A#20 curator Pierpaolo Piccioli incited a monumental artistic dialogue for the Valentino Haute Couture AW2021-22 collection, inviting 15 artists to create garments directly linked with works of contemporary art.
Dior Men Fall 2021
with Stephen Jones
When Dior Men creative director Kim Jones revealed to the British milliner and A#12 curator Stephen Jones that his next Dior show would involve the American artist Kenny Scharf, the historical and the contemporary were brought together. Known for his marbled mash-up of cartoonish characters, Scharf’s artworks were translated into prints and embroideries for the Dior Men Fall 2021 collection, including drawings denoting the animal symbols of the Chinese zodiac. As Dior’s in-house milliner since 1996, Stephen Jones was asked to contribute: resulting in a collection of stylised ‘Tambourine’ berets. An avid admirer of Kenny Scharf (whose illustrations even figure on Stephen’s mousepad at Dior), this collaboration not only celebrated the American artist’s work but also harked back to the London and New York club scene of the 1980’s beloved by both Joneses and Scharf alike.
When the glamour of Studio 54 was in full swing in New York, the club scene on the other side of the Atlantic was an entirely different experience for Stephen Jones, who grew up in London with Embassy Club and the Blitz. His was the generation that followed Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat and frequented Mug Club, Area, VIP Room or Xenon — a modern rival of Studio 54. Back then, anybody who was anybody would have a friend at the door of every club.
Looking back today, it’s a fateful coincidence that in 1984, at the age of 25, Kenny Scharf attended one of Stephen Jones’ shows at the New York Palladium. “It was just a whole big glamorous world,” recalls Jones, in a Zoom call from London. Equally serendipitous is the fact that on his first day of college in 1976 at St. Martins (as it was then called) Jones wore a beret. As an evocation of chic long before The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten wore one, the simplicity of a beret and its European roots always enticed the young milliner.
“When I was starting out as a milliner,” Jones explained, “I wasn’t making hats for fashion shows, I was making hats for people to go out to clubs. So they had to be quite small hats because otherwise you couldn’t dance in them. They’re made for going out in a club and having fun”. For Dior, he explained, “the brief insisted that you had to be able to dance in them and probably have sex in them too. And maybe they’ll fall off at the height of passion,” he laughed.
As it were, the beret was already a part of Christian Dior’s world in 1947: The designer’s early sketches would often reveal a flick of the pencil crowning his clothing, a gesture which could be interpreted as a beret. Prior to becoming a dress designer, Christian Dior drew hats and sold his illustrations to various milliners in Paris. “They were rarely this very big thing,” said Jones. “That ‘very big thing’ was supposed to denote glamour and voluptuousness. And in fact, even when he showed his first collection, it was a small, contained hat which was a beret or a development of a beret”.
For the first time for Dior, Jones interpreted a variation of the beret as a Tambourin shape: A squared, rather geometrical take on the classic French accessory far from the Basque beret, the beret of Che Guevara, or that of the Revolution. More sophisticated in shape, its angular extremities carry more sense than a regular beret. “This is the shape that I really wanted to do for Kim as I know that he loves berets and the simplicity of them”. A simple adornment on the one hand, and a canvas for Kenny Scharf’s vibrant faces and traditional Chinese beadwork, a key component of the collection.
When it comes to working with an haute couture house, Stephen Jones insists on the importance of communication and friendship. This starts by researching the shape of the hat the designer or client wears themselves. Having started his career with made-to-measure, Jones’ earliest hats were not made for distribution but made specifically for his first clients. “My first clients were men, whether it was Boy George or Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran,” he added. “For example with Daniel Arsham’s Dior collaboration in 2019, I did developments of the baseball cap, because that’s what he wears. And with Kenny Scharf, even though we did the beret (which could almost be converted into a smiley), because he’s often working outside and is follically challenged too, he will wear a straw hat with a bit of a brim”. In fact, the straw hat is an element of the house that Jones will be taking forward in their next collection.
“When I work with Kim, it’s almost like working with a private client. Because you’re making something for that particular person, you’re not only making something for fashion, you’re making something which is the embodiment of that person. A hat is always a bit of a costume, it’s something that you identify yourself with,” he assured. Kenny Scharf’s work often features facial motifs in circular motions. If it was a collaboration with William Turner, for example, the outcome would have been entirely different. For Turner, Jones would have made tulle veils in layers of colour and something extravagantly peacock-like. But for Kenny Scharf, his work translated into graphically-enhanced hats. “Hats are never about what they look like, it’s what they represent”, he said. The translation between their two worlds is where beauty in immediacy truly took form. “His work is such a joyous avocation you don’t want to mess with. You just want to do the same thing on a hat”. And this is exactly what was achieved. Some were beaded using the same technique used for the Chinese knot embroidery elsewhere in the collection, employed in juxtaposition with glass beads to add a certain amount of weight to the berets. These were completed in India by craftsmen who specialise in beadwork. A different luminous approach was used for other renditions, one in yellow and one in fuchsia made using incredibly orchestrated thread-work, spiralling the thread around and around the surface of the berets in a gradation of colours. Originally scheduled in Beijing, Chinese techniques were central to the creation of the collection. In fact, the link between China and millinery is significant. “Whereas a hundred years ago we were importing porcelain from China, the other thing that we were importing was straw for hats. Almost all straws are hand-woven together and the Chinese dexterity is extraordinary for making the finest straws in the world — but of course, this was the winter collection,” he explained.
Though Stephen Jones and Kim Jones have previously collaborated at Louis Vuitton, it’s at Dior — a house so renowned for its millinery — that their aesthetics have most fortuitously aligned. “Even though [Kim] has done many very different collections, his handwriting is recognisably ‘Kim Jones’. He really understands sportswear and club life, and is a big fan of Judy Blame,” said Stephen, citing the late artist and mutual friend to whom Kim paid tribute via the Dior Men AW 2020 collection. With a deep understanding and interest in London club life, Kim Jones has widely researched and collected memorabilia from the infamous 1980s Blitz club, made famous by London’s New Romantic subculture and its notorious door policy.
At the club Taboo in London in 1980, the clubkid and doorkeeper Trojan — the love of Leigh Bowery‘s life — held a mirror up to people in the queue and asked them whether or not they would let themselves into the club. Club entries were ruthless and this was only the outside, what happened behind closed doors was a fashion parade. “You needed to be part of that group to get in. If you were a Chelsea supporter you wouldn’t go in with a whole group of Arsenal people because you’d be dressed in the wrong way,” he continued. “I remember people were very judgemental. That person has copied that person’s looks or I was wearing pink last week why is she wearing pink now? It was quite severe,” Jones admitted. “It was the catwalk of life, and you were there on parade.” But this is very different from the influencers wearing fashion labels outside clubs today. “For us the kiss of death would have been to wear a fashion label because that would have meant that you couldn’t have thought of something yourself”. This is where Judy Blame thrived: the genius behind so many masterful DIY creations. “It was also because none of us had any money so you had to just make up your own thing. The only designer label that anybody would ever consider wearing probably was Vivienne Westwood and that was because we didn’t consider it to be a designer label. She was a goddess”. This distinctive way of dressing up differs from the way people dress today: where self-expression means putting together looks from designers and houses combining sportswear and couture. “At that time we didn’t have any money for that,” said Jones, who later admitted to spending his entire first year’s grant on a pair of Manolo Blahnik’s. “They were little orange pixie boots in suede, and I literally wore them until they dissolved in a puddle on my feet”.
“It’s a riot,” says Stephen, of working with Kim Jones at Dior. “It’s the most fun in the world and hats need to be fun, that’s the most important thing. He really understands and appreciates the world of haute couture in the way that John Galliano, for example, does, as he believes that the hat is a natural extension of the outfit. If you want fancy, I can do fancy. But simple and beautiful is also a real challenge too, and it’s something that you have to develop season after season. In a way, you have the simplicity of silhouette at play here, because I knew there was going to be the complete richness of materials and Kenny Scharf’s luminous colours”.
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