Ahead of a new exhibition opening at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, Jones answers a selection of questions on his life and career (and explains why he cannot stand the word ‘iconic’)
In this interview, where I pose 50 questions to milliner Stephen Jones, he reveals that ‘iconic’ is one of his most hated words in fashion’s sycophantic lexicon. It’s a shame, perhaps, because his work could be very justifiably described as just that.
Jones has achieved such status through a career that spans over 30 years, first cutting his teeth at Central Saint Martins, and gaining work experience at British couture house Lachasse, where he honed his craft. In the late 1970s, his haute couture training met with avant-garde subculture, when Jones immersed himself in the New Romantic Blitz era, peacocking around London’s club kid scene with the likes of Boy George, Steve Strange and Isabella Blow.
The milliner is also synonymous with the exquisite work he produced in collaboration with designers Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano, particularly during the latter’s tenure at Dior in the 1990s and early aughts – some of which is now on display at the Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition at the V&A. “I have 129 pieces in that exhibition, including masks and all sorts of different things,” he tells me. Coinciding with the V&A showcase, is another solo exhibit titled Hats at the Royal Pavillion, opening in Brighton this week (a city which has long served Jones with ample inspiration). “The number of pieces for this show is going up by the hour – it’s now about 180,” laughs Jones. “I’m driving everybody nuts!”
1. What is the first the hat that you ever created?
The first one that I ever made was one made out of an old blouse of my sister’s, stuck onto a Corn Flakes box. And it was trimmed with some plastic irises, sprayed silver and blue with Christmas paint.
2. When did you make that?
3. Do you still have it?
No, but I still have the flowers because they’re plastic. I mean, long after I’m dust, those flowers will look just the same!
4. Where do you go to get inspired?
Everything inspires me. But there are certain things about travel which tend to change your mind about things: the sea, the sky. Hats are very much about the air and looking upwards so I tend not to burrow – I fly.
5. Where do you go to create?
It’s normally at home early on a Sunday morning on my sofa. That’s where I sketch.
“Is it supposed to inspire people? No! It’s just a hat! Is it supposed to be a political comment? No! It’s just a hat”
6. When did you feel like you really made it in your career?
I don’t think I have! That’s the crazy thing about fashion: you’re only as good as your last six months. And that’s true for all of us, whether you’re a hat-maker or a journalist or whatever it is. Of course, after a while, you do build up a body of work. But hats are so often about just the novelty of the moment and that’s what’s so lovely about them.
7. What, for you, makes a successful piece of millinery?
I think it’s very simple: it needs to make somebody happy. That’s all. Is it supposed to inspire people? No! It’s just a hat! Is it supposed to be a political comment? No! It’s just a hat.
8. What was the happiest accident you ever had when you were designing a piece of millinery?
So often, it’s just an accidental slip of the pencil. Good things can come from putting things the wrong way round or making a mistake. If you try and work on something too much, you tend to kill it. Your first idea is often the best.
9. Are you a tidy person or a messy person?
If you saw my office at the moment, you’d say I’m a messy person. But I am quite tidy, really. A lot of the mess is other people’s mess, not my mess.
10. What’s the saddest film you’ve ever watched?
Bambi. Terrible. I first saw it when I was ten and I cried for a week after.
11. Do you collect anything?
Not really, no! It’s funny. There are so many who love collecting and it’s part of their creative process, but bizarrely enough, I don’t. My head is so full of stuff already that I almost have nothing on my walls.
12. And what’s your favourite thing about a fashion show?
You’re supposed to say it’s all wonderful. But for a fashion show, if I’m working on it, the best part is when it’s over and I haven’t died in the process! But also, I think it is the moment when the girls are all lined up and about to go out on the runway.
13. Do you have a favourite fashion show memory?
I remember once talking to Stella Tennant just before she was about to go out onto the runway at Dior. She was in a ballgown – a huge, huge dress that made Lady Gaga’s Valentino dress at the Golden Globes look like a mini skirt! She was just becoming a supermodel at that point. She put her chin in the air and her hands on her hips, and she said to me, “you know, Stephen, next week I’m going to be on my knees fixing a washing machine”, and then she sailed out and everybody applauded.
14. How would you define fashion today in three words?
I came, I saw, I conquered.
15. How would you define glamour in three words?
Excitement. Magic. Allure.
“I remember once talking to Stella Tennant just before she was about to go out onto the runway at Dior... She said to me, ‘you know, Stephen, next week I’m going to be on my knees fixing a washing machine’, and then she sailed out and everybody applauded”
16. What’s your favourite thing about contemporary fashion?
It’s changing all the time.
17. What’s your least favourite thing about the contemporary fashion world?
Consumption as opposed to invention.
18. What fashion terminology do you find the most irritating or offensive?
Oh, I’ve got a whole list! ‘Iconic’. ‘Hero’. ‘Elevated’. Elevated is truly shocking. But I think I’m saying this because I’m an old fart. I’m sure I’ve used all of these words when I was younger so I’m probably just as guilty. ‘Curated’ is also awful. I mean, Marks & Spencer probably has a ‘curated selection of Spanish tapas’, or something similar.
19. Which artists have had the biggest impact on you?
My contemporaries who I grew up with. John Maybury, for example. But also Fragonard – anything French Rococo – and Jean Cocteau.
20. In your opinion, what is one of the greatest fashion collections ever created?
Luckily, I was able to work on it too. It was John Galliano Autumn/Winter 1993 when he showed 18 outfits all in black. That was the second season I worked with him at the house in Paris.
21. What was the best part of working with John Galliano?
22. What was the last exhibition you went to?
I went to the Dior exhibition at the V&A – I was there because I was working on it.
23. What was the last thing you took a photo of?
My sketches at seven o’clock this morning.
24. What makes a great fashion photograph?
A cocktail of things.
25. What’s your most treasured possession?
There’s a few: my passport, my iPhone, my thimble and my Lamy 2000 propelling pencil. I was sketching with that this morning.
“My favourite place in London is the Fumoir Bar in Claridge’s because I think that’s somehow the centre of civilisation as we know it”
26. What’s your favourite thing about London?
27. And your favourite place in London?
I’ve got two places: one is getting off the Eurostar in London from Paris and the other is the Fumoir Bar in Claridge’s because I think that’s somehow the centre of civilisation as we know it.
28. Who is your ultimate muse?
Anna Piaggi. She was extraordinary. Also Stella Tennant. She’s extraordinary and charming and I’ve made many hats for her. Whatever I put on her, it’s always about Stella, it’s not about what she’s wearing.
29. What was it like growing up in Wirral?
Bleak! I left in 1975. When I was growing up it was all very depressed – there was 40 percent unemployment, it was a nightmare. My parents moved to near London and my sister was working in London and I just knew I was headed down south too. To me, somewhere like Brighton seemed like the Riviera!
30. What has been your proudest career moment?
Surviving. And receiving my OBE, which was fantastic.
31. What’s the greatest compliment you’ve ever received?
It was from Vivienne Westwood. She said, “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.”
32. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given by anybody?
Probably by the lady who taught me to make hats when I was working at Lachasse. She was called Shirley Hex. I transferred from the tailoring workroom to the millinery workroom and one day, Shirley said: “Stephen, if your hands moved as fast as your mouth did, the hat would be finished by now!” And I didn’t say another word.
33. If you could go back in time and say one thing to your 13-year-old self, what would it be?
“Don’t worry – it gets better.” People always talk about their childhood and teenage years as though they’re the most wonderful years. But for me, I had the most wonderful years later on in life. As a teenager, I felt completely lost – but it propelled me to create my own world.
34. If you could have dinner with anybody, living or dead, who would you choose?
Probably Charles James because he was a milliner first and then became a dress designer. At the exhibition at The Met a few years ago, I could see all his dresses used millinery techniques. I don’t know if anybody was really aware of it. It’s all about hat-making, those dresses.
35. Which historical figure fascinates you most?
Balenciaga. I would love to have met him. Dior was always quite an open book because he was so much about communication but Balenciaga was the complete opposite. As Dior said: “Balenciaga is a conductor, we are just members of the orchestra.”
“If I could go back in time and say one thing to my 13-year-old self it would be ‘don’t worry – it gets better’”
36. Who would you say the most stylish person alive is today?
It’s difficult to say. Susannah Frankel?! I know she’s your boss. She’s sort of my boss too. Well, when we both get phone calls from her, we will know she’s read this! I would also say Rihanna. She really is stylish. I know she has stylists working for her and this, that and the other but I know her a little and she really chooses what she wears. So, let’s say, Susannah and Rihanna!
37. Who is your favourite poet?
38. Favourite writer?
I really couldn’t choose!
39. Favourite food?
It sounds really boring but, I have to say salad. Somehow, a salad is like sleep, it refreshes me. It makes me feel clean. Salad and a nice glass of champagne!
40. How would you describe the Blitz era in a few words?
Self-expression. Journey into the unknown.
41. What’s your favourite memory of that era?
Dressing up, going out, feeling fabulous.
42. If you were Prime Minister for one day, what would you do?
Have a second Brexit referendum!
43. If you could do anything else with your life besides being a milliner, what would it be?
I’d go to sea.
44. What book can you read again and again?
A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman. I bought a copy 25 years ago in Miami and I think I have read it every year since and it’s continually inspirational.
45. What song would you lip sync for your life to?
I guess it would have to be Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? by Culture Club because I’m actually already in the video, so technically I’m halfway there already.
“My greatest fear is opening up a box of hats I designed, and there are no hats in it”
46. What’s your greatest fear?
Opening up a box of hats I designed, and there are no hats in it. It has happened before a long time ago with John Galliano. I opened up a hat box for a client in Paris but I had picked up the wrong one from work in London. I was so humiliated!
47. Can you imagine a life without work?
Yes, I absolutely can. I am almost 62 and so many friends of mine have been planning their retirement and everything and it seems a total dream. Although saying that, I’m sure they will be throwing earth on top of me and I’ll still be making bloody hats for some crazed fashion designer!
48. Are you nostalgic at all?
I remember my past, yes. Am I nostalgic for a better time long ago? No. Life has moved on and people have moved on. I am nostalgic for people who are no longer alive but that’s the same for all of us. It’s a part of growing up and getting older. But I am also so thrilled to have met them. And in a way, they’re still alive in my heart.
49. Do you believe in life after love?
Yes! And Cher! A friend of mine worked on the video for Believe and they all got paid about 5p for it. I met her once with Marc Jacobs. I saw her from a distance and Marc came up to me and said: “Stephen! I would love you to meet Cher. Cher, Stephen.” I just thought, ‘okay, I can roll over and die now’.
50. What are you most thankful for?
The life that I have had and the friends I have. Really just everything! This question reminds me of the film Auntie Mame. Mame Dennis says to the little boy: “Life is a banquet and some people are starving to death,” which is a bit facetious in a way. But I think it means embrace life, live it to the fullest and be thankful for what you have.
Stephen Jones Hats at the Royal Pavilion, in partnership with Harvey Nichols, opens on February 7, 2019.