In a packed Michigan Theater Thursday evening, students gathered for a Penny Stamps lecture featuring the man behind many of the hats displayed in fashion exhibits and donned by celebrities: Stephen Jones.
Stephen Jones is the fashion world’s leading milliner, otherwise known as hatmaker. Having made a name for himself in the 1970s in London, Jones was a student of Saint Martin’s School of Art during the day, while at night, Jones would regularly attend the Blitz nightclub where he and his friends would wear outrageous outfits. By 1980, Jones had opened up his own store in Covent Garden. Forty years later, Jones still attracts the biggest names in the industry, crafting hats for celebrities including Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Madonna and Meghan Markle.
The lecture was hosted by the School of Art & Design as the first event in their yearly Penny Stamps Speaker Series.
Onstage, several different headpieces were displayed, from berets and headbands to more elaborate headpieces. Art & Design senior Sofia Zertuche found that the displays added an important visual element to the lecture.
“Usually we don’t have things onstage,” Zetruche said. “Having the hats onstage, it provides an interesting outlook on what the show is about.”
The lecture began with a short instructional video on the steps of creating a hat.
Jones discussed how throughout his time in boarding school, he wasn't sure exactly what he wanted to do — all he knew is he wanted it to be something exciting. He also recalled how his family always communicated via art, which is why he decided to apply to a fashion school in London and was surprised when he got in. Upon arriving at the fashion school, Jones said he saw two distinct cliques.
“My first day of college I walked into this room … on the left-hand side, there were all these very chic, elegant girls, all wearing beige cashmere and smoking cigarettes,” Jones said. “And then on the right-hand side of the room, there were a few, some miserable fucking punks … and I thought, ‘I’m either going to go left or going to go right. I’m either going to have to wear beige cashmere, and or I’m going to wear cheap vinyl.’ I went to the cheap vinyl side and never looked back.”
As a student at St. Martin’s School of Art, Jones got an internship at a couture shop working for the tailoring department. While Jones said his main responsibility was going on coffee runs, he advised students to take advantage of knowledge gained during internships.
“Keep your eyes open … when you are interns,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter what you do, it matters what you observe which is the most fascinating thing. And I observed the politics of the couture house.”
It was during this internship that he became fascinated by the millinery department within the couture shop. Jones asked his boss to transfer to the millinery department, even though he had never created a hat before. He was given a weekend to produce a hat and to present it to the head of the millinery department. This left Jones scouring for materials at home in order to create a pillbox hat.
“So, I got an old box of cereal and took the cardboard from that and some glue, and I begged my sister for some fabric, and she gave me an old blouse,” Jones said.
Jones’s millinery career started picking up as he began spending his nights at the Blitz nightclub and premiering his hats on the fashion scene. By 1980, he had dropped out of art school and opened his own millinery. Jones credits his success to his successful networking, especially befriending Jasper Conran, a fellow fashion designer. Jones recalled how, one day, Conran told him that he had a new client opportunity for him.
“So, I went to his showroom and I opened the door and in the fitting room, and to my complete amazement Princess Diana, Princess of Whales,” Jones said. “And then I said, ‘Oh, where’s Jasper?’ and I heard an ‘I’m here’ and Jasper suddenly appeared from under the ballgown.”
Jones said he works with largescale couture shops such as Dior and Marc Jacobs, but he also works with individual celebrities. The slideshow he displayed showed all of his hat creations on the heads of Madonna, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Janelle Monae, Meghan Markle and Amal Clooney.
Yet for Jones, the magic of hats and fashion isn’t always supposed to just be simply “pretty” — they are supposed to transform the person wearing them.
“The great thing about hats is that they are simply transformative,” Jones said. “I have to say that most people I work with, and most people I know exactly who they are, they occasionally like to be somebody else. The great thing about the hat is you put the hat on and you become somebody else.”
As the lecture ended, the auditorium erupted in applause from the audience. Art & Design freshman Grace Marengo said the lecture inspired her to seek artistic inspiration from different aspects of her life.
“Hearing about the creative process and how he keeps coming up with ideas and pulling ideas from his everyday life other than art,” Marengo said.