On location: Stephen Jones, hat designer

The milliner of choice to fashion designers including Galliano and Westwood looks back at his influences, his career and his working methods

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Video Transcript

The New Romantic

Stephen Jones:

Hats seemed to be the thing that nobody else was doing. There just seemed to be, somehow, a very strong point of view. It was quite 'in your face' to the other person, you know, 'I am looking the way I am, and if you don't like it, bugger off'.

There was a solid group of creative people in London who were starting off the new trends, and when punk sort of evaporated, there was a vacuum which was left behind, which was filled by New Wave and very quickly New Romantics afterwards.

I was just living from one day till the next, I didn't really have any great plans. The fact that I'd been able to open a shop within a year of leaving college was amazing to me, selling my first hat, you know, it was great - opening up a shop was amazing, getting a first magazine cover, being in Boy George's 'Do you really want to hurt me?' video - which Jean Paul Gaultier saw that, and a whole series of things, and you know, still those things happen all the time. I'm sure it was a whole sequence of events, but none of it was premeditated.

I was making hats for Steve Strange and Spandau Ballet and people like that. And then I had a phone call one day from Anna Harvey, who worked on Vogue magazine, and they were co-ordinating a wardrobe for the Princess of Wales, and I made quite a few hats for her early on.

When you are making a hat for a client you have to be a good listener, you have to find out why they are wearing the hat, what they want to achieve, really, what's going through their mind, in exactly the same way that you do with a designer client. There's no difference at all.

The millinery business was a bigger employer than the clothing business in 1880.

The Manufacturer

If you want to have a hard-core hat done, they do it here. And they do it at Phillip Treacy, and they do it at Albertus Swanepoel New York, and they do it at Maison Michel in Paris, but… ten places, ten places in the world, and that's it.

You know, I'm only as good as the milliners who work with me. Each of them have a totally different character, and when I'm designing something often I will think 'oh, that'll be great because Mitsumi can make that', or I will think 'yes, Hanneka can make that' or 'Craig can make that'. And I will slightly design it around them and my understanding of them.

Deborah Miller, Head of Model Workroom:

I've been here for twenty-five years, and was the first official employee. It starts with Stephen designing a collection. We then go through the sketches together, and we discuss how the hats are going to be made. It's trying to find ways of working with different materials that wouldn't traditionally be used. So that's quite a challenge. In millinery, it's slightly different to making clothes, because you're not working flat, it's more like sculpture, because everything we're working on is three dimensional.

Craig West, Head of Soft Hat Workroom:

When you're doing a hat, you sew the thing together, but the steam is what makes it millinery. You can shape things, and manipulate them, either by pressing the steam, or by steaming with the steamer, and then you've got a hat.

Deborah Miller, Head of Model Workroom:

For various things we have blocks made, so it's like a shoemakers last. If you are making a soft hat, you can then just steam it into shape and put it on a poupée, which is just a head shape.

Stephen Jones:

Well, this hat was born purely of technique, because we found a plastic, which was this very glass-like transparent plastic. What we did was we bought one of these paint strippers. Actually we did have to work out this sort of ballet, almost, of that person had to pull it like that, because of course it gets very, very hot, so we had four different people with pliers, holding on to this, twisting it in every direction.

Now I start to sketch at six in the morning, and that's when I'll think about things. The key to it is having nothing on your mind - it's like your first thought of the morning is somehow your best. That time in the morning your eyes aren't working anyway, so you can't see what you're doing! And that sort of great terror of the blank piece of white paper just somehow isn't there for me.

The Curator

This particular collection was inspired by the archives within the V&A. We realised after a while that it wasn't going to be this great academic treatise on millinery throughout the ages or something, it's just my personal take on it. And it's really the life-cycle of the hat, through inspiration, creation, the salon and the client.

This is from the 'forties, and the print is by Dali. This other little hat here, this blue hat, which looks quite unassuming, but this is from Dior's spring 1948 collection, which was the first spring collection that he did. And this is Julie Andrews' hat from 'My Fair Lady'. She was in the stage production of 'My Fair Lady'.

Each hat in the exhibition, you know, whether it is from the 20th century, as these hats are, or the 15th century, or hats which are contemporary, all tell a specific story.

I have made two collections based on the research at the V&A. The first one is called 'Vanda' and that is for spring/summer of 2009. And these were the research pictures taken of this wonderful cap in the V&A archives. This dates from, I think, about 1830. When you have something which is so sophisticated, like a satin, and it's cream, and it's luxurious, and all this technique, I love to cut through that with something as simple as cane for making chairs out of. I love this, I love the shape of it, it's one of my favourite hats, and certainly my favourite hat from this collection.

The Surrealist

I think designers need the milliner because we can express what the fashion designers can't. And we can do it in a much more light-hearted way. If you put that sort of information into clothing, it looks like costume.

It's extraordinary that I can work with all these different designers, who accept the fact that I work with other people. You know, it is great to work with Marc Jacobs, and John Galliano, and Rei Kawakubo, and Giles Deacon, you know they are all very, very different people.

Almost all hats are Surrealist, I think there's very few hats which aren't. It's something about putting something on your head. It immediately puts it in a different dimension. The purpose of hat wearing now is completely different. I mean it was about etiquette and conformity, but I think that really that stopped in the eighties, and hats as entertainment and a thing of fashion, which is in fact what they always were anyway, you know, that became more important.

I was listening once to this programme on the radio, and Malcolm McLaren was pointing out how frighteningly small the alphabet of fashion was. And in fact, millinery is its punctuation. I mean we provide the apostrophes, the question marks, the exclamation marks.

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Some critics view Stephen Jones as the World's greatest hat designer.  His clients have included everyone from Giles Deacon to John Galliano and from Princess Diana to Vivienne Westwood. 

Born in Liverpool, Stephen Jones discovered hats when he came to London to study fashion in the early 1980s. Since he made his mark with outrageous designs for the New Romantic movement, nearly 30 years ago, Jones hasn't looked back. In this film which was made for the launch of his highly successful exhibition Hats: An Anthology remembers his introduction to the craft of millinery, his early success as unofficial designer to New Romantic stars such as Boy George and Steve Strange and his 30 year career as milliner to the stars and to the couturiers. Jones shows us round his Covent Garden shop and workshop, dons some recent hats and chooses some favourites  and tries to put his finger on his continuing  fascination for headwear.