Stephen-Jones

Stephen Jones on Vivienne Westwood and Fashion as Pure Art

The milliner recalls the days he daren't enter Westwood's punk store, those he spent out dancing with her, and the enduring impact she’s had on global fashion

Artwork by Holly Benwell

From putting on special hat shows just for Vivienne Westwood in his early Saint Martins days, to designing the prototype for her signature tweed crowns for the catwalk and running up a last minute mini-crini – a monumental piece in fashion history – backstage at S/S85, milliner Stephen Jones has enjoyed a remarkable professional relationship with Vivienne Westwood. Both a customer and a collaborator, Stephen Jones is one of Westwood’s many industry admirers. A 30-page portfolio in AnOther Magazine Autumn/Winter 2017 examines the impact of pioneers Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler, and would be incomplete without the voices of their key accomplices. This talk with Stephen Jones is one of a series of discussions outlining the enchanting, impactful world of Westwood.

AnOther Magazine: I wondered if you could tell us about how your relationship began?

Stephen Jones: I used to go to Sex on King’s Road, to her first shop. In fact I had been to Let It Rock once, which was their first shop, but I was still at school then. I used to go with friends of friends and I’d put my head through the door and get very frightened and leave right away. I knew Sex from my first term at Saint Martins but really, knowing the shop properly was when it was Seditionaries, and that was really my time and when I went to buy things there, I really got to know the world of Vivienne, and Malcolm of course.

AM: And what drew you to it? Do you remember?

SJ: They were the only clothes made by a fashion designer that, at the time, were sort of relevant at all to anybody.

AM: Really? Why is that?

SJ: Nobody else was important. She was the first person to really make clothes for young people, make clothes for my generation. She had a strong point of view. We knew that Mary Quant had done that in the 60s but Vivenne was the next person, her clothes were about a point of view – a revolution.

AM: How would you describe that point of view?

SJ: It was a protest about the safety of the bourgeoisie. She doesn’t conform... she’s a loose cannon.

“She was the first person to really make clothes for young people, make clothes for my generation” – Stephen Jones

AM: And is that what she’s like to work with as well? How have you found that whole process?

SJ: I have made hats for her, for her show infrequently. We’ve done fashion shows together but actually, as far as her work is concerned, she’s very serious, very methodical, very organised and very dedicated to her craft.

AM: What was she like to meet? How did your first encounter go? And with Andreas as well?

SJ: Well first of all I saw her in the shop and because I was a fashion student, I was the lowest of the low. So I scampered off with my tail between my legs. The first time I met her properly was at a club called Louise’s in Poland Street, this must have been in 1978. It was a lesbian club overseen by the very glamourous Louise, who always had a grey mink stole on. You had to pay your money to get in, bizarrely enough, even though it was a punk club, and we used to hang out there with Siouxsie from Siouxsie and the Banshees, Yvonne Gold and Philip Salmon. They played all sorts of different music, their last record of the evening was always Isn’t She Lovely? And I really did not like it at all. I was on the dancefloor, then the last song came on – I think it was done to clear the dancefloor. I quite liked Stevie Wonder in the 60s but certainly in that 70s moment it was just sort of pap. Vivienne and I found ourselves dancing with each other, being the two people on the dancefloor. Very romantically I trod on her foot and she said “What do you do?” And I said “Oh my name is Stephen Jones and I’m a fashion student at Saint Martins. What do you do?” And she said “I’ve got a shop on the King’s Road,” and that was that.

AM: And then you were friends forever?

SJ: Well not exactly, we had so many mutual friends. At that time I used to do little fashion shows every season to show my hats. I remember I sent her an invitation once and said she was very sorry she couldn’t come but she would love to come afterwards. So we did a private show for her, this was presented on Princess Julia and a girl called Louise as well. The makeup was done by Dick Paige – it was his first ever job, now he’s a super famous make-up artist. We showed the collection and we started to talk about circles. I was always very interested in the drawing of Walt Disney and how Walt Disney cartoons were always based on babies and always babies’ face shapes, no matter how old the characters were. That’s how they made them attractive. All the drawings are based on circles as well. That’s when she did her Minnie Mouse, Minnie Trinnie with polka dots on. So those prints came out of our conversation. And then she said “I’ve got this idea of doing some crowns out of fabric,” and she told me about the tweed and I said “Oh we can make crowns out of tweed”. So we worked on the pattern and I developed a sample – that was the first time I worked with her. Then I worked for a few other seasons and we did the felt hats.

Maybe one of the funniest times I’ve ever worked with her was when she started to show in Paris. I hadn’t done hats for the show but I was actually wearing Jeremy Healy’s outfit that he had brought from her, that he’d lent to me, because I couldn’t possibly afford the full outfit myself. We thought we would go and say hello first of all and then we’ll come back in an hour or something. Anyway, we walked in to say hello and Vivienne was there and it was absolute chaos backstage, nothing was ready, everything was being finished off and she said “Oh, you can sew can’t you?” she said “Here’s this thing, can you go over it? There’s the pattern and there’s the fabric,” and I was cutting out a mini-crini to be machined up.

“Our appreciation of every fashion designer today, how the fashion world is today, how we view fashion is different, because of Vivienne Westwood. And that goes for John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela – everybody has been influenced by her” – Stephen Jones

AM: Were you a bit shocked by that?

SJ: I was a bit shocked but I just went with it.

AM: And was that your first introduction to her quite free-flowing process?

SJ: Yeah. I really, really respect what she does and think she likes what I do.

AM: How does she make you feel about what you are creating? Does it feel different to anyone else you work with?

SJ: Number one, it feels different because she’s Vivienne Westwood – The Woman Who Changed Fashion.

AM: How do you think she’s changed it? What do you think has happened?

SJ: Our appreciation of every fashion designer today, how the fashion world is today, how we view fashion is different, because of Vivienne Westwood. And that goes for John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela – everybody has been influenced by her.

AM: How so? Is it a certain freedom? Or rebellion? Any way you can describe it?

SJ: I think it’s a rebellion and also fearlessness and knowledge. A very different way of clothing construction but with respect for history as well.

AM: What about Andreas, what’s he like to work with and how does that work?

SJ: He’s always very jolly, I’ve only worked with him once, which was one particular collection about four or five years ago. He’s extremely hard working, but he’s a very good stylist too. That’s how he understands hats. And in his own collections, when he was doing Man and Anglomania, they were all very focused on accessories too.

“For me her pieces are art, they are fine art, not applied art. I’m very lucky to have them because I think they are as important as the Bar Suit and the New Look” - Stephen Jones

AM: How do you see their relationship working in that environment?

SJ: I think it’s like any two people, working together and in any relationship there’s good days and there’s bad days and it must be like that. I’m sure they exasperate each other but they inspire each other too.

AM: That’s definitely what I’ve been hearing from people. Do you feel an affinity with her work and her ethos? Does it strike a chord with you?

SJ: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean I still have my original bondage trousers and I can get into them nowadays as well. I can wear those and they are this very precious thing to me. I’ve got my Cambridge Rapist T-shirt still, from the first time round, from Seditionaries. For me they are art, they are fine art, not applied art. I’m very lucky to have them because I think they are as important as the Bar Suit and the New Look.

AM: Really?

SJ: Oh yeah, Oh god yeah.

AM: Why’s that? What about them makes them so monumental?

SJ: Because fashion really only makes sense when it is completely related to society and politics. That’s the interesting thing that is happening in fashion now. I have read so many articles saying young people are into experiences not fashion. So clothes which have got a political point of view are important to them.

AM: Have you learnt anything from working with her?

SJ: Oh yes of course. One of the things is that the hat is one element of the overall look, a hat is never used just to use it, just to pep up a show, it’s because it’s got a point of view, everything has a point of view.

AM: Do you have any favourite collections? Or anything that really stands out as your most memorable moment?

SJ: The Witches collection is amazing. It was extraordinary.

AM: What did you like about it?

SJ: All the graphics, I mean she was the first person to mix up hieroglyphics with American signage and writing on clothes.

AM: It almost like streetwear isn’t it?

SJ: Yeah certainly. But it was couture at the same time and she understands all that couture, she understands those Dior shapes and those Balenciaga shapes. Also I have to say one thing about Vivienne, I know quite a few Vivienne wearers and it doesn’t matter whether they’re old or young. Whether they’re slim, whether they’re voluptuous – it really suits everybody. Two girls who used to work for me, who used to share their clothes, one was six foot and one was five foot and they would both wear the same Vivienne coat, or sometimes the same Vivienne dress and it looked sensational on both of them. They were both quite full-busted girls too and really not at all the sort of skinny, lithe healthy things. They were women, they were voluptuous women, quite young, but they were definitely women.

“By the time the Ode to Cicero collection came out everybody was still trying to be punk and alternative. Then she comes out doing very, very sexy clothes, like those the Queen and Princess Margaret wore when they were young” –Stephen Jones

AM: Do you think the clothes are built for reality? They seem to stand outside of that hardcore, glossy fashion world? Built for real people. We’ve been talking a lot about her universal appeal as well as her standing outside of history, creating her own world, creating her own place. Do you think that’s what makes it so flexible?

SJ: I mean yes it is quite real, Vivienne sells a lot, and she sells all around the world. You know she has licenses in Italy and licenses in Japan, it’s quite a big brand because the public believe in her. I think the fashion editors sometimes don’t believe in her because they find it too strong and they can’t be styled nicely with a Chanel jumper. I mean, her clothes are so identifiable.

AM: Are there any other anecdotes you remember?

SJ: In the early 80s, there was high fashion and then there were street clothes and every fashion journalist considered Vivienne level number two because it was street clothes, not clothes for real fashion people. And people were absolutely outraged when John Fairchild, who was publisher of Women’s Wear Daily, said that she’s the greatest designer on the planet. I think it was Giorgio Armani who said, “I love to watch every single thing that she sends down the catwalk because it’s new and exciting”.

AM: Why was everyone so outraged?

SJ: Because she sent Sara Stockbridge down the runway with a gold dildo, it’s like, “So what?” but people were really freaked out.

AM: I suppose you can’t contain that sort of thing, it becomes hard, it’s not really categorisable is it?

SJ: No, well that was done to shock. She was so much against the system so by the time the Ode to Cicero collection came out everybody was still trying to be punk and alternative. Then she comes out doing very, very sexy clothes, like those the Queen and Princess Margaret wore when they were young.

AM: So when everyone else was aping her, she switched it up to something else?

SJ: Do you know, in Bath museum they have this thing called ‘The Dress of the Year’? They take one outfit from all the different fashion shows around the world and they collect one outfit per year. What was extraordinary was – it’s normally picked by a fashion journalist – until about four years ago, five years ago, Vivienne had not been chosen, of all the different collections. And actually, I was asked to choose the dress of the year because they wanted to open it up from just journalists and I chose her. I just thought, “I have to use my time here to recognise her talent and her career”.

AM: So what did you chose?

SJ: It was a dress from mainline collection, Gold Label, and in sort of greyish taffeta but with sort of wonderful cutting.

AM: That’s amazing, great that you’ve got your stamp on it.

SJ: Well, she’s got her stamp on it.

This interview was conducted for the Autumn/Winter 2017 issue of AnOther Magazine, on sale now.