From the top: Master milliner Stephen Jones and his remarkable life’s work

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A new retrospective traces the extraordinary life and work of Stephen Jones, the man behind the world's most iconic headgear. He gives Harriet Walker a sneak peek, taking her from his punk origins through physics geekery to his royal coronation

When I meet Stephen Jones at the Mode Museum in Antwerp, he is practically Lilliputian. Not with reference to either his literal or metaphorical stature, but thanks to an optical illusion: all around him are strewn 50 or so giant replicas of his signature octagonal hat boxes, rendered faithfully in white cardboard and embellished with his name in the familiar calligraphic script. Some are up to four metres deep; others are stacked several feet high, with Jones weaving between them like a Borrower or a shoemaker's elf.

"Do you know, the biggest packing company in the world is based here in Belgium," he laughs, "and they made all of these boxes for us. They make houses out of cardboard, too, for people to actually live in. Not so good in the rain!"

It is still early and the world-famous milliner shows no sign of bedding down in any of the boxes yet, but he has his work cut out for him, arranging and installing a retrospective exhibition that covers his 30 years of gilding, adorning and anointing the scalps of the famous, the fashionable and the fabulous. Almost 300 hats to position, tweak, reposition and tweak again to tell a story that encompasses some of the most recognisable fashion imagery in the modern canon. Vivienne Westwood's 1987 Harris Tweed crown, as worn by model Sara Stockbridge and, apparently, still by the designer herself during dinner; 1993's "wash 'n' go" cloche hat made from transparent plastic to resemble a pitcher of water sloshing over the wearer's head; the paintbrush and palette berets daubed with colour from John Galliano's autumn/winter 2007 couture collection for Dior; and, more recently, the candy-coloured fibreglass Pac-Man helmets from Giles Deacon's spring/summer 2009 show. "Relatively fingerprint-free!" he trills of these. "It was a bloody nightmare in the show because you put the hat on, polish it up and then some lovely hairdresser who'd just been putting hair gel on would come over and smear it again."

They seem particularly redolent of Jones' tactics as a milliner: not only are they visually arresting, oddly beautiful while also witty, as well as aesthetically strung-out and technically perfect (they hover at the model's neck, just so), but they are, above all else, fun. "It was a very complicated thing to do," he explains, "to make them look very light. Often it's the subtle illusions which are most effort. And actually something that is a tonne of embroidery is very straightforward."

It is Jones' schtick to create hats that merge concept and collocation, and almost all his designs play on associations of shape, colour and form; they look familiar and correct – almost a priori – despite the ingenuity, innovation and sheer intelligence present within each: a shrunken top hat that '

Curls to a rosebud at the top, for example, or a miniature dress on a mannequin, the skirt of which becomes a brim.

"I love visual tricks," he says, pointing out a trompe l'oeil-esque empty silhouette of a top hat sprayed in black on to stiffened tulle, bobbing on a black headband as technicians install it among the exhibition line-up. "It's a silhouette, not a real hat. It was in a Nick Knight picture, worn by Erin O'Connor, which ended up on a stamp. Of course, you weren't supposed to recognise Erin, but who wouldn't – the nose, the neck, everything? You're supposed to be dead if you're on a stamp, because the only person who can be alive on one is the Queen."

Jones, 59, has become something of a figurehead within the establishment, a national treasure of the British fashion industry, whose work has endured punk, Princess Di and post-9/11. He became an OBE at the beginning of this year; in 2009, he co-curated an exhibition, Hats: An Anthology, at the V&A featuring headgear from the museum's archives, and he received an award for outstanding achievement at the British Fashion Awards in 2008. He has made hats for royalty, the aristocracy and the style press; for christenings, weddings and the races from his three own-label lines; and besides all this, he has worked with some of the biggest names in fashion, spanning the spectrum from ultra-chic couture fantasy via bourgeois elegance to radical avant-gardists, such as Rei Kawakubo and Walter van Beirendonck. His hats, his wit, his warmth and his love of history represent some of the best British traditions. So what is he doing in Antwerp?

The other elf working among the gargantuan boxes is Geert Bruloot, a fashion PR who met Jones in 1988 when he brought over a group of Belgian designers (among whom were Dries van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester) to show at London's Olympia. The group became known as The Antwerp Six and revolutionised fashion with an intellectual rigour and methodology that transfigured the industry and its governing aesthetics. Bruloot, who also owned (and still does) two boutiques in the Belgian city, bought Jones' entire collection on sight. "I first saw a picture of Stephen Jones in i-D magazine in 1985," he says, "and I thought that this was really a new era of hat design. Because hats had an old-fashioned aura over here, a glam aura, but this was totally different – such modernity."

But the hats refused to budge; not a single model sold from Bruloot's boutique, despite his using them in window displays and on mannequins. The designer Veronique Branquinho even made her way through the store as a Saturday girl while at fashion school, trying and failing to sell a single one of the hats. "People had no idea," continues Bruloot. "Belgium is not a hat-wearing country. It used to be, but we are a very conservative people. It's really something British, the wearing of a hat." But Bruloot continued to buy Jones' hats, to use as window-dressing and to form a private collection, which he has recently donated in its entirety to the Antwerp Mode Museum. "It was JFK who killed off hats," he adds, "when he didn't wear one at his inauguration."

When Kennedy made this bold sartorial move, Stephen Jones was three-and-a-half, growing up in West Kirby on the Wirral, with his two elder sisters and parents – his mother was a housewife and his father a refrigeration engineer. "My second-best subject at school was physics," Jones says. "I got that gene from my father. I loved art, too, and that's what I got from my mother." His passion for logistics and balance is conveyed in every hat that is oh-so-carefully calibrated against gravity; there are plenty of models in the retrospective which seem to defy the wearer to keep them on. Yet on they stay. "Real physics is as much, if not more, of an artistic concept as a Leonardo da Vinci painting," continues Jones. "The complexity, the fact it's a concept as well as a reality, that there are things which are symbolic contained within it. It's like a soap opera – within physics you can have hope, drama, family rows, the whole lot."

And like the eternal equations and formulae of the discipline, Jones' hats are also seemingly timeless, despite being at the core of an industry obsessed with change and trends. "Of course, there is a fashion element," he says, "but it's more like, 'Who do you want to be today?' That's a more important issue than whether it's in this season's colour. And what was a nice hat 20 years ago is still a nice hat now." He pauses. "My life is rushing before me! It's lovely to see all these again. I can't remember all the seasons or names, but I know exactly the story of making them, which block it was made on, who in the workroom made it. I can't remember my own phone number, but I remember all those details."

He is like Einstein, I venture, who refused to waste valuable memory space on phone numbers. "Well," Jones says modestly, "I've been compared to Einstein!" Pointing at another hat, he describes it as having been inspired by the Brussels Atomium, a physics-geek place of pilgrimage that he was desperate to visit as a child. "These hats are my memoirs," he continues. "Each one has a story to go with it – was it made in the middle of the night? Did I have a tantrum? Did I reduce the person making it to tears?"

It seems unlikely. Many of Jones' assistants and workmates have been with him for more than 20 years, some from the very beginning, and his engaging, considered manner and artlessness hardly speak of divadom behind the scenes. "I've worked for Stephen for about 17 years," says Julia Wigley, one of his studio staff, "and I feel like I'm part of his millinery family. It's definitely not a normal, nine-to-five job, but that's why I love it. I'm constantly amazed at how many ideas he has and how he seems to be doing 20 different things all at once, while travelling around the world."

Such world travel can be seen in one of the oldest hats in the exhibition, a velvet topper emblazoned with an imaginary milliners' crest, and which is frilled at the back with pages taken from Jones' own old passport. "This is from when I first went to Japan," he cries. "And Israel as well. This must be 1986 or something."

Indeed, Jones' autobiography is stitched into the linings of these hats – another rather battered-looking model sports an enormous welt down the back. "This is really, really old. I wore it out to a party. My cigarette got too close and suddenly I was on fire." A nearby museum employee overhears ' the story and admits to having wondered whether she had accidentally caused the damage; Jones twinkles at her. "I was very pleased to dig this one out," he adds.

That these hats – and their maker – have fun in their very fibres comes as no surprise given their shared good-natured flamboyance. After attending art school in High Wycombe, Jones went on in 1976 to study fashion and millinery at St Martins School of Art, as it was then known, and became a regular fixture in the group of golden youths that characterised London's burgeoning club scene. He was a Blitz kid, partying with the likes of Steve Strange, Boy George and Martin Kemp at the eponymous club night, and creating clothing and headgear to match the attendees' high spirits. Jones points to a semi-horrific mohican hat, fashioned from a crest of dismembered Barbie legs, fronted with a blankly staring doll's face. "This is from Blitz times – I made this for a friend of mine called Myra. She used to have a great big beehive with a doll's head in the middle of it and everyone was so unsettled by it.

"I was 23 in 1980," he recalls. "It was the end of punk and the beginning of the New Romantics, and we were arrogant and we wanted to create a new world. Margaret Thatcher was coming into power and all the binmen went on strike. Leicester Square was piled high with rubbish for three weeks, from Soho to Covent Garden. Would that happen now?" He grimaces. "I don't think I was one of Thatcher's children, but the idea that you could set up by yourself and create your own business and do your own thing was a new idea. There was, not an arrogance, but certainly a can-do."

Jones was part of a generation whose "can-do" jarred with the fashion institutions, and who found progression in the pages of street-style bibles such as i-D and The Face, rather than on the haute bourgeois Parisian catwalks. "A whole new alternative culture came into being," he says, "whether it was Terry Jones or Janet Street-Porter doing 'yoof Britain'. And the funny thing is, they're all still running it. I always think a bomb should go off and we should get some new ones in."

Jones was no less an iconoclast at university, where he was taught a type of fashion that he had little interest in, and worked instead on a style he believed in. For his first assignment, he made a corset dress from grey velvet with pearl straps. "Now it sounds so normal but at that time no one was really doing restrictive or constructed clothes. I took it to my head of year, who said, 'Stephen, what have you done now? Grey velvet is so old-fashioned, not even my grandmother would wear it.'" A smirk. "'Excuse me,' I said to her, 'but I don't think someone wearing Kenzo has any right to judge.' I didn't see her again for the next three years. And she tried to fail me, too."

Instead, Jones went on to graduate and continued making hats for his close friends, all the while being turned away by rigid magazines, which declined interest in his work because it was "street fashion" rather than high-end. "I left college in 1979 with no idea," he says. "I always wanted a shop or salon. I wanted it to have a grey carpet – I didn't know it then, but I think that was based on Dior's." When in 1982 Steve Strange offered Jones the basement of the New Romantic boutique PX in Covent Garden, he took it and began to develop his own label, spending the late 1980s travelling in groups with other designers such as Bodymap, English Eccentrics and Leigh Bowery to Japan and America to ply their trade. London had acquired a reputation as the epicentre of alternative fashion, and the scene suited Jones' aesthetic perfectly.

"When I was at college, the American designers were the new Big Thing – Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Norma Kamali. There were quite a few people at college who were really into caramel knitwear. But we were punks and we couldn't relate to caramel knitwear." Currently wearing a scarlet ombré shirt accessorised with white brogues that tip-tap around the museum space, Jones is far from that school of dressing. Legend has it he once went out to the Blitz club in a pinstripe suit and heels. Another time, he got drunk with friends and shaved his head, only to discover that he was the same size as the average milliner's fit model, and became his own test dummy, creating along the way that idiosyncratic smooth dome, upon which usually rests a flat cap, top hat or – on occasion – a crown.

There is no doubt that Stephen Jones is the modern king of hats; following the launch of this exhibition, he was due to jet between studios in Paris and London creating hats for the upcoming shows, as well as for his own collection. He is also designing the hats for Madonna's new film WE – a Wallis Simpson biopic that promises sumptuous costumes and forgotten elegance – having previously made Keira Knightley's swimming cap in Atonement and Cate Blanchett's diadems and gable hoods in Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

In a rarefied area of fashion, Jones knows technique and tradition inside-out and can regale listeners with anecdotes of the trade. "Mad hatters", for instance, are known as such because the mercury used in hat-making during the 19th century affected their nervous systems; Florence was a centre of millinery, turning out leather goods in winter and Livorno straw for boaters from the nearby marshes during summer. But what is his sense of the perfect hat?

"Sometimes it's nice to keep things simple, sometimes more complicated. Hats made for a fashion show are simpler in silhouette because you're looking at them from 25 metres away. A smaller hat is made for a conversational distance. In your plane of view, though, they're actually taking up the same space."

There is a kerfuffle from the crew working on the placement of the hats; one, a Kermit-green balaclava, is in the wrong place. "It's a bit runt of the litter, isn't it?" Jones laughs, considering its poignant little teddy-bear ears and mournful eyeholes. "I love it being in that funny green, it's quite froggy. It's called 'Galliano', an ode to John and his menswear shows."

That a muddy-green bear hat can summarise the undoubted master of modern couture is perfectly Stephen Jones-ian: humourous, unexpected and very, very sweet.

'Stephen Jones & the Accent of Fashion' is at the MoMuFashion Museum, Antwerp (momu.be), until 13 February 2011. Eurostar (eurostar.com) operates up to nine daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels with return fares from £69. stephenjonesmillinery.com

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