If Stephen Jones sees people, does he imagine hats on them? The answer is yes, ‘but not a metal Greek Orthodox one on you!’ he says as he pulls up a can of water and pictures it balancing on my head. It is not often that one is being watched meticulously by one of the greatest milliners of our time, over breakfast in Dishoom. Stephen hardly needs an introduction — he was awarded an OBE for his services to fashion, shared a house with Boy George and Grayson Perry, designed for pretty much any (pop)star and fashion design house that matters; his work can be seen in movies,  museums, and even commercials… He just came back from Paris where he’s working with Raf Simons at Dior and we sit down for a conversation and an omelette. When we get talking about publishing, the topic of our second issue comes up and he mentions, “Everybody you ask will have a different perception of digital versus print.”

What is your perception?

People of my generation normally say that they love print and that they hate digital. I really use books, I have about five thousand books or something. And because I use them for research,all of them are falling apart, you know, they have covers ripped off. The worst thing is to give me a valuable book because I’ll destroy it after a couple of years. If I really like a book, I’ll buy two copies because I know I’ll use it again and again and again. So, I really do like printed material, however, because I have to work so fast nowadays, looking through printed materials, to me, is quite a luxury. Because actually my life is faster than that. Also because I travel so much, I do so much electronically now. I think every generation has a different perception. Maybe a younger generation who could only think of digital finds a magazine a wonderful curiosity. It feels special, because digital is normal. I’m sort of in this weird transition period where I don’t really know. But I like both, absolutely.

It seems as though a majority of people are talking about how there’s less of a market for printed magazines, but on the other side it also seems that more printed magazines are being released every single year. 

What’s interesting is that printing used to be letterpress and it was complicated, it was very expensive. There weren’t a lot of printers and you had to do a lot of things a certain way. You could not produce it yourself because the technology wasn’t there. Imagine you had to go and negotiate with the union because you wanted to release a new magazine, and they’d say ‘ok well put a few applications in and maybe in five years we’ll consider you.’

The waiter walks in with our food: an americano and Bombay Omelette for Stephen, and a fresh fruit with yogurt, egg naan roll and chai for me. 

“If somebody has bought a big hat from me, I always say: “Wear it at home for godsakes; you have to make a rehearsal.” People freak out enough about a pair of jeans and what they fit like, let alone a hat which is at least ten times more imposing.”

I’m interested in technology, as you said this has radically changed. How has it made your job different and how are you looking at the future, with technologies like 3D printing changing the world of haute couture.

It’s funny, as milliners we already do 3D printing, because we create 3D shapes out of 2D or 1D objects. I was having a conversation about it yesterday and in a way the future is 3D printing, but there are certain limitations like weight, fragility, comfort. I actually did 3D printing a long time ago and the thing is that the actual machines and the materials it prints with are one thing, but the real key is absolutely the digital files and how to process the information between the files and the printer. So I’m not saying that I’m not a fan of 3D printing, I am. In fact, I did a collaboration with the Andy Warhol museum and they wanted to have something of me and I didn’t know what it was. I said I would do a portrait, and I wanted to do it in different colours and 3D printing and they said ‘yes absolutely, but we want it to be of you.’ So that was a very bizarre occurrence, I have four 3D printed sculptures of myself which are in the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh.

Is it ever difficult for you to come up with ideas?

It’s always a question of editing, really. Ideas aren’t always easy but they always come. The thing about hats is that often the simplest things are the best. What doesn’t work is when you’re trying to be too clever.

How do you see your profession change in, say, 80 years ahead?

I see that in 80 years time, or 180 years time, people will look back to around the end of the 20th, beginning of the 21st century and say ‘Isn’t it strange, people didn’t decorate their heads? It’s the first time in history, known to man since recorded time, that people didn’t decorate their heads.’

“If you think fashion is like a computer keyboard, when you press the shift key down: that’s what it’s like to put a hat on.”

How is it strange? I know for you it’s natural, but I don’t have any hats, for example. 

If you look at any tribal societies, the thing that was most decorated and what had the most importance to it was the head. If you look at any paintings, the perspectives is on the head. If you want to take a funny picture of a child, you put something funny on his head. It’s almost an anomaly that northern european societies stopped in the late 20th century, but the reason for that is that we’re moving from the authoritarian system of royalty to a more egalitarian system. If you think of what a symbol of royalty is: it’s not a royal shoe, it’s the crown.

What will the hats look like? In the intermediary time, I see new developments in fabrics being really important, how they stretch… The exploration of fabrics and what they can do, like keeping you warm. But at the same time, coming after that (or it might run parallel); it might just be things that are purely decorations. Are they symbols of variety? Symbols of power? Who knows. All clothing is a sign, all clothing is a status, power, perception. But it can be humility, love, all these things too. Hats represent those things but even in a more extreme way, visible way. Do you know the film Blade Runner? [In one scene] they go into a bar, and everyone has got 1930s hats on. I think the decorative item of no consequence might also be extremely important.

If you imagine two pairs of women who are sitting in a bar — one pair is wearing very imaginative hats; the other pair isn’t, what are the main differences that immediately come to your mind?

I would be interested in the two women with hats on, because they would be communicating in an interesting way through what they are wearing. Hats are communication, basically, hats are a language. If you think fashion is like a computer keyboard, when you press the shift key down: that’s what it’s like to put a hat on. Sometimes you get capitals, things with funny accents.

“The idea to put something on that can transform you can be a bit like your armour, as maybe it can say something for you that you’re unable to express yourself.”

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How does it change the identity of the wearer? Or does wearing a hat rather enforce the identity?

Both. When people/magazine/the internet say ‘be your real self’ — most people know who they are, duh (laughs), you look at yourself every morning in the mirror. To be somebody else is quite nice. Maybe this woman who’s a mum will put on a hat, and she could feel glamorous and unlike a mother. The idea to put something on that can transform you can be a bit like your armour, as maybe it can say something for you that you’re unable to express yourself. That’s how it can transform you, and also you can act out the person that you want to become, quite effectively.

Do you feel empowered or protected, or both at the same time when you’re wearing a hat? 

I feel a bit naked when I don’t wear one. When I’m wearing a hat, I tend to wear simple clothing so it’s a balance. If I take my hat off, often I feel as though I’m a bit underdressed. And do I find wearing a hat empowering? Yes I do! With the hats I create… I never really wanted to change the world! (laughs) It’s just a bloody hat!

Your hats are always about a history, a character…

Ah they’re lyrical, they’re always about a story. Whether about the history, the future, the now. When we create a hat, it’s not even about a character, it’s about a mini world where it all makes sense.

Is there a narrative that often recurs?

Yeah. This is one of the great weird things about getting older: when you’re starting out it’s all about exploration and putting your baby steps out into the world; you make mistakes, and you’re never really satisfied. However, it does come to a point where you do realise that certain ideas are sort of good ideas and in fact you’re not aware of this when you’re younger. It’s like a singer writing songs: in their entire lifetime they probably sing about 5 incredible songs, and that’s it. They don’t do it again and again and again. Similarly, a dress designer probably comes up with five great ideas.

“I don’t do newness for newness sake. If it’s a great idea then, it should be a great idea now, and a great idea in the future.”

Do you need to let go of that?

Certainly. I do revise things, in fact even in my next summer’s collection it’s very much inspired by what I’ve done before. I work with Rei Kawakubo and she’s very interested in doing that ‘new’ all the time, but that’s her, not necessarily me. Yes I like to do ‘new’, I do so much new it’s incredible. At the same time, I don’t do newness for newness sake. If it’s a great idea then, it should be a great idea now, and a great idea in the future.

I’m interested in your big hats and what you cannot do with them, in terms of bodily movement, like taking the tube during rush hour.

So often, the reason that people become milliners is because they don’t operate from a drawing. They like to do things in the 3D, not in the 2D — but that’s one route; not the only one. I’m not a great drawer but I was taught to draw. When I draw a hat, I draw a backbone first. Without the backbone there is no hat. You have to consider it on a body. I always scream at milliners who do this little oval and I say, ‘well how is it connected to the body?’, and they’re not thinking of the body. The body is extremely important for hats, but how do people move in them? Often it’s very unusual for somebody to be wearing something that big on their head, and if somebody has bought a big hat from me, I always say: “Wear it at home for godsakes; you have to make a rehearsal.” People freak out enough about a pair of jeans and what they fit like, let alone a hat which is at least ten times more imposing. If the wind blows, how does it move in the wind and how do you move with it? How do you behave? It’s a whole different world.

In a few days there’ll be the final year show of the BA Fashion students. I know that Alexander McQueen asked Simon Costin if he could use his jewellery/hat pieces for the graduate show…

John Galliano asked me to do hats for his collection at college and I said no.

Why did you say no?

Because he was a spotty student! In the John Galliano book, that is what’s written down by Colin McDowell. I actually don’t remember this; apparently it was on a dance floor and John came up to me and asked ‘could you make hats for my final show?’, and I turned around and said, ‘Not on your life darling.’ But I have no memory of this or whatsoever! On my tombstone it’s gonna have it written… (laughs)

“I think often in fashion now, the students are worried about rocking the boat. They’ve taken out huge loans to be able to get into college, and they’re terrified about if they’re going to get a job at the end and be able to pay them back.”

I wonder about the sense of culture in the seventies versus now. Art, music and fashion influenced each other a lot more at that time, whereas now it seems that fashion is not really immersed with music.

Maybe this is a very old-fashioned perception, but fashion only makes sense if it’s a reflection of the times that you’re in. Why was the New Look in 1947 important? Why was Chanel in the twenties after the first world war all about freedom and clothes, suntan and the outdoors? And Vivienne Westwood during punk times: it made sense. Music, very importantly, needs to be an expression of society. It’s the personal expression of the creator, but that personal expression needs to be in the right time and place. That’s why clothes and music, particularly in Britain, were so closely interwoven together. I think it’s crucially important.

How do you think that club culture has changed? I read in an interview that you think a lot of designers who are doing well now, like Christopher Kane and Louise Gray, are still very much influenced by club culture. But how does it really exist in 2015 as it seems less ‘out there’?

When I grew up I believed fashion was about self expression. Fashion was how I wanted to communicate, however, I think the clothes-wearing public now has different needs. So students are producing different kinds of clothes that are right for the market, and I think clothes have to evolve. If I see somebody walking down the street wearing a crazy thing, it makes my day often better. I think often in fashion now, the students are worried about rocking the boat. They’ve taken out huge loans to be able to get into college, and they’re terrified if they’re going to get a job at the end and be able to pay them back.

I think it influences their designs hugely.

Hugely! There are hundreds of designers coming out who are cautious, but there’s only one Craig Green. There was only one Yves Saint Laurent. There was one Jean Paul Gaultier. There was only one Alexander McQueen. He’s a bit young, but he has the possibility of maybe being a great designer one day. There’s not so many great designers, and he has a very interesting perception of menswear. Who created new menswear? Giorgio Armani in the 80s, Brioni in the 50s, maybe Paul Smith, Tom Ford, Hedi Slimane, and Craig. But we’ll only know that in twenty years time.

Always when you look back…

Yes, even though I believe fashion is for the now. At the moment, fashion is sort of moving away from being for the now. It’s also my age, my body of work, and that I’m installing quite a few things in museums… It’s weird how before, so much of clothing in fashion shows was about wearing it if you’d go dancing on a Friday night; I love clothes like that too. Now, so much of it goes to a museum as an art object.

So you see that trajectory in your life too: first you’re clubbing, then you’re in a museum. 

Yeah yeah yeah! Maybe I belong in there too, oh god no!

Words and photography by Jorinde Croese

A special thank you to Dishoom

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