Stephen Jones: Millinery Magician

If you've watched a Marc Jacobs, Christian Dior, John Galliano or Comme des Garçons show in recent years, you've no doubt seen Stephen Jones' creations bobbing down the runway. And to see even one of the English milliner's fanciful creations is to see nothing less than a work of art—and art at work. For 25 years, Jones has been handcrafting truly avant-garde hats that run the gamut from eccentric tea-party fare to outré Schiaparelli-like surrealism. Remember Walter Van Beirendonck's blow-up insect heads for spring? Galliano's medieval armor helmets? L'Wren Scott's jaunty little fedoras? They all sprang from the prolific imagination of Stephen Jones, as did the regal headpieces Cate Blanchett wore in both Elizabeth and The Golden Age (for the latter, Alexandra Byrne won the Oscar for Best Costume Design). Jones also keeps a myriad of clients—celebrity and otherwise—happy with his own collections, which remain his first love and where the very serious business of whimsy began. The morning after Jacobs' fall 08 show, Jones chilled out with LEE CARTER at the Mercer, discussing everything from Anna (Piaggi) to Xanadu.

You seem very relaxed. Is this how you are post-collections?

It's because I've just had the best massage. But tonight I go back to London to work on the collections there and then to Paris. This is my busiest period of the year, because from the start of January I'm in Paris working on Dior couture, then men's week three days later, then a week in London and now here in New York.

Do you plan the collections far in advance or are you flying around like a witch?

Hopefully with good magic! I do try to plan for every eventuality. I always say that putting a hat on a girl for the first time is at least a third of the process. We can see what her hair is like, and the face and the outfit. But at the same time, at a fitting, if a hat just isn't working, we have to think on our feet and be spontaneous. We'll try it on back to front or upside down. When we twist it around and turn it inside out, sometimes it can look great.

Like when drag queens turn their wigs around?

Oh, yeah! That can look good from the front. But from the back, it can be hideous.

Does designing come easily to you?

Well, everyone I know, including me, waits until the last minute, staring at that blank piece of paper or too terrified to cut into that piece of fabric.

What's involved in creating hats for a show? Can you walk us through the process with Marc, for example?

We actually started to work on yesterday's collection very early on. Our first meeting was when Marc had his big Christmas party back in December. We talked about various ideas and concepts, and what he was into at the time—apart from camel toes.

Although I'd love to see a camel-toe hat.

(Laughs.) And you never know with Marc. And so, in early December, I'd started to look at reference pictures, things that might be possible ideas. Our second meeting was on New Year's Eve. I went to Paris for the day and showed him toiles, or prototypes. I knew that I wanted to do some sort of small hat since last winter we'd done very big hats and last summer we did those black frivolities. It was from that that we came up with the headband.

Which to me were very Physical…

Yes, and Xanadu! Funnily enough, they were like the hats I was doing when I first started in 1979, when I was in college and Olivia Neutron Bomb was all the rage. I also loved the tricorne, which is a three-cornered hat flipped up at the sides and the back. Marc told me he remembered seeing Suzanne Bartsch in the early 80s wearing a tricorne and asked if I made it for her. It turns out I did, because she was my best client and her shop on Thompson Street was the first place I sold in New York. So I looked back at my old techniques to bring back that tricorne. I also looked at pictures of Paul Revere and there's a sculpture of him in Boston, so it's a mix of Paul Revere and Suzanne Bartsch.

Stephen Jones, Marc Jacobs

I bet those two names have never been in the same sentence before.

And Marc really liked the idea that it was essentially an American hat. It wasn't brought from Europe, but it was born here. There was also a punk mohawk in feathers…

Which I loved.

Which I love, too.

What is he like to work with? I imagine it's a very protean experience.

We get on really well. And yeah, he's really adaptable, and wants to shift and change. He's really not a designer who wants to be expressed by a certain signature. That's not the house. He's not like Gucci. Marc's collections are about changing each season and the novelty of fashion.

How did you two meet?

We did a fashion show together in Japan in 1983. There was this organization there called Fashion Foundation and they invited two designers from America, two from Britain and France and so on. Rifat Ozbek and I were the two invited from Britain, and from America it was Marc Jacobs and Stephen Sprouse. I came to New York about a month after that and hung out with him and Anna Sui and Steven Meisel.

Was it an instant friendship?

Yes, it was. But we didn't work together until about three years ago. He just phoned me up one day, but first he left a message at work and my assistant said Marc Jacobs had called. I thought it must have been one of his secretaries. But that's one of the great things about Marc: he makes his own phone calls.

Stephen Jones, Comme des Garcons

How is designing hats for Marc different from designing hats for Rei Kawakubo?

Totally different. It's a completely different process. Working with someone is like having a relationship, except hats are what you produce.

Hat-making through conjugal visits?

(Laughs.) With Marc, he spends a lot of time on hats and has a lot of fun with the whole process. He's incredibly hands on. He'll say, "Left a bit…right a bit…a millimeter off that." My relationship with Rei is totally different. We won't see each other at all before the show. She'll give me one word, a kind of mood. Sometimes the word she'll fax me is in Japanese, or it's a drawing. And that's it.

I've heard that before, that people have to interpret what she wants.

She loves the element of surprise. She doesn't see the hats until the day before the show at the rehearsal.

Does she change anything?

Yeah, or she'll want to can the hats altogether.

Has that happened?

Absolutely. (cont'd)

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