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August 2 2014

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Milliner Stephen Jones Talks Rei Kawakubo, Lesbian Geishas, and His Latest Fragrance

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Stephen Jones

In 1985, British milliner Stephen Jones and Rei Kawakubo, the design visionary behind Comme des Garçons, met at a duty-free shop in Anchorage, Alaska’s international airport. Jones didn’t recognize her, hilarity ensued, but ultimately that chance encounter has led to thirty years of collaboration. Not only does Jones design hats for Comme des Garçons’ men’s and women’s collections, but he’s also created two fragrances—one black, one white—with the brand. The second, dubbed Wisteria Hysteria, launched at Kawakubo’s Dover Street Market New York this week.

To celebrate the scent, which comes in a miniature white hatbox lined with a netted white veil, Jones has dug into his archive to put twelve of his CDG toppers on display. The all-white exhibition is accompanied by a film installation featuring director Henry Pincus’ eerie video for the eau. “Hats are a bit autobiographical,” Jones told us. “I take bits from my life and put them into my designs.” It’s no surprise, then, that he can recall the story behind each chapeau. For instance, the Fall 2010 Funnybone fascinator—a crystal confection shaped like a broken femur—was conceived after Jones had leg surgery. “I was sketching from the hospital!” he said, laughing. Fall 2002′s epic quilted ostrich-plume bonnet, garnished with crystal chinstraps, was intended for the “most glamorous Inuit you’ve ever seen.” The most significant hat, however, is the simplest—a white felt beret from Fall 1985. It was the first style Jones ever made for Kawakubo.

Yesterday, over coffee at DSMNY’s Rose Bakery, Jones spoke to Style.com about Wisteria Hysteria, working with Kawakubo, chipped black nail polish, and more.

Your first fragrance with Comme des Garçons was black, and your second is white. Why?
Because of the simplicity and purity. I always think the ultimate hat is a black hat. It’s just a contrast between the skin and the blackness and the graphicness—I mean, everybody from Irving Penn to Richard Avedon and even painters focus on black and white. If you look at amazing Tudor paintings or Dutch paintings, the subjects are wearing black with a giant white collar against a black background. They’re so powerful. And I love the complexity of black—it can be shiny black, matte black, transparent black, and that’s also something that Rei really explored very early on in her career, like, different qualities of black. And looking at your nails, I have to say, on my first day of college in 1976, which was the year of punk, I also wore black nail polish.

Mine’s quite chipped, though.
Honey, who wants to have perfect black nail polish? I want it chipped! I’m sure at the Met ball last year they all had perfect black nail polish, which was so uncool. What you need to have is a dysfunctional boyfriend with eye liner on—yesterday’s—and chipped black nail polish. That’s sexy.

I love the way you play with the black and white duality in the Wisteria Hysteria film. Can you tell me about it?
It’s directed by Henry Pincus, who’s an old friend of mine, and it’s got kimonos in it by L’Wren Scott. It was so weird because six months ago, when I was telling her about my fragrance, I hadn’t worked out the name yet, but I told her, “It’s going to be wisteria, but it’s white.” And she said, “You’re not going to believe this,” and showed me the sketch of an outfit embroidered with wisteria. It was a total coincidence. So we used it for the commercial, and the rest is very sad.

Why did you decide to have Charlotte Tomas, who plays both characters in the film, perform a nude kiss at the end of the short?
Because they’re blending. I like this idea of two characters that are actually one person. That’s the whole angel or devil thing. When we launched the film, there were lots of comments on the Internet like, “I don’t know what it smells like, but I like the idea of lesbian geishas.” That may be the next fragrance.

What is the relationship between perfume and hats? You’re the only milliner I’ve known to launch a fragrance.
Well, it’s really to do with the head. First of all, when I’m trying hats on a woman, I’m above her, and because of that, I always smell her perfume. But hats are almost more about beauty than they are about fashion. Yes, of course, they have to coordinate with your clothes, but they really have to work with your face—that’s the important thing. And hats are very close to you emotionally in the way that hair is and the way that fragrance is. I love this idea of a perfumed, hatted world—it’s a bit retro. That’s our whole world: black hats, perfume, femininity, looking after yourself, preciousness. So often nowadays women are told they’re not supposed to feel like that because it’s sort of indulgent or something. Well, hey, isn’t self-indulgence part of the raison d’être of hats and fragrance? We need that fantasy, because everything else is not about self-indulgence—paying your mortgage, work, your children, etc.

How did you start collaborating with Rei Kawakubo?
It’s very funny, actually. I was in Paris in 1985. We’d been to the Gaultier men’s show, and the next day, we were flying to Japan. I was at a nightclub and I was trying to leave with my assistant, and all these people were coming up to me and saying, “Stephen Jones, I really like your hats,” and my assistant was on the other side of the dance floor looking at her watch, like, “We’ve got to be up at 6 in the morning.” That was a big bubble coming out of her head. Anyway, we got into the cab and she said to me, “You just have to say ‘Thank you very much’ and move on.”

So the next day, I was in the duty-free in the Anchorage airport. In those days, when you flew from Europe to Japan, you had to go through Anchorage because you couldn’t fly over Russian airspace. And this Japanese lady comes over to me and says, “Stephen Jones, I like your hats.” And I said, “Thank you very much,” and moved to the next aisle. And then she came over again and said, “Stephen Jones,” and I said, “Thank you, that’s very kind of you,” and moved away. And I could see my assistant literally doing the one-minute mile, like, “Idiot! That’s Rei Kawakubo.’ So then I turned the color of beetroot and we laughed about it, and we went to Tokyo and she invited me for dinner. I went to their offices, saw a little bit of how she works, and she asked if we could collaborate. There’s a hat in the exhibition, the white beret, that’s from the beginning of that collaboration.

When you’re working with Rei, is the creative process different than when you’re designing for your own line?
In a way, it’s very different. When I’m doing my own collection, I’m creating—mentally creating—the story in the background. Hats are so much about a story, even if it’s a simple one. When I’m doing hats for Comme des Garçons, I will normally get a brief, like “black” or “animal” or “romantic.” But sometimes the brief will be “there is no brief.” It tends not to be about specifics because, ultimately, what Rei does not want is something that I think looks “Comme des Garçcons.” She loves the hats to be the bit of spice in the collection, so she likes something that almost has nothing to do with the collection. She loves that sort of randomness and the fact that it doesn’t look too studied. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t—sometimes I take a load of hats out of a box and she says, “They’re not right.”

And what happens then?

Well, first of all, I burst into tears! [Laughs] Often she will say, “I don’t like those, but I like this one.” And then I’ll very, very quickly work out with her in a five-minute conversation what she wants. She might say, “Can I have some more like that?” Or she’ll say, “Oh, I want to show them inside out.” And I’ll say, “Ehhh, OK?” Sometimes it really doesn’t make sense to me, but when I see it on the runway, it makes perfect sense. You know, every hat that I’ve ever made—especially for designers—is really like having a conversation. I make hats out of conversations. So I have conversations with Rei and her husband, Adrian Joffe, and it’s a very special arrangement.

Why do you think Rei chose—and continues to choose—you to make Comme des Garçons’ hats?

The reason that Rei wants me to do the hats is because, of course, I bring my taste and flavor, but she always says, “You’re an English gentleman hatmaker.” And for her, the history or authenticity I bring as an English milliner is extremely important. I think that authenticity is crucially important for her clothes, and this environment [Dover Street Market], too.

Stephen Jones at DSMNY

Was selecting the hats for this exhibition a nostalgic experience?
Yes, because I remember making each hat. It’s funny—I can’t remember my phone number or the day of the week, but I can remember each hat. And with those memories come a million different feelings. But I didn’t choose the hats around the concept of Wisteria. I think what I do is a bit Hysteria, anyway. All of it! I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. In the fashion business, we think we’re terribly normal. But all of our friends think…

…that we’re terribly mad. Has approach to millinery changed over the years?
There are certain things that have changed and certain things that have remained constant. Something that’s remained constant is that I still believe hats are about self-expression. They’re an adventure, and they create a persona in a really charming way. Often, you put a hat on and you become something. I still believe in all of that. Things that are different? I’m better at making hats than I used to be; I have much more of a design range because I’ve collected so much fashion knowledge along the way. I’m 57 now, and I remember working with Thierry Mugler in 1983. You amass experience. Another thing that hasn’t changed is that I still love what I do.

I have to ask you, why do you think Pharrell got so much flak for wearing that fabulous Vivienne Westwood hat?
Because he was doing something different. He was sticking his neck out. And you know also, people are thinking, Oh, pop star, you’re supposed to be wearing a baseball cap. But he doesn’t want to fit into that pigeonhole. If you put a baseball cap on him, it wouldn’t feel convincing. And Westwood’s Mountain hat is such an amazing hat, not that I’m jealous or anything. He looked fantastic.

You’ve been making Dior’s hats for decades. I’m curious, how is working with Raf Simons different from collaborating with John Galliano?
It’s totally different. Hats were really a very strong part of John’s design language. Working with Raf, I mean, I knew Raf before he came to Dior because we worked at Jil Sander together. But hats aren’t such a part of his aesthetic. I’m still doing hats because Dior has a real hat market, so we carry on selling hats, but they’re not in the show. There were no hats in the [Resort '15] show last night. But I’ve been doing other things for Dior, too. Remember those neck bows from ready-to-wear? I did those. So I’m doing scarves and things using millinery techniques, but applying them to different areas of the body. It’s a whole new thing for me, and a real adventure.

Photo: Courtesy of Dover Street Market New York