stephen jones goes on ahead with new retrospective ‘hats at the royal pavilion'

'Stephen Jones Hats at the Royal Pavilion' sees around 150 pieces of headwear spread through the former pleasure palace of King George IV.

by Matthew Whitehouse
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06 February 2019, 1:14pm

Stephen Jones restores a sense of fashionable fun to Brighton's Royal Pavilion, with a new show displaying some of his best loved designs. Drawing on a career that saw him open his first millinery salon in London’s Covent Garden in 1980 -- before becoming milliner of choice to stars and royalty alike -- Stephen Jones Hats at the Royal Pavilion sees around 150 pieces of headwear spread through the former pleasure palace of King George IV. It pays homage to the sense of freedom and frivolity that informed its construction in the early 19th century.

Walk into the Pavillion entrance, in fact, and you’ll be greeted by a bust of former resident George IV wearing a Galliano (naturally), as well as a 3D rendered Stephen, wearing a huge Walter Van Beirendonck top hat. There are pieces from Stephen’s spring/summer 12 Chinoiserie-on-Sea collection, based on Brighton and the Pavilion itself, and displayed on giant, specially adapted candelabras (again, naturally). And the opening corridor contains both rainbow and Chinese-inspired hats, a nod to Brighton’s LGBT community, and the Pavillion’s opulent interior, informed by a failed diplomatic mission to China in the 1790s.

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'Waves Pride' from Spring Summer 2017 Shade collection. Photography Peter Ashworth © Stephen Jones Millinery

Stephen’s hats are, of course, currently on display at the V&A’s blockbuster exhibition, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams (“It’s like two buses coming at once,” as he puts it). What’s brilliant about his Hats show, however, is how well at home his decadent designs are in the setting. “It’s very un-British isn’t it?” Stephen laughs of the Pavillion’s indulgent interior. “Very non-Protestant.”

In the banqueting room, pieces crafted for celebrities including Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Kate Moss, Tilda Swinton and Joan Collins, are positioned around a table as though at some fabulous, imaginary dinner party. A space for Stephen is occupied by his grandfather's hat, which he wears to Ascot every year, and George IV is represented, again, with a hat recreated from a found Brighton portrait. The seats are turned to face each other, or away from each other, depending on whether the hat’s wearers would get on in real life.

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Stephen Jones in the Music Room of the Royal Pavilion with hats made for the statue of George IV in Trafalgar Square (and his horse) for the London Olympics in 2012.

“The Pavillion’s been a great guide for the curation,” says Stephen, who first rose to prominence during the street style explosion of 70s London. “I mean, how are you going to go against it? Number one, they’ve never really done an exhibition here before, it’s a huge privilege. And, actually, it’s how hats should be.”

In that sense, Stephen’s creations play off the furniture, itself part of the Royal collection. The kitchen features food hats, such as the breakfast ape-ing, Eggs & Bacon, from 1984, as well as Onion Soup from his autumn/winter 88 Room Service collection, and a red Giles Deacon swan from spring/summer 12, positioned as though coming out of the fireplace. The Games Room -- a scene of bacchanalian revelry for George IV -- features Stephen’s autumn/winter 97 collection Murder by Millinery, based on a game of Cluedo. The Music Room Gallery, meanwhile, features hats worn and inspired by musicians: Jodie Harsh, Josephine Baker, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Whitney Houston and Diana Ross. The effect is that the pieces feel embedded in the rooms throughout, on stands that emulate the opulent surroundings and mannequins created by leading mannequin designer Adel Rootstein.

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‘Madame Jojo’ from Autumn Winter 2016Soho collection. Photography Peter Ashworth, © Stephen Jones Millinery

“Normally, if you’re going into a plain white box of a gallery, yes, things are isolated, but you’re trying to create an atmosphere,” he says. “But, in a funny way, when you’re making hats, it’s all about the person who’s wearing them, or the place that they’re against. It’s all about the mise en, the location.

“This is not a small, private gallery, it’s mass entertainment,” he continues. “And we have to appeal to men, women, fashionistas, people who don’t know anything about fashion, children. Everybody.”

What’s more it does. While the show does feature incredible fashion pieces -- donated from the Met’s China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition, as well as various owners from around the world -- it is, ultimately, a show marked by both a sense of fun and a lack of pretension. “Hats have got that weird thing,” Stephen agrees. “They’re characters. They’re immediate. They’re very straightforward. What you see is what you get. And, yes, there are explanations. But even if you don’t know that or if you can’t read them or you can’t understand them, you can still get something interesting from them. And especially being an exhibition here. Are people seeing an exhibition of hats within the Royal Pavilion? Or are they seeing the Royal Pavilion with hats inside? I dunno, but it should be a bit of the two.”

'Stephen Jones Hats at the Royal Pavilion' runs from 7 February to 9 June 2019. In partnership with Harvey Nichols.