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The fine art of millinery

The fine art of millinery

Stephen Jones’s hats are beautiful and witty objet d’art. Luke Leitch doffs his cap to an extraordinary milliner

Stephen Jones’s hats are beautiful and witty objet d’art. Luke Leitch doffs his cap to an extraordinary milliner

Luke Leitch | April/May 2016

The age of the hat has all but passed. There are military hats on our battlefields and parade grounds, and others at the occasional society event – Royal Ascot in Britain or the Melbourne Cup in Australia – where the hat is fetishised. Hasidic Jews, Sikhs and Sufi “whirling dervishes” (whose high felt hats, called sikke, represent the sublimation of the ego) keep the faith. Yet the secular vernacular of hats – once a rich and various chatter that ran from topper to tickler – has been reduced to an anodyne gruel of baseball caps and beanies. Social and technological advances, such as the employment of women and the invention of the roofed car, though desirable in themselves, have had a regrettable side-effect: they have knocked the hat from its pedestal.

That the hat has not been entirely doffed is at least in part thanks to Stephen Jones. As well as designing his own collections and commissions, he moonlights as headwear consultant to many of fashion’s greatest houses and designers: Christian Dior, John Galliano, Moschino, Louis Vuitton, Thom Browne, Akris, Commes des Garçons, Victoria Beckham and Marc Jacobs have all outsourced their apex garments to him. He has designed for royals – Diana, Princess of Wales, was an early regular client – and rockstars including Björk, Boy George, Beyoncé, Grace Jones and Madonna. In 2011 a horse named Ambers wore Jones to Royal Ascot. For Spring/ Summer 2016 Moschino’s chief designers made dresses inspired by car culture: Jones’s hats included a straw-lined traffic cone to be worn at a jaunty angle. “The straw was specially manufactured in Switzerland, and we lined it with a holographic material that shined a little, as if it was caught in the headlights. To have a huge budget to make something like that – because in Britain, being photographed wearing a traffic cone on your head was something of a rite of passage – was fantastic.”

Jones became a milliner because the ladies in the hat-room of Lachasse – the London couture house where he had a work placement in the 1970s – laughed all the time. “They were clearly the funsters. And the tailor I was placed with was a bit miserable. So I asked to transfer.” There he discovered that hats were his vocation: he studied millinery, then financed the production of his earliest collections by driving truckloads of citrus fruits around the south-east of England for his family’s haulage business. This allowed him to give hats to his friends in London’s early 1980s nightclub scene. Boy George, whose transgressive style was often accented by Jones’s hats, invited him to feature in the video for “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” In 1984 Jean Paul Gaultier invited Jones to Paris to make the hats for his prêt-à-porter catwalk: “At the end, he sent me out onstage with a tray into which all the models returned their hats: it was to tell everyone that I’d made them. It was a very kind gesture.”

Thus announced, Jones’s fashion career flourished steadily. Commercial hits include a Peruvian mohawk-hat for Galliano at Dior and a veiled beanie for the designer Raf Simons at the label Jil Sander: thousands of these were sold in 2012, “and you can still buy versions of it from stalls on Oxford Street, which I love.”

At the moment, Jones says, “I’m fascinated with doing ‘the proper hat’. Clothes, and hats, mean something. We made boaters – with no tops so the girls’ hair could stick up out of them – for Thom Browne’s women’s show this season. He makes such proper clothes too, so I told him about the British ‘season’, the Henley regatta and what the boater once represented. It was a Victorian casual hat that signified the weekend. It was an off-duty hat – an out-of-office – but there was something a bit racy about it too.”

For Jones’s own current collection, “The Perfect Hat”, he asked his regular clients to set him real or imagined scenarios, and devised the ideal headwear for them. One wanted a hat to garden naked in: he made her a sun-blocker of nylon foliage and silk roses. For a walk on the Scottish moors he made a trilby from pages of Robert Burns poetry, and for dancing until dawn in a Venetian palazzo it was a tricorne set with rhinestones and a flourish of dyed ostrich feather. 

Impractical? Certainly. Witty? Sometimes. Beautiful? Often. “A large part of the function of the hat is that it can bring fantasy to your life, both for the wearer and observer. If somebody is having a better time, having fun, then that for me is the purpose of fashion. And I do think that a hat can do that.”

From left to Right INDIA Little Shilpa Mumbai-based milliner- meets-conceptual-artist Shilpa Chavan trained as a scientist before reacting to an urge to design hats. She is especially beloved by Lady Gaga. littleshilpa.com  USA Albertus Swanepoel This South African expat is New York’s most-wanted milliner. He produces a popular namesake collection and specialises in fedoras and turbans. albertusswanepoel.com  CHINA Elisabeth Koch Beijing’s only classical millinery studio is run by American-born Elisabeth Koch. Her commissions include a wearable dragon, a lobster and a dinosaur. elisabethkoch.net

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LarryChavana - May 26th 2016

The craftsmanship and complexities of Millinery is awe inspiring. So many talented artists are able to express an emotion from one article of clothing. We as a society should try to find more way's to wear this type of art.