Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Stephen Jones


Stephen Jones & the Accent of Fashion
MoMu, Antwerp

A hat provides a theatrical punctuation – a role made clear in this retrospective exhibition of the British milliner Stephen Jones and his numerous commissions and collaborations with the heady world of fashion. Much of the exhibition content comes from the private collection of Geert Bruloot (owner of the Antwerp boutique Louis) and Eddy Michiels and is on long-term loan to MoMu, making it the largest collection of Jones’ millinery outside Britain.

Timed to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of Stephen Jones Millinery this retrospective places Jones’ talent and seemingly inexhaustible creativity in no doubt. Less attention is given to the role Jones occupies within the hierarchies of fashion, working to commission and in collaboration with many of the most prominent fashion houses. In John Galliano’s introductory text he explains the longstanding contribution Jones has made to his own label as well as Givenchy and Christian Dior: “I explain the concept and story behind the collection to Stephen then watch as he develops new shapes and toiles”. Others designers tell a slightly less generous story. What can be agreed is that unlike the fashion designer, Jones is not an individual creating in response to his own seasonal inspirations. Instead he has become an expert in response and reflection. The fact that he has garnered recognition from this often-anonymous position of commission/collaboration speaks to the respect the fashion world has for his work.

Regardless of the machinations behind the genesis of these hats, Jones commands a personal style that manages to remain endlessly adaptable. There seem to be no rules of scale or material left intact after viewing more than 120 hats on display. Plastic doll legs stick skyward to form a Mohawk in “Myra” (inspired by a friend of the same name who, in the 1970s, sported a beehive hairdo containing a plastic doll). “Carol Channing” reproduces in miniature a black velvet and satin torso sitting on the head and tied under the chin. And before we even knew of upcyling Jones was harvesting party souvenirs (an invitation, champagne cork and London underground ticket) to make “Ulle”. In amongst the humour and surprise there are also examples of stunning simplicity. A scarlet knot of taffeta titled “Alta Moda” acts as a reminder that excess and displacement are not the only cards Jones knows how to play.

In many cases it may be impossible to disentangle what came first – garment or hat – in the working relationships between milliner and fashion designer. The displays work best when the garment and hat are shown together as seen in the circular room that makes up the far point of MoMu’s large wedge-shaped gallery. Here Jones and Walter Van Beirendonck are shown together, their names painted on a backdrop of midnight blue and twinkling stars. For all the starry excess of the display setting, the grouping effectively reveals the synergies between garment and hat that are central to Jones’ career.

Throughout the exhibition oversized replicas of the hatboxes used by Stephen Jones Millinery act as cordons that keep interested hands at a safe distance from the work. Clever though this may seem, the boxes are a visual distraction. The same could be said of the four scaled up hats used to introduce the exhibition’s thematic groupings (Adventure, Rococo, Science and Glamour). Not quite large enough for an Alice-in-Wonderland moment, these strangely overblown objects hold less intrigue than the originals. Ironically both curatorial decisions draw the eye away from the exhibition’s purpose: the hats themselves.

We are told that Jones “plays a unique behind-the-scenes role in fashion because of the unparalleled freedom he is given by designers, allowing his work to influence the image of a collection.” This is difficult to prove through the work displayed, and interviewed fashion designers range from agreeing that he does indeed have free reign to others who admit to dictating elements of the design with a clear outcome already in mind. More could have been made of the fascinating position Jones occupies within the fashion food chain. His position is not rare. But acknowledgement and recognition of the many talented individuals who contribute to work that is attributed to a single fashion designer certainly is.

Crafts Magazine (Nov./Dec. 2010: 55-56)