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Milliner Stephen Jones on collaboration, cultural appropriation, and Boy George

By Jackie Mallon

16 Feb 2022

Fashion

Stephen Jones FashionUnited

For 25 years he has designed the hats for the house of Dior, working under five different creative directors, as well as creating hats for Vivienne Westwood, Marc Jacobs, Thom Browne, and Schiaparelli, among others, but Stephen Jones says he’s still faking it till he makes it. At a special event at Brooklyn Museum over the weekend to celebrate the blockbuster Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibit, now in its final sold-out weeks, he talked about creativity through the unique language of hats.

Beginnings

Accepted at London’s Central St Martins school as, what he described as, “the token male, in the year of punk, 1976, full of bright ideas,” he also took an internship at both a bespoke tailoring firm and an haute couture house and was immediately struck by how the tailors were always in competition with each other whereas the ladies of the millinery room had no such trouble.

Hats top dresses

“Hats were something I could understand. They were a solid object, they weren’t moving around on the body,” said Jones of his decision to get out of womenswear. Friends had advised him to swap punk London for Paris where his aesthetic might be more easily understood. Said Jones, “The great thing about hats is they don’t have to be washable, they don’t have to be rainproof, they don't have to be anything; they just have to look wonderful.”

His millinery skills are however often employed in creating structured parts of clothing, like the wired dragonfly shoulder detail on a gown in the exhibit. “As dressmakers you work with gravity, as milliners we work against gravity––hopefully.” He mentioned how hats were traditionally worn by men, in Western society at least, while women wore bonnets, but he doesn’t fixate too much on terminology. “Hat, headdress, headpiece, fascinator, to me it’s all the same thing. It’s just something you put on your head.”

From Boy George to Christian Dior

His appearance in Boy George’s music video, "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" caught the attention of Jean Paul Gaultier which led to a collaboration, and soon Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana followed. In 1992 he was invited by John Galliano to make hats for him. Said Jones,“I missed British design, that sort of kookiness, a charm that I could not express with those big Parisian designers, a storytelling.”

In a Womenswear Daily interview he was asked who he thought would be the new designer at Dior, to which he replied, Jean Paul Gaultier. Two days later it was announced that Galliano would helm Dior. “I was so embarrassed by my words,” said Jones, and Galliano didn’t let him live it down easily, greeting his hat suggestions with “Well, I don’t know, ask Jean Paul Gaultier!"

Stephen Jones in front of Galliano for Dior garments Ph. FashionUnited

The art of collaboration

“When a new designer comes into a house it’s never completely straightforward,” said Jones. “But John had always loved Dior, he understood it. He took Dior cuts and used them in his own label, he loved it so much.” Despite the common medium of hats, each designer he has worked with at Dior has had their own different language. In the exhibit Jones points to a towering, lilac, multi-strapped, platform shoe from Galliano’s Dior years sitting next to a Raf Simons embezzled, slip-on sneaker as the perfect example of differing approaches.

While Galliano enjoyed the theater and drama of hats, Simons, with whom Jones had worked before at Jil Sander, preferred veils. “For him they were the perfect mid century gesture,” said Jones. Simons had his 80-year-old mother poke around in her attic to get his student portfolio so that he could show it to Jones; indeed it was full of girls with veils.

“Raf was really all about honesty and purity of design,” said Jones who once suggested a fix for a difficult hat which displeased the designer. “No, it’ll be a lie," Jones agreed with him. "But fashion’s all a lie. Our relationship went a little sour after that.”

Stephen Jones inspired Dior's Maria Grazia Chiuri on dress Ph. FashionUnited
“Maria Grazia I didn’t really know so I invited her for lunch and she asked me for a few suggestions,” recalled Jones. Since then they’ve made thousands of hats together, from tailored trilbies to tulle masks, predominantly for the ready-to-wear, “because she, like Monsieur Dior, believes that hats are an extension of the line,” said Jones. “She doesn’t see them as something separate.” He even advised her on making a surrealism-inspired black and white checkerboard pattern oblique to reflect more the collection's theme.

Something which he thinks united all of them was their foreigner status. They were observing the codes of Parisian elegance from the outside. But being the outsider doesn’t always guarantee success. Ten years ago, Rei Kawakubo disliked all of the hats he’d created on sight. Then she said, “Give me a minute,” turned them all inside out, and then selected three of them for her Comme des Garçons show.

Importance of independence

Jones spends a third of his time in Paris, a third in London, and a third elsewhere. He has always rejected any offers to become full-time anywhere. “When I’m in London, I want to be in Paris,” he said. “When I arrive in London after Paris, I kiss the ground like the pope, that’s just the way I am. I value my independence.” He works on six collections per year for Dior Womenswear across haute couture and ready-to-wear, add to that the men’s collections and soon Baby Dior which he is very excited about.

Gianfranco Ferre designs for Dior Ph. FashionUnited

On creativity and longevity

Jones has always traveled for inspiration and communicates ideas primarily through sketches. “Material can discipline the shape but the shape comes first. I’m as likely to write down a list of words as do a sketch because the meaning has to be there. It’s not necessarily the physicality of the hat itself, it’s the message within it.”

For the exhibit, even for the hatless looks, he created a statement for each mannequin head: the effect of a 60s beehive in black resin; Marcelle waves translated into a wavy line of beads; in the section designed by Gianfranco Ferre, a sculpted “haute couture chignon.”

He finds every single hat he attempts creatively challenging. “When I take the hats out of the box for a new season, I don’t know if the designer is going to like them or not,” he said. “It always fills me with complete terror.” After 40 years in the business he still believes you can never rest on your laurels, every season is a new season, and you have to be continually inspired.

Cultural appropriation

The problems within Galliano’s work can be particularly glaring under a modern lens, but the house of Dior, when selecting outfits for the exhibit, deliberately included items that would contribute to the ongoing conversation. The Clochard haute couture collection of 2000, based on the homeless of Paris, was met with accusations of glamorizing human misery, and was, said Jones, “The first thing that got John into trouble.” For the runway the millinery atelier had to make a perfect top hat, a labor in itself, then Jones set about cutting it up and destroying it to evoke a battered look. In Spring 2004’s Egyptian collection, Galliano emblazoned an ancient religious symbol on a gold headpiece. While Jones believes that Galliano held respect for the culture he understands that it couldn’t be created today. “Things are very different now, but that was eighteen years ago.”

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Stephen Jones