As most of you will know, Jess has dedicated over 25 years to making hats. For Jess being a milliner is not only a job but a calling and a lifelong passion. I have had the pleasure of chatting to Jess about some of her favorite moments in millinery and some of her most memorable projects. Make a cuppa, sit back and have a read through Jess’ career highlights.
I adore all of your hats but I’m interested, what has been your all time favourite couture creation of yours and why?
“Oh, that’s a hard one to start with. I think it has to be The Golden Crown because when you wear it you just get a feeling of being this empowered woman, which I love. I think a hat should always make you feel fantastic and this one always makes people feel like a goddess. I’ve had a few people chuckle at it before and make a Julius Caesar comment or two, but when they put it on they change their tune. I think people love the drama of it and it makes everyone feel as if they could conquer anything.
The piece also fulfills every kind of satisfaction of creating something from scratch. Cutting the leaves out of the leather, wiring them all – I felt like it took real craftsmanship to make it. It’s beautifully crafted and it makes you feel incredible, so that’s a tick, tick, tick!”
And of course, which is your favourite ready-to-wear creation of yours?
“The Jackson Trilby with a star, without doubt! It was the first ready-to-wear hat I made and I wanted to create a trilby that nobody else had. I just love that little flicked up back, it definitely has an edge. Whenever I put it on I feel like myself and like I could get into any swanky party - it always gives my confidence a little lift!“It’s also a really good base for lots of other things – I put wings on it once and that was pretty cool. There’s the original winter version in felt and I have since made summer ones and even couture versions too. It’s also nice and small – you can wear it anywhere, it’s not too big and cumbersome, it’s just an all round winner in my opinion.
What was the first hat you ever made?
“I had a hat party when I was 6 or 7 and all the kids came with amazing elaborate hats. I remember someone had made a car hat and there were lots of lovely flowery creations too. My hat however... was an upside down sieve with pineapple and cheese-chunk cocktail sticks poked through the holes. I sort of looked like a futuristic hedgehog!
It was really uncomfortable to wear because the cocktail sticks kept pricking into my head but I guess that’s the comical element of hats that I like. I do love hats with a bit of humour and I’ve always loved taking the materials I have around me and making them into some kind of character – this is something I definitely still do to this day with my pieces”.
What has been your best-selling hat of all time, and why do you think this is?
“In the ready-to-wear section it’s definitely got to be The World Traveller hat because it’s such an all rounder. The piece is flexible and packable, it’s SPF 50+ certified, it’s unisex, veristile and above everything else - it’s effotlessly stylish. Everyone has loved this piece in recent years and It’s kept me going through the pandemic - I don’t know what I’d have done without it!In the couture collection however, the piece that everyone loves to try on is the Cornelia. This hat is probably my most dramatic and is made up of a tower of frayed gold loops. It’s actually made from denim that I frayed by hand, looped, wired and then stitched onto a base. People love putting this one on and they just love the drama which I think is probably added by the vieling -people love to wear vieling. I think it makes them feel very old school - hollywood glamor, it’s very alluring.”
What’s your most memorable commission?
“Oh it has to be the Duchess of York’s hat for Eugenie’s wedding. It was a big emerald green boater with synamay wings, and it seemed to be a hat that caused a lot of stir… especially on twitter!
“I think people either loved it or hated it, but the main thing for me was I loved it and so did the Duchess of York. It had a lot of sentimental value for her - her mother was Argentinian and that style of boater reminded her of her heritage. She said it felt like her mum was with her on that special day and I thought that was a lovely touch that I was happy to be part of.
I do love making hats for the duchess of York in general - she never shies away from making a statement (much like myself) and she is fearless with colour which I just love too! I hope I will be making controversial hats for her for years to come.”
What has been the most creative project or piece you’ve worked on?
“Well, in 2011 I was milliner to the Derby and I did a collaboration with someone I’d previously worked with called Ercole Moroni. He’s a florist, an incredible florist, and we made a collection of hats – the “English Country Garden”, the “Japanese Garden” and the “Tropical Garden” – and we had so much fun creating these pieces.
“They were really incredible and Ercole taught me that simplicity was everything. He said: “Stop throwing the kitchen sink at your hats, Jess. Keep it simple” and It was great advice for me at that stage of my creative career. It seems to have stuck with me and I think we made some of my most memorable work together.
“I also love doing collaborations because it stretches my mind and broadens my horizons. For example, some fibre-optic hats I designed for a fashion show were really fun to make and pretty amazing. I also loved one of my final pieces for my diploma, and I ended up re-making this years later.”
If you could make any hat possible, what would it be?
“Ooh I would love to make a hat out of real snowflakes, because they would be so ethereal. Each snowflake would be individual and I think the scope for making hats with snowflakes would be pretty incredible, it’s such a shame it’s not possible!”
How do you design a new season of hats and where does your inspiration come from?
“There’s quite a lot that goes into it actually. Firstly, I do my research. I have a look at current trends online and then I delve back into old books, magazines and materials (no pinterest for me!) I bounce some ideas around from here and do this until I have a theme.
Then around that theme, I start to build colours and a persona for my collection. I like to dream up a muse for each collection and think about where she would wear her hats and what she would be doing in them. Is she cheeky? Is she outrageous? For me it’s all about channeling a character and once I have that, the making always seems easier.
“I went to see this exhibition on Yves Saint Laurent once and there was a video of him drawing a picture, and whilst he’s drawing he says he never knew what he was going to draw until his hand touched the paper. The creativity would stream through him and he would literally create that design on the spot, and I always thought that was proper creative channelling. I think that’s what I’m aiming for but in much more of a practical sense - I like to do this with the materials as I’m not much of a drawer. In fact If I’m ever asked for a sketch, Shannon, who works with me in the studio normally does it as she’s more of a dab hand than me - I always credit her of course. But I’m much better at channelling by getting stuck into a pile of feathers and fabrics with some scissors.”
What, to you, makes the perfect hat?
“Firstly, it has to make you feel special. Secondly, it has to be comfortable because that’s also crucial. If you have a hat that makes you feel great and fills you with all the confidence in the world, then you want to be able to wear that hat all the time, so comfort and fit is a big deal for me too.”
I’m interested, are there any hats you don’t particularly like making?
“I find drapery very frustrating! I can do it if I force myself to but I normally avoid it like the plague. I made one draped hat a long time ago with silk organza and it’s in my studio. That was for the Derby, and it is an enormous oversized piece, it’s wonderful but I would never make it again because I nearly killed my husband over it!
“I even chucked it out the window mid making it (no lie!) I’m a perfectionist and I wanted to make it perfect. But you have to regroup, breathe deep and start again. So draped hats, turbans – anything like that, it’s not my forté.
There you have it – the hatty highlights of Jess’ incredible career!
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