How do you come up with a new collection in a day?
Well, no, they'll just get canned and there won't be hats in the show.
That has to be a little devastating. Is she upset?
She'll be sad that we both put effort into it or that we didn't understand each other. But then Rei also likes it when things don't work. She likes that weird element in the mix. That's a very Comme des Garçons thing to do. I always joke to her that I have carte blanche until she doesn't like it. She'll say she doesn't know what I mean, but she speaks perfect English. Occasionally I'll learn more about the collection through her husband, Adrian Joffe, who's English and based in Paris. I'll get to know a little about the colors, but often he doesn't know either.
What's the most cryptic thing she's ever sent you?
I don't know.
Like the thing that befuddled you the most.
That's it: "I don't know." (Laughs.) That was the inspiration. Or "Not yet."
That's so genius.
It's great because it's unresolved. It gives me a lot of freedom.
Let's talk about another designer who I imagine gives you complete freedom, Giles Deacon.
Yes, well, we're friends and so we sort of hang out together. We do live in the same city. With Giles, it isn't just Giles, but his staff and Katie Grand. It's funny because they went out for a long time so they have this unique bond. He'll say, "Don't listen to Katie," or she'll say, "What is Giles going on about?" It's an adventure for me.
That's what's nice about it. For me, the story behind the hat is its raison d'être. But for him, hats don't tell so much of a story. He won't say let's do a Twenties' romantic look, or Fifties' aggressive, or 14th-century Persian. He'll never want a WWII felt hat or something futuristic in silver. Giles doesn't design that way, so all the usual things that I bring to the table I have to forget about. I can't fall into any of the traps or formulas that I might otherwise fall into.
Whereas I'd think John Galliano would want those crystallized reference points.
Oh, absolutely. That's what John loves and that's why we've worked together for so long. We really understand each other on that level, so when I arrange a romantic tulle hat, we both know exactly what it's saying and what it represents. John knows a lot about hats. We could communicate in hats without talking.
He's quite erudite, isn't he?
He is. At the Dior haute couture show in January, which was based in part on the [John Singer] Sargent portrait of Madame X, I was speaking to Andrew Bolton from the Met. It was after he and John had met up to talk about the upcoming Superheroes exhibit. Andrew was saying it was extraordinary when John talked about that painting because he knew more about it than most art experts. John really loves to get into a subject and he believes in it to a crazy degree.
Is he a passionate and fiery person to work with?
Has he ever scratched an entire hat collection like Rei?
Not exactly. If John doesn't like something, he'll be incredibly polite and mostly he'll be worried about upsetting me. I always say to him, "For god's sake, tell me!" And he will. And sometimes, if I really believe we should have a hat, but he doesn't want it, I'll get worked up and he'll say, "Okay, okay, calm down, it's fine. Yes, we can have it in the collection." Then I'll sort of burst into tears. (Laughs.)
What's the craziest hat John has asked for?
They're always crazy. The one I got the most flack for was the taxidermy collection we showed at Versailles about a year ago.
I remember. Was it real taxidermy?
Yes, mainly antique pieces that we bought from various dealers, furry ones like rabbits and foxes.
I imagine it's quite different making hats for Dior and for John.
Yes. For his own line, John is very idiosyncratic, like he'll want a hat made out of newspaper and lined with mink. But Dior is usually very glossy, luxurious and Parisian. Hats for Dior are made in Paris, while Galliano is made in my workshop in London.
Speaking of your workshop, let's talk about your own lines.
My own collections are really my first love. That's what I started out doing. I do three: Model Millinery, which is handmade hats, the diffusion line Miss Jones and JonesBoy, which is men's. I make almost as many hats for men as for women. We have a very healthy made-to-measure business from my shop in London.
Do clients ever scoff at the price, or is price no object?
We have clients come in and say they've spent $4000 on a Chanel jacket so why would they go and buy a $500 hat.
How do you reply?
That it's not just the luxuriousness of materials they're buying. It's the technique. The luxury aspect is the time and care taken to make it, and the three or so fittings required. I always think of a wonderful story about Mr. John, one of America's greatest milliners. He made a turban for a client and when he handed her the bill for $300 she was outraged. This was the 60s when $300 was a lot more. She told him the price was outrageous, to which he unraveled the turban and said, "Madam, the materials are free."
Do you have any touchy clients like that?
I'm fortunate to have wonderful clients—Dita Von Teese, Keira Knightley, Mick Jagger and a lot of people in the fashion business, like Suzy Menkes, John Galliano himself and Anna Piaggi.
What kind of lobster magic is Anna usually after?
She'll want something one-of-a-kind. She'll say, "Stephen, I'm going to such and such a party" or "I'm launching a ship" or "I'm going to the Olympics." And I know what suits her. I know, for example, that she will never wear anything heavy. It must be comfortable and practical. But I must say she drives me nuts because she will never let me actually dress her in a hat. She is such an Aries and wants complete control!