The University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art and Design welcomed British milliner Stephen Jones last week to deliver a guest lecture as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series. We are most fortunate, dearest readers, that longtime reader and commenter, Mitten Mary, attended the lecture and generously offered to share the experience here. Mary- welcome to Royal Hats!
When I read that Stephen Jones speaking locally, I knew I had to go. But, since the sponsor is an art and design school and Jones creates avant-garde statement pieces like these for couture shows and events like the Met Gala, would he be too conceptual for an ordinary royal hat fan?
As it turned out, no! There were only five hats on display, alas, not very well lit or easy to see, so I couldn’t take photos as Scarfie did when she visited the exhibit at the Royal Pavilion. Here is my recap instead.
When Stephen Jones started in fashion at an art college, he was told by an instructor that he’d need to learn how to sew, so he got a summer job at a design house. He saw a large pot of glue in the millinery department and thought if he moved into that department, he’d be able to avoid sewing. (He only learned later how much hand work was involved.) When he asked the milliner about joining her staff, she told him to create a hat over the weekend. Scrambling to meet the challenge, he used cardboard from a cereal box, fabric provided by his sister, and plastic flowers (a petrol station giveaway!) supplied by his mother. (He didn’t realize that hats were trimmed with silk flowers.) The milliner found the plastic flowers a punk touch. He showed an image of the hat — sorry, but I can’t locate it online — and it was amazingly plausible.
The London club scene was an early influence on him. He must have learned to sew somehow, because he started creating small hats that he and his friends could wear while dancing, sometimes taking apart and re-constructing hats from thrift stores. He was just barely in business with a tiny shop when a designer friend told him to come meet an important client. He was surprised to find that it was the Princess of Wales!
Jones spoke of the importance of having friends and a network to establish the business, which led to close collaborations with Thom Browne, John Galliano, and other designers. I was surprised that at least one designer starts with the model’s makeup and a Stephen Jones hat, then creates the runway design around that.
He reported that while clients come to the couture houses, milliners are apparently expected to go to the clients, so he is at Heathrow every week! As a result, he had some fun stories. Once, the young princes were in the room when he was fitting Diana. Little Harry threw a handful of pins in the air, so Jones was briefly worried that the future King of England would be blinded by getting a pin stuck in his eye! More recently, when he was fitting Amal Clooney for her dreamy royal wedding hat, George offered him a sandwich and proceeded to make it himself.
For someone who travels in such lofty circles, he was a personable speaker. He acknowledged the importance of his shop’s team, admitting that he doesn’t make everything himself. (How could he?) During the Q & A, he was asked about sustainability and observed that fashion has a limited life span, which will have to change – a surprising (maybe a little disingenuous?) statement from someone who creates a lot of pieces that are only worn once. That topic also spurred his admission that he was wearing a sock with a hole, but he was determined to find a darning mushroom so he could mend it as he remembered his mother doing.
I was slow to raise my hand, so I didn’t get to ask my question: does your design dictate the material, or are the materials the source of the design? I also wondered about his innovative straw top hat – how did he think of that, and how are they selling?
There was a videographer on the event, so if anyone is interested in the full presentation, I’ll let you know when it is posted. In the meantime, here are some of his recent designs for the royals highlighted in his presentation:
It’s amazing that Mr. Jones’ illustrious millinery career started with a cereal box and petrol station plastic flowers!! Thank you so much Mary, for sharing this fascinating look at a milliner who has made so many fantastic royal hats.
Photos from Getty as indicated