The Haute Couture Head-Dresser

SLIDESHOW: Exceptional details, feathers or unique fabrics, Stephen Jones can turn anything into a haute couture hat.

Stephen Jones loves berets and top hats, lyrical shapes and mind-boggling forms.

London-based milliner Stephen Jones has been expertly designing hats for over three decades for figures such as Alaïa, Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, Comme des Garçons and Thom Browne. “I’m not a perfectionist; I’d be boring. You will kill a hat trying to correct it. The first drawing always has the spirit,” the milliner explains, on a crisp London day in his Holborn shop. Jones is just back from Paris where he produced leather berets for Maria Grazia Chiuri’s latest Dior show.

With a sculptural approach to his craft, the artist-milliner has become known as a ‘head-dresser’ to the stars, including the late Princess Diana, Victoria Beckham, Mick Jagger and Dita Von Teese. And quite a provocative one, as his latest book Souvenirs suggests. Since graduating from Saint Martins School of Art
 in 1976, the Liverpool boy has stood up for his convictions. Since then, Jones has only lived by one motto: always be clear on what a client wants to achieve when putting a hat on.

“A hat acts as a sort of emotional and physical costume. Unlike clothing, a hat is very much of a sign or totem of something else. Is this hat really you? Who do you want to be when wearing it: a lady, a policeman or a monarch? One simply does not wear a beret or a baseball cap with the same intent,” says Jones.

He vividly recalls the day he designed a red top hat for a Jean-Paul Gaultier show in the 1980s: “Changing its colour was shocking. A top hat in black is so powerful; it comes with a historical perspective. Some of the hats I create are about extravagance; some, on the contrary, are extremely subtle. A hat designed for a couture house is about display; a hat designed for real life is a different brief. There is a hat for every moment in life, whether it is to go to the theatre or to walk your dog,” says Jones.

He finds countless inspirations in the world that surrounds him, as well as past references: “From Casablanca, the film, to a peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich with jam oozing out of a slice of toast, I can never predict in advance what will influence me next. Yet, every hat I design is in relation to a silhouette,” he says. Every six months, Jones composes a new collection, like a director a new script. “I start with a theme and see where it takes me. Hats are allegorical; there is a lyrical quality to them. The final result is often sculptural, but the key denominator is always the freedom it gives the person who wears it.”

For every item he creates, Jones applies the same methodology: he imagines the silhouette, then the hat that matches best, and connects the two. “I think about it in abstract ways, then I start drawing, mingling with a prototype. Sometimes it even comes in toilet paper,” he says. “I travel all the time, and all I need is my passport, telephone and a wooden mini-poupée to imagine hats whenever an idea sparks. I then think of where the shadow goes, I research, sketch some more. Even if I try to control the process, spontaneity remains the drive. For the past 30 years or more, each process has been different.”

Playing with a prototype that mimics the shape of a blood-red brain, he concludes: “You need an orthodox technique to do something unorthodox. Nureyev went to bar class everyday to become the star he was. One simply has to.”

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