Everyone who is anyone has worn one of Stephen Jones’s fabulous creations – from Rihanna to Princess Diana. MIEKA SMILES chatted to the famous milliner about how he fell into the career that has seen him rub shoulders with rock stars and royalty
WITH a client list that reads like a who’s who of the last 35 years, I was a bit nervous about interviewing a possible diva.
Thankfully I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Kind, loyal, down to earth; it’s easy to see why the lovely Stephen Jones is still going strong in an industry that’s famously cut throat.
But he’s the first to admit that luck has also played a part in his illustrious career.
“I was interested about how people looked and how things looked but I didn’t really know anything about the fashion – it was really sort of far away mentally,” says the 55-year-old, originally from The Wirral, of his teenage self.
“Liverpool in those days was going through a really tough time. There was 45% unemployment – three generations of unemployment, in fact.
“I saw the terrible things that were going on and I knew I had to make my own thing really.
“The world was not going to be handed to me on a plate. Not at all.”
Stephen had done a foundation course in art and stumbled upon a love for fashion.
He applied for London’s famous Central St Martins College of Art and Design and to his astonishment was accepted.
“I didn’t think that I would get in,” says Stephen. “It really was quite unusual.
“I think I was probably the token male – I think that they just wanted a mix of people and I think they were probably right to do that.”
But Stephen is first to admit that his skills weren’t up to scratch.
“I couldn’t sew, I hadn’t learned how to sew. And there was always that demon girl who could whip up a wedding dress with her eyes closed,” said Stephen.
He was told by a tutor that he needed to get some help with his skills otherwise he would fail his first year.
The tutor ran a couture tailoring business and invited Stephen to brush up on his sewing during a work placement.
Did it help?
“Sort of,” says Stephen. “I was picking up pins, making the coffee and keeping my eyes open.
“It was a great experience.”
It was while on the placement that he first became fascinated with hat making.
“Next to the tailoring room was the millinery room – I thought, ‘That looks really fascinating’.
“There was also a big pot of glue on the table and so I thought, ‘Maybe it’s not all about sewing’.”
Stephen quickly transferred from tailoring to millinery.
He said: “I never looked back. I’d always really loved making things – Airfix models of aeroplanes when I was a kid.
“Looking back now I can see that this was an absolute development – I was in the right place at the right time.”
And the milliners did their bit by taking a young Stephen under their collective wings.
“They really played as hard as they worked – ladies in their 50s and 60s, just having a good time. Working because they wanted to,” says Stephen. “They were so amazed that someone wanted to go into millinery!
“My school tutors wouldn’t have anything of it though. They said that millinery wasn’t a recognised topic and that it wasn’t going to count!
“It’s weird how life works out – when things don’t work, they actually do work, as they force you to do something else. I thought, ‘Damn you!, I’m going to make hats’.”
Success soon followed.
Stephen was a style-blazer at the legendary Blitz nightclub.
As one of the ‘Blitz Kids’ he hung out with the likes of Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and Jean Paul Gaultier.
He shared a house with Boy George and Grayson Perry, competing with them to wear the most outrageous outfits to Blitz.
Many of the Blitz Kids became his first clients, with Stephen creating outlandish hats for them to wear to the club.
By 1980 he’d had opened his first millinery salon in the heart of London’s Covent Garden.
Visage front man Steve Strange, who owned The Blitz, was Stephen’s first paying customer.
Strange’s day job was at an uber trendy Covent Garden fashion shop famed for its New Romantic style called PX.
The owners had a proposition for young Stephen.
“They were only using the ground floor,” said Stephen. “The basement was free and they said ‘Would you be interested in having a little shop?’
“I couldn’t believe it. I was just so lucky. I had a fantastic opening and my parents bought five cases of cheap wine. People always say to me, ‘You seem to have had a lot of breaks.’
“But you can never do something like that by yourself – all of your friends and family have to want to do it with you too. That was the great thing and really I’m friends with all those same people now.”
Stephen soon upped the ante, becoming a royal hat maker.
“Then one day I had a phone call from an Anne Beckwith Smith. She said, ‘I have an important client I want you to meet’,” says Stephen of Princess Diana’s lady-in-waiting.
“Then I started to make hats for her during the time she was listening to Wham! She was a 25-year-old.
“She was good fun and we were a similar age. It was the beginning of a big adventure. We did become friendly. I can remember William being really small and a veil I’d brought got wrapped all around his face! It was an extraordinary time in my career.”
Stephen’s career went from strength to strength, working with fashion designers including Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Christian Dior, John Galliano, Giles Deacon, Zandra Rhodes and Jasper Conran.
In addition to his hat collections for designers, Stephen has had high-profile commissions from Grace Jones, Diana Ross, Madonna and Barbra Streisand, to name but a few.
In the 1990s his client list expanded to include U2, The Rolling Stones, Take That, Belinda Carlisle, Celine Dion and Kylie Minogue.
Jones’s client list went on to include The Spice Girls, Robbie Williams, Björk, Will Young, Pink, Christina Aguilera and Usher.
He created the hats for three major tours starting in 2005 including Kylie Minogue’s Showgirl tour.
Not only that, his hats have been used in an array of films and advertising campaigns.
“I was backstage at a Dior show and in walked Rihanna wearing one of my hats!
“I went up to her and said, ‘You won’t know who I am but my name is Stephen Jones and you’re wearing one of my hats’.
“She said, ‘Get outta here!’ She was great.”
Rihanna had picked the hat herself from his Dover Street Market shop.
Now Stephen, who lives in London, is lending a selection of his fabulous hats for the exhibition From Georgiana to Boy George, which runs at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle until September 2.
“I love doing exhibitions,” says Stephen, who was awarded the OBE in 2009 for his services to millinery.
The fabulous Bowes can stand alongside the world’s top museums in showcasing Stephen’s work.
His work is represented in the permanent collections of a number of international museums including the V&A in London, the Louvre in Paris, the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Brooklyn Museum (both New York), the Kyoto Costume Institute, Japan and the Australian National Gallery in Canberra.
“The funny thing is that although I’m from Liverpool, the North East might as well be in China,” jokes Stephen.
“I find it very exotic. One of my best friends from college, who I shared a flat with, is from Hartlepool and so I always feel as though I ‘know’ round there ... even though I don’t. I love the fact that there is countryside and seaside.”
He plans to go to Lindisfarne on his next trip up north, which may just inspire his next collection.
“I’m inspired by anything and everything – at the moment it tends to be architecture. I love architecture.
“Hats are really about having a good time - now. It’s about having fun. Dressing up and being someone else. Having a party.”
For information about the exhibition visit www.thebowes museum.org.uk For more information about Stephen Jones visit www.stephenjonesmillinery.com
Next to the tailoring room was the millinery room – I thought, ‘That looks really fascinating’