All Things Big and Beautiful
What has been your biggest epiphany? What would be your biggest moment of pride? What would you consider to be your biggest mistake? For Issue Six BIG, the stellar costume designer and stylist Kim Bowen discusses all things big and beautiful with her old confidante, legendary milliner Stephen Jones.
Interview KIM BOWEN
From his glamorous jewel box of a house in South London, I attempted to force the most famous milliner on the planet, Stephen Jones, to divulge his BIG secrets to me – albeit via FaceTime, as I was at home in Los Angeles. On his bed and dressed in his beloved British Airways First Class pyjamas, he lay in an exhausted and slightly drunken heap. He had returned late the previous evening from a glamorous weekend in Naples, where he’d been visiting the home of the Belgian designer Dries Van Noten. The house was to die for apparently, and the weekend gathering was attended by the ‘usual crowd’ – Stephen mentioned the perfectly slender and frequently dressed in violet, Hamish Bowles of American Vogue, Thomas Dane and Allegra Hicks were also among the guests. My life on the afternoon that we spoke was far less glamorous, as it was largely focused around head lice removal from my eleven-year-old daughter.
Stephen and I have a friendship that has spanned nearly forty years; we attended St. Martins School of Art together, although he is older than I, and lived together in the infamous Warren Street Squat. Stephen had asked me to be his mannequin de vie, a term I had no understanding of initially, but which meant that he would give me only the very most beautiful of his creations to wear. He asked me because he liked me and because he thought I looked good in his hats, which I did. In those first five years that I knew him, I don’t think I spent one single day without one of his incredible hats on my head. I was very lucky.
"Craig would probably say, if you asked him, that he is not the biggest love of my life. Hats are the biggest love of my life."
Kim Bowen: I absolutely hate doing FaceTime! I look so hideous. It’s totally off-putting, don’t you think?
Stephen Jones: Thank god I don’t have my glasses on at the moment. Everything is just a pleasant blur.
KB: I wanted to start by asking you, as this is for the BIG themed issue of Beauty Papers, who’s the biggest love of your life? Your husband, perhaps?
SJ: Craig would probably say, if you asked him, that he is not the biggest love of my life. Hats are the biggest love of my life.
KB: Oh God, really? Stephen, that’s rather horrifying.
SJ: People tend to imagine that life and love is just a big romance, but I think the reason that Craig and I work is that he knows and understands the work thing. What we create is very important to me and he is very much part of that.
KB: Molly Dineen, [the famed documentary director, and close friend of ours] said that gay men, who don’t have children, have all this time and immense creativity to pour into their work – she was very fascinated by that when she was filming you.
SJ: If you’re a parent, in a way your child is your most important legacy to the world. I don’t have a child, but I am sure that it would be that important to me. Craig and I have replaced that energy with something else, which is why we are so passionate about it.
KB: I try and fill my children with beauty and love to give them powerful emotional tools with which to live their lives by. It’s obviously going very well because my thirteen-year-old son spends his life with headphones on staring at a screen, and my eleven-year-old is deeply influenced by the Kardashians.
SJ: Well, I put that life force into hats and everything that I create. It’s the same emotional energy, but we are applying it in different places.
[At this point I race off and come back wearing an enormous, shining, black straw hat that Stephen made for me, and gave me last year. It’s the second version of this particular hat, the original one got lost when I moved countries, which I have tended to do a bit.]
KB: How is your relationship with this one of your children?
SJ: I love that hat because it reminds me of you, it reminds me of 30 years ago. I love it! It’s great.
KB: I love this hat, too. It’s such a good one. You know what I love about the hat? It’s just so arrogant. It’s such a statement of, I don’t mean fuck you, it’s just fuck, this hat is beautiful! It’s such an egotistical hat, isn’t it? There is no apology. It is what it is and it’s nothing else.
SJ: I agree, it is what it is and it’s nothing else. But, at the same time it’s all about you and your allure when you are wearing it and how it makes you feel.
KB: I loved wearing it at your 100th birthday celebration. It really helped to give me the bravado to conduct the speechifying part of it, it truly emboldened me…
SJ: Oh, that was amazing!
KB: Tell me, what would be your biggest moment of pride?
SJ: Either, my first Tatler cover with Michael Roberts – that was fantastic – or my first season in Paris working with Thierry Mugler, which was amazing.
KB: I remember that cover! It was just gorgeous, I was so proud of you. But really, those things fill you with more pride than going to Buckingham Palace to receive an OBE?
SJ: Yes, they do, actually.
KB: It must have been lovely for your mother, though, Stephen?
SJ: I must say what was so special about that was arriving in our limo. There was a knock on the door, my mother wound the window down, and there was a tall, dark, handsome chap, six foot two with eyes of blue asked if she was Mrs Gordon Jones. She answered yes, and he said, “We are your footmen for the day.”
KB: How fabulous for your mother.
SJ: Oh, and they were all in red uniforms. I think she could have passed away on that very spot and gone to heaven.
KB: What is your biggest pet peeve?
SJ: [Makes a vile face] People who want things for free. Sometimes it’s designers, it can be anyone – stylists, agents who think that their clients are major celebrities – all sorts of people who think of me as fashion’s ‘fairy dust’, that I live on hot air! I’d like to ask people who are horrified at my price how much do they work for an hour? Many years ago, the artist Cerith Wyn Evans made a film of my hats, and I made him a hat in return. That kind of thing works. When you want something for nothing you take my life energy of which there only is a finite amount.
KB: What is your biggest secret?
SJ: I can’t share it. It’s a very big secret.
KB: You could have a secret that was your biggest secret? Telling your parents you were gay for example?
SJ: Telling my parents I was gay was a very big secret, and to them it probably was a secret. To the rest of the world it wasn’t.
"Most people would have thought they had peaked at thirty, but for me every single day is a fucking challenge. Every bloody collection is a challenge. You never get used to it, and if you do, then you’ve fallen into a trap."
KB: When I first met you, I didn’t know you were gay, you seemed so manly driving your van. I remember helping you to finish your final year show and being a bit worried if you were going try to jump my bones – displaying the classic signs of a repressed Catholic girlhood there…
SJ: I remember that! You said, ‘How could they imagine that someone who tied bows like Stephen does could be straight?’, which I think is a fantastic quote. Another thing I remember is when you once interviewed me for Arena. We were in Angelina’s on the Rue du Rivoli and I was telling you about when my parents were having some people over to dinner. It was quite a big dinner, quite formal; my father’s boss and a local politician were there. Anyway, I came downstairs and stood at the foot of the dining table, and said very loudly, “The penis enters the vagina.” I was five years old, my sisters had been listening to some record, I think it was a bit sexy, and they didn’t know what it meant. I think I was trying to explain what my sisters didn’t quite understand.
KB: Oh, I do remember, this is very reminiscent of the little girl in the Exorcist; did the guests find your comments helpful?
SJ: My mother’s head was spinning around, my father’s friends laughed and I remember my father jumped up and picked me up by the scruff of my neck – like a dog picks up a puppy – and marched me off to bed. I really didn’t know what it meant at all.
KB: Well, aren’t you lucky that you have never had to know what that was. Isn’t that great, Stephen, that you’ve been spared that? Thank god for being a Platinum Gay! What was your biggest breakthrough moment? You know what I think your biggest breakthrough moment was, it was when Sybille de Saint Phalle introduced you to Paris. You were already on the map and people already knew that you were the most interesting young milliner on the planet, but she took your career, by those introductions, to the next level.
SJ: Oh yeah, well, she took me to meet Azzedine, and he said, ‘I love your hats, but I don’t do shows, but I know someone who does’, and he phoned Thierry Mugler.
KB: What would you consider to be your biggest mistake?
SJ: Turning down Karl Lagerfeld.
KB: Why did you turn him down?
SJ: Well, in 1985 I was working with Commes des Garçons and Gaultier, so why would I want to work with Chanel?
KB: If you were working with him in addition to everyone else you’d probably be dead.
SJ: I mean, he’s sort of extraordinary. I have met him several times, he’s very charming and very truthful, and really, you can’t have it all, so I’m okay with my decision.
KB: Do you think his personality is a bit like Donald Trump?
SJ: He’s certainly got better hair!
KB: Well, he’s very good at that staccato sound-bite thing, isn’t he?
SJ: Not always. I remember him making comments about Azzedine, saying that he hadn’t had a new idea for thirty years.
KB: Well, I find that a particularly stupid comment, I’m afraid. What was your biggest trouser size?
SJ: Probably about a thirty-eight inch waist. Now it’s thirty-one.
KB: I wish you’d written a book about your weight loss like Karl Lagerfeld did. You still could do it. How do you lose all that weight?
SJ: Take loads of drugs and drink vodka.
KB: You’re such a bloody liar. You did it in a very healthy way.
SJ: Twelve hundred calories a day, and after three months start exercising.
KB: How much did you lose?
SJ: I went from sixteen, seventeen stone or something – all in all I lost six stone.
KB: So, you can still wear your Mugler ladies sample sized jackets like you used to years ago when Thierry paid you for your work with clothes?
KB: What’s been your biggest epiphany?
SJ: [Shudders] Galliano Dior show, one of the first I did. The model was wearing a huge, huge hat, I pinned it onto her head. The show was in the Opera in Paris. She reached the end of the runway and she turned her head and the wig and the hat spun around. The wig covered her face and she couldn’t see out. It was horrifying. I was watching backstage with John Galliano, and I thought, ‘That’s it! I’m going to be fired.’ There were two shows that day, and I remember for the second show I pinned that hat on in a way that I had never pinned anything before. So, that was an epiphany of sorts that never happened again. Actually, maybe my greatest epiphany was losing all that weight. It changed my life.
KB: I was very glad you did it. I thought that you might be found dead or a heart attack in one of Heathrow’s corridors. You never used to give yourself any time; you were a pure workaholic. I wanted you to lose weight because you just never balanced your life out.
SJ: I’m quite sure I will be found dead in my British Airways PJ’s in one of the Heathrow tunnels one day, but at least I’ll be slimmer!
KP: What is your biggest challenge?
SJ: Now that I’m sixty, I find one of my biggest challenges is having the stamina to keep going. I asked Pat McGrath how she did it, you know, she’s one of the most famous make-up artists in the world. She said, ‘Turn up on time and smile.’
KP: Oh, come on! I know we are writing this thing for a magazine and it can be light and fluffy, but that’s a bit disingenuous. I know plenty of schmucks who can turn up on time and smile, and then I can send them home again 20 minutes later because they don’t know what they are fucking doing. Obviously, someone like Pat is very talented and so are you!
SJ: Alright, alright! But my biggest challenge has to be John Galliano. I remember when I was doing the show with all the armour in it and two weeks before the show I went into the main studio and burst into tears and said, ‘I can’t do it!’ It was a superhuman challenge and even now it gives me goose-bumps to even think about it. I really didn’t know if there were enough hours in the day, if I had the application to do it, but somehow, I was able to. What was extraordinary with John, was while everyone else was saying, ‘There, there, Stephen,’ he was saying,‘You are going to able to get it done, aren’t you?’ He was completely unsympathetic, and in a way, that’s why I respect him, because he has a survival instinct that is stronger than anyone else’s. Most people would have thought they had peaked at thirty, but for me every single day is a fucking challenge. The armour show was ten years ago. Maybe when I am seventy I can deliver that even better. Every bloody collection is a challenge. You never get used to it, and if you do, then you’ve fallen into a trap.
KB: I think that is exactly why are you so good, because you are constantly in a creative state, making what you produce very imaginative and very relevant. It’s as if you never go into a dormant state. You are always at it. That’s one of the great gifts of creativity – if you keep playing at it, it keeps playing back.
SJ: Honey, I ain’t dormant for five minutes.
KB: Biggest thing of repulsion?
SJ: I hate it when people say ‘lounge’. Australians say that instead of ‘living room’. Also, pork makes me shudder and feel ill.
KB: Is that because you are Jewish?
SJ: No, I just hate it. But actually, I am repulsed by people who waste time. We are only on the planet for a finite amount of time and those people who waste my time are sucking out my life blood. That really distresses me. I feel passionately about that.
KB: Hmm, this life-blood thing is emerging as a bit of a theme, isn’t it, dear? What’s your biggest reality?
SJ: Spending the day in Paris. Getting up at 3:30am, 4:30 leave the house, 5:30 train, 9:30 arrive in Paris. Then, most of the time, I get the train back at about 8 in the evening, and I get home around 11. I do that every week and I have done since 1984.
KB: What does the word ‘big’ actually mean to you?
SJ: Big dicks. Tom of Finland. No, I’m joking. Big is an interesting word for me, normally I don’t do big. I prefer interesting to big. People think the bigger you go the more interesting it becomes. I don’t want to say small is the new big but what is big? Is big Donald Trump? Gianfranco Ferre loved the idea of big, but there is something to do with big that means vulgar. But if you look at its opposite, which is small, it’s like when they talk about modest fashion shows. I don’t like that at all.
KB: That’s fashion speak if ever I’ve heard it. Finally, I have to ask, what’s your biggest disappointment in life?
SJ: That I’m not a woman.