awards. “Millinery is like Esperanto” was another zinger. “There are three people who speak it around the world.” Actually, that used to be the case, back in the days when hatmaking seemed like a dying art. But thanks to Jones (and Philip Treacy and a growing army of others), there’s been a renaissance, creatively and commercially.
For him, hats were a happy accident. During the heady height of punk in London, when he was studying at the legendary fashion college Central Saint Martins, he interned at a couture atelier, but found the hatmakers’ atelier next door much more appealing. “So weird, so esoteric, such an escape from the blandness of modern life—it seemed somehow punk to me,” Jones remembered. He’s never lost his appetite for iconoclasm, which is why his most successful professional relationship has been with kindred spirit John Galliano.