Womenswear

THIS CHARMING MAN

I had the pleasure of profiling magical milliner Stephen Jones for the latest issue of Wish magazine.

Australian women don't have a particular proclivity for headwear, save for a rush on fascinators ahead of Melbourne Cup Day. Stephen Jones, one of the world's best known milliners, finds this curious. "Men wear hats, and children are made to wear hats, but women, who have got the most sensitive skin prone to sun damage, don't seem to wear them," he says. "It's so weird." As headwear becomes a must-have accessory, though, the tide is gradually turning.

Jones was in Sydney earlier this year after a trip to New Zealand to judge the iD Emerging Designer Awards in Dunedin, following in the footsteps of Zandra Rhodes, who visited in 2010. London, Jones's base, is certainly a long way from New Zealand - it took him four flights to get there - but he's increasingly keen to support young creative talent. "If they'd asked me 10 or 15 years ago, it wouldn't have been important to me," explains Jones over coffee at the Park Hyatt, overlooking Sydney Harbour. "But I'm 56. I'm not 21 any more. Which doesn't mean to say that I feel any more authoritative, but people listen to [me] more and, hopefully, I can offer them some of my experience. Which is basically to just go ahead and do things ... If it doesn't work, you can do it again."

Back in London, the designer has been working with young designers such as Giles Deacon and Louise Gray whose creativity is unbridled. "Working with another designer is an unbelievable privilege," he says. "I like to have my point of view challenged, and so it has been really interesting to work with Giles and Louise as it really refreshes me." Indeed, in one season when budgets were particularly tight, Gray opted for accessories fashioned out of garbage. "I mean it's not Tiffany [& Co], but that's what's great about it. It doesn't need to be. Maybe I'm just a 56-year-old punk at heart."

Jones has a longstanging relationship with house of Christian Dior, both with its current artistic director Raf Simons, with whom he worked at Jil Sander, and his predecessor, the disgraced John Galliano. For the most recent spring 2013 haute couture show, Jones created white embellished bonnets, with net covering the face - an extension of the net masks he'd created for Simons' autumn 2012 debut. This elegant restraint - a world away from the lavish, oversized hats and cellophane masks created for the house under Galliano's direction - is evidence of Jones's ability to respond to a mood or theme and demonstrates the breadth of his talent. But he's always quick to praise his collaborators.

Like Simons, Jones is a master of reinvention, taking old, dusty ideas then tweaking and reappropriating them for a modern audience. He is almost solely responsible for reviving millinery as an industry and an accessory, just as Simons has restored the house of Dior to its former benchmark of French elegance. And it's something he's been doing since he established a little millinery salon in London's Covent Garden in 1980.

Following an education at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Cheshire-born Jones's store became, as he describes it, "a place of pilgrimage and patronage". Scoff as you will at such reverent language, but every name from rock to royalty, Boy George to Lady Diana, has visited Jones for his modern take on what is a very traditional accessory. As the late fashion icon Anna Piaggi wrote in Italian Vogue: "Stephen Jones is the maker of the most beautiful hats in the world."

What makes Jones interesting is that he never approached millinery in a conventional way. He doesn't see a hat or headpiece as an optional extra but rather a seamless extension of a wearer's outfit, day or night. "Years ago I asked John [Galliano] why he liked hats so much, and he asked me: 'Why would I stop designing at somebody's neck?' and I completely agree. [Headwear] can be an area for great creative expression."

With a studio of 20 - each staff member with their own specialty, such as felting or beading - Jones produces two namesake collections a year in addition to diffusion lines Miss Jones and Jones Boy, along with a plethora of collaborative projects. A big box sits at the end of his desk, into which he aims to throw something at least once day: a bus ticket, a clipping from a book, an old Polaroid picture.

A thread typically emerges, from which the studio begins sampling toiles. However, his process isn't purely mannequin-based. "A lot of people come to millinery because they want to design but can't draw, but it's so convenient just to sketch something quickly on a napkin in a restaurant," explains Jones. In his first meeting with Simons for the designer's debut haute couture collection, for example, it was simply about sitting down and bouncing sketches between one another. "Sure, you can design without drawing, but it's like a writer only writing by hand. You can still write, but it's so much harder and longer for to write and read it."

His creativity remains as unbridled as when he began, as evidenced by his recent autumn 2013 release, which embraces the spirit of the Dada art movement in its pastiche of ideas and fabrications. A black beanie is adorned with yellow, red and blue pompoms in a Mondrian colour palette, while felt berets and trilbies are perforated to reveal coloured spots. There are ideas here that even great designers would have trouble expressing in a gown.

At a time when some designers begin to slow down in their career, Jones seems as energised and enthusiastic as 29-year-old Gray.

A documentary, Stephen Jones: A Charming Man, directed by Gitte Meldgaard, is due for release later this year, and he's working on a second perfume with Comme des Garcons after his first sold out. "I'm always busy, and it's great to be able to do so many things," explains Jones. "One bolsters the other when you do lots of different things. It makes everything stronger."