MiNDFOOD STYLE editor, Nicole Saunders, caught up with iconic milliner Stephen Jones, whose creations were on display as part of The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture at the National Gallery of Victoria last year.
Fashion is a fickle creature. Trends come and go, designers are here one minute and gone the next. And while Christian Dior has had three creative directors at the helm of the house over the last 21 years, there’s been one constant on the Christian Dior runway. Throughout John Galliano’s cacophony of colour and drama, Raf Simons’ structured silhouettes with an obvious nod to the house’s archives and now Christian Dior’s first female creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, milliner Stephen Jones has been adorning the heads of Christian Dior models.
As to how one of the world’s most acclaimed milliners’ love affair began, Jones is frank: hats weren’t his first choice. Once he was accepted into London’s prestigious Saint Martin’s School of Art, Jones became aware that tailoring wasn’t for him. As he puts it, matter-of-factly, “I was useless at sewing.” After a moment of realisation, Jones transferred departments. And although millinery wasn’t love at first sight, he says it opened his eyes to new creative opportunities. “It just showed me a whole other world, which I followed and it gave a fantastic thing to me.”
Jones may have come a long way from his first hat – a mishmash of his sister’s old blouse, a cereal box, plastic flowers and tube of glue – but his creations are no less creative. Anyone familiar with the fashion house’s evolution over the last 21 years will recall moments when his creations have stolen the show. Take, for example, the larger-than-life daisy headdress (pictured opposite, top) from Christian Dior’s Spring/Summer 2003 show.
His partnership with Galliano, creative director of Christian Dior from 1996 to 2011, pushed boundaries – often blurring the already hazy line between art and fashion.
And while one might consider the relationship between a headpiece and a garment a delicate balancing act, Jones says it’s very much a collaboration. He recalls the time when he questioned Galliano’s love of hats. “I said, ‘John why do you like hats so much?’ and he said, ‘If you’re a dress designer, why would your interest stop at the neck? It’s what’s above the neck that’s really interesting, so surely your design would continue all the way up.’”
There’s often a lot of back and forth in the collaborative process, Jones describes. Often a designer will come to him with an idea and the pair will negotiate the final outcome together. He finds that sometimes the mood of the clothes are trying to say something different to what he wants the hat to express, but it’s about finding a harmony.
The biggest challenge, Jones says, is coming up with new ideas. So where does he go when he’s stuck? “Not Google images!” he says. “I’ve lived my life pushed into a hat. It’s 40 years this year since I made my first hat, so 40 years of hats is a lot of things.” He credits his main assistant, Leslie, for a fantastic memory; they’ve been working together for 30 years. “And maybe when I’m running out of time I look at Google images too,” he jests. But his inspiration doesn’t come from one particular place, it’s from anywhere. “To actually close your mind to anything is a mistake. Anything can be a hat.”
But, he says, every designer is different, and often there’s no rhyme or reason. “The thing to remember is once you think you’ve got a formula, you haven’t,” he affirms. “Even Raf [Simons], who didn’t really use hats, just veils, his design did continue above the neck. But he felt that hats were often sort of too historic, so he wanted to move away from what John did.”
As for Christian Dior’s first female creative director, Chiuri, Jones says the Italian native is a great hat wearer herself. He recalls his first meeting with Chiuri: her people offered an appointment but he told them no, he was taking her for lunch. “When you first meet, it’s like going on a blind date, and no less stressful,” he chuckles. “I thought let’s go and have a nice time together and then let’s talk hats because that’s how hats should be.”
Jones says that while they had met socially, they’d never worked together before. “She said, ‘I know you’ve been here a long time, would you like to work with me?’ I said, ‘Well, yes, I’d love to, but only if you want hats. I’d love to do something for your collections and runway shows.’ And she said, ‘Well, actually, I believe that all the collections should be the same as the runway shows.’” Jones believes that’s one of the biggest differences between Chiuri and her predecessors, and also a reason her clothes are so wearable. “Even the haute couture, you know, it’s real. Sometimes the volumes are quite big, but they’re comfortable and light.”
After Chiuri introduced Jones to pieces from her collection, he returned to her workroom with a few prototypes. “Normally you’d put it on a lovely girl and she walks up and down and the designer will say yay or nay, or try it on back-to-front.” But Chiuri had other plans. “She said, ‘Stephen, can I try it on?’ And I said, ‘Yes of course.’” As Jones put the hat on Chiuri’s head, her assistant whispered, “Maria Grazia you look fabulous in that.” “I just thought, yes, I love you! And it worked. She started with the haute couture and used a hat with almost every outfit, and for the winter collection there was a beret for every look.”
The beret, one of which Jones wears as we chat, seems a low‑key statement for the milliner who has dressed the heads of everyone from the late Princess Diana to pop princess Rihanna. “It suits everybody, you know,” he explains. “You can buy an expensive one or you can buy a cheap one.”
As for how everyday women will interpret The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture, Jones says he hopes everyone will take inspiration from it. As inaccessible as haute couture may be to the masses, Jones believes people will enjoy seeing the creations because, ultimately, they love dressing up. “People are interested in maybe not being themselves but being somebody else, or getting their best look together. And I think Dior’s really a part of that. It is about a dream, which can become a reality.”