Posted by steven yatsko | August 26th, 2019

Stephen Jones

Reflecting on Stephen Jones’ prolific, enduring presence in the fashion industry, I’m struck by how underused the word “hatting” is as a verb. Jones is, after all, a milliner first and foremost. He has worked with the great and good in fashion, art and underground culture, and even many of the British royal family. His beautiful, radical pieces have been firm fixtures in the collections of John Galliano, Rei Kawakubo, Vivienne Westwood, and many many more, for several decades. To be “hatted” by him is to be transformed into a better, brighter, more beautiful version of oneself.

Born in Cheshire, Jones came up in the London of the 1970s; by day, he studied at Central Saint Martins – he started out in Women’s Fashion, but soon moved to Millinery – and by night, frequented the now legendary Blitz nightclub, where he fashioned hats and headpieces for friends and fellow partygoers. (When, in 1990, Jones opened his first millinery salon in Covent Garden, it was with the support of Blitz owner Steve Strange.)

Now, almost 40 years on, Jones remains at the eye of fashion’s swirling storm, travelling around the world to work with the creative directors of the great houses, conjuring catwalk shows, exhibitions and fairytale creations in the blink of an eye. Ostensibly, his role is that of a milliner, adding the final flourish that so deftly brings a collection to life. In fact, his intuitive and incisive approach to the design process, and his decades of experience in an ever-evolving industry, mean his presence is often felt far beyond the headwear.

So how does fashion today compare to the world he entered into in his early years? It’s wonderful, he tells me. And busy. We sat down to discuss courage in design, making time to sketch, and the importance of listening to your collaborators.

Photographer : Lucy Alex Mac for

Interview and Text: Maisie Skidmore

Stephen Jones, you’ve had quite a season.
It’s been non-stop action. After the shows in March, we did a show for Dior in Dubai. The next week I was in Doha, then Marrakech for the Dior Cruise show. The day after that I went to New York, and worked on the Camp exhibition [Camp: Notes on Fashion, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art]. The day after that, I installed Dior in Dallas, then we did Dior Man, and then the couture shows… Busy busy busy!

How do you find the pace of fashion now? The industry’s changed quite considerably since you started out.
I certainly have less free time. I think the pace has always been fast – especially in the Dior Galliano years. Everybody says how busy it is now, but actually, nobody’s ever been as busy as we were then, when we were running two houses. That was really, really intense.

But it is true what they say, you know: “if you want something done, ask a busy person”. You could spend six months trying to work out how to make the perfect beige A-line skirt, but the rhythm is so fast now, it’s really important to know when to actually do it and move onto the next thing. It’s quite good to apply that to hats, because if you overwork a hat you tend to kill it.

I love the idea of the hat as a living entity. I recently read something that Vivienne Westwood said of your creations, along the lines of: “When a woman walks into a room wearing a Stephen Jones hat, everybody comments about how beautiful she looks, as opposed to what the hat looks like.”
I think that’s the most important part of their being – the fact that they’re not living themselves, but they can somehow give extra life to the people who wear them. I love that comment from Vivienne. I really believe that it’s the blend of everything – of the hat with the makeup, the hair, the clothing – which is magical. It’s not individual things themselves.

Collaboration is central to what you do.
Absolutely. I know what I think looks ugly or beautiful, and it’s very good to have that challenged all the time.

I know what I think looks ugly or beautiful, and it’s very good to have that challenged all the time.

Do you ever find it strange working with houses that you’ve had a relationship with for such a long time, now that they’re in different hands?
Of course it’s different. And things move on, things evolve. Especially somewhere like Dior, with lots of different people working there. I’ll be thinking, “well I know what this room looked like when John was working here, 20 years ago. The tables were put over there, then. Which is the best way?” Then somebody says, “oh, is the hat ready yet? Can we try it on please?” And suddenly you’re brought back to reality. When you’re working, you’re listening to a designer, you’re getting a brief for a collection, that’s no different to how it was 25 years ago or 30 years ago. You have to be on the ball, take it in and be a good listener. It needs to fire your imagination. Those things are constant.

How about your own process? Has that changed too?
It hasn’t changed, it’s evolved. From the very beginning I was working abroad. Even though people liked my hats in England, everyone was telling me, “Stephen you need to go and work in France. In France you will be really appreciated.”

I’ve always worked on the move. Sometimes people will ask to come and photograph my workroom, and I say, “yeah, come and photograph me at the Eurostar terminal at 4.30 in the morning when I’m sketching on a piece of paper and photographing it, or sketching into a iPad and emailing it around the world”. That’s my work. My work is communication, not about being stationary.

Of course, methods of communication have changed hugely. When I was working with Comme des Garçons in 1984, if I did a sketch in England, I had to send it by courier to Japan and it used to take eight days to get the sketch there. Then came fax! When I first got a fax, I had a license for people to manufacture hats in Japan; Isetan department stores, myself, and Harrods were the only people I knew who had a fax machine. Isetan bought one for me. Instead of seven days, it would take about a minute – I could do a line drawing and it would take a minute to pop out the other end.

That must have revolutionised the way you worked with clients.
Totally! Especially Comme des Garçons, or working in Paris working with Claude Montana or Thierry Mugler. Of course, they’d like to see you. Now I FaceTime with Marc Jacobs, or we have WhatsApp groups. I was FaceTiming with Dior until about an hour ago.

Do you ever take a break?
What I have to do is to contain it. When I’m away on holiday, I do an hour FaceTiming with my office every morning – my world might want to stop, but the world of fashion doesn’t. It’s great to be busy, too.

Do you think you’ll ever slow down?
Sometimes it would be nice to. For me to slow down, I try and make sure other people and my clients are working efficiently. What I hate doing is wasting time. Which, in the fashion world, often goes down like a lead balloon.

In what respect?
Decisiveness. I will say, “let’s decide on that now. Let’s say that that’s sufficient now.” Some people will say, “we’re actually changing our mind on that”. Fine! But you’re not going to end up with as good a product. Of course, designing and collaboration is a process, but having the courage to make the decision… If I say that to a client, they’re really shocked.

Is it a question of intuition?
Yes. Of course, you’re never quite sure, and in reality things may change at the last moment. But I think people like it. Often when I work with designers, it’s not only the hats that I’m providing, but experience. Often their first idea was a great one – a great, clean and simple one. But then it tends to get muddied with other people’s perceptions. I’m providing reassurance, as well as hats.

Often when I work with designers, it’s not only the hats that I’m providing, but experience. Often their first idea was a great one – a great, clean and simple one. But then it tends to get muddied with other people’s perceptions. I’m providing reassurance, as well as hats.

Do you have a favourite show that you’ve been a part of?
There are so many favourite shows. As they say, “nothing ventured, nothing gained” – the more difficult things are, the more wonderful they tend to be! The Egyptian show with John, for Dior – that was extraordinary and wonderful, and I just thought I was going to die in the process. One hopes that in all the shows, every season, you will get better and better. Of course, you don’t, but that’s also why you go on to do the next thing.

What’s your favourite part of the process?
It’s when the last girl comes off the runway, and her hat hasn’t fallen off.

Have you ever had a hat fall off?
Yes! Once – it almost fell off. But yes, things have fallen off. Not so often, but you always have your stomach slightly churning that it’s not going to work. But what’s my favourite moment? I think maybe when I’m sitting on my sofa at home, on a Sunday morning, sketching rapidly. I sketch every day of the week, but Sunday morning at home is a very precious time. I’m there doing hundreds of sketches, and when I look back through them, I feel a sense of accomplishment. It’s very personal – it’s not something that’s really studied that much, either, because you always have to get on with the next thing! As long as the world keeps turning, and there is a new fashion season, you have to come up with new ideas. It is relentless, but it’s sort of wonderful too. You are continually drained, but you’re continually refreshed as well.

It’s when the last girl comes off the runway, and her hat hasn’t fallen off.

It’s stimulating in and of itself, isn’t it? Do you ever worry that you’ll run out of ideas?
No. It’s always a question of editing, really. There are so many possibilities for what things can be. I don’t really sit there thinking “oh my god, I haven’t got any ideas”. It’s more like “come on, sit down, get on with it!” [Laughs] But every creative person I know is the same, whether they’re a writer, a musician, or whatever. When they’ve got a new project to work on, their kitchen is never as tidy, their socks are in perfect lines…

That’s part and parcel of the process, isn’t it?
Everybody who’s a creative person is putting their heart on their sleeve. It may seem a crazy idea. But we believe in it – we believe that it’s a way of life. It’s what we do. Somehow our genes are predisposed to it.