Dear Shaded Viewers,
In celebration of a decade of hat making, I decided to have a little chat with Justin Smith aka J Smith Esquire.
When did your fascination begin with making hats?
I became conscious of my own style and found myself attracted to beautiful things from a fairly early age. I began to make some clothes when I was still at school and I’ve worn hats since I was quite a young child. My first real steps into hat making developed out of my work as an avant-garde hairdresser for Toni & Guy. I thought that studying millinery would give me a deeper insight into how balance and proportion work best on the head. I made my first hat by myself at home – a beret made from wool. After that I began to take courses. I enjoyed styling the head on a whole new level and immediately appreciated the potential of millinery as a medium for me. In total, I studied millinery formally for seven years at three different colleges, culminating with the MA in Millinery at the Royal College of Art.
I know you studied at the Royal College of Art. Am I correct to say you met with pretty much immediate success once you went out on your own?
My work has always been well received and from the launch of my first collection stockists were interested in my brand ‘J Smith Esquire’. I had a lot of opportunities early on in my millinery career to show people within the fashion sector my work, style and ideas.
What was the first sale you made? And who was it to?
My first real sales as a brand were from my first collection “Flight”. I had quite a few private commissions while I was studying at the Royal College of Art. I would quite often make hats for my friends and gift pieces. It wasn’t so much about money or “making sales”, but becoming a master of my craft to develop my personal feeling for the work and sense of aesthetic.
Can you send me some of your sketches for publishing?
I prefer three-dimensional-modelling than creating sketches to work from. Every project is very different. I may make anything from a leather flat cap to a life-size parrot headdress. So, in general I begin by making a sample and taking a lot of photos of it. In that way, I begin my work in three dimensions, and document my work in two dimensions!
Did you apprentice anyone?
I was never a formal apprentice because it was my intention to learn a craft rather than “enter an industry”. I tried to learn as much as I possibly could, from all the teachers in London that I admired. Stephen Jones supported my work through the Royal College of Art and early in my career.
Someone said the hat determines the rest of the look. Do you believe that?
As an accessory, it makes a strong statement about your overall identity. The right hat makes all the difference and has the power to elevate a person’s look to iconic status. Certainly, a hat can determine the outfit if you want it to speak the most. Alternatively, the hat can be the “cherry on the top” …I am often asked to make distinctive pieces to complete a look, as in the case of Amal Clooney’s cream wedding hat for her elegant Stella McCartney outfit.
What is your favorite and most iconic hat?
I love so many, and enjoy playing with classic styles a great deal, exploring archetypes and experimenting with identity. The Panama Top Hat in the Gold collection is among my recent favorites. In work that I have been commissioned to do, I would say the movie Maleficent is one of my most iconic and stylish moments because it worked so well as a story, as an idea, and because of the opportunity to work with Angelina Jolie to help her form the character.
Do you find nowadays men are wearing more hats than in the past few decades?
As J Smith Esquire celebrates its tenth year, both men and women are wearing more hats. Women are happy to wear men’s’ hats, and men are experimenting with more styles than before. In general, though, people continue to stay with more traditional choices and are investing in quality pieces for longevity. More men now are ordering unique bespoke pieces for themselves that won’t go out of style, as style conscious women have been doing for years. Overall, I would say people have become braver about wearing hats, and that trend is increasing alongside a growing desire for greater individuality and more style.
Can you talk me through the building of one hat?
There are some videos online of me making some hats on my website. However, it is not easy to talk you through the building on one hat because genuine millinery is a full of diverse and complex processes. The beauty of millinery is that each headpiece requires a different approach or set of techniques, from flat-pattern caps, to the fundamental millinery skill of blocking, to creating sculptures or jewelry designed for the head. I am a staunch believer in upholding the traditions of millinery, and so that’s why I like to pass on my skills to apprentices and on the occasional course, as I did at Pinewood recently.
Do you have a lot of private clients?
Yes, much of my work is commissioned by discerning clients wanting quality classic and unique occasion hats.
And if so what was the most challenging request?
Challenges come on a weekly basis. That’s why I love my job because there are no hard-and-fast rules and no job is the same. I enjoy the challenges of working on a movie, which always present a unique set of demands, often working within a team to create an identity for the film and its characters…and this still bespoke in a way.
Do you work much with stage?
I have done work for various stages, theatre, and music, even for a show on a boat.
Let’s talk about gold. What does the color mean to you and why did you dedicate a collection to gold?
For me, the word “Gold” can encompass a number of different things. “Gold” was the progression from “Black” which was the name of my last collection, a much more somber and under-the-radar collection. The Gold collection is a celebration of the tenth year of my brand J Smith Esquire.
It represents a lighter collection for summer, centered on gold textures and encompassing many different types of material, particularly straw. The collection is underscored by the theme of the Golden Age of Hollywood, which is also reflected in the names of individual pieces. I wanted to create and communicate that richness, sparkliness and sense of luxury that we associate with Hollywood glamour.
Do you have a shop?
Following on from the success of ‘Gold’, I am excited to announce that to mark the tenth anniversary of the brand this October, J. Smith Esquire is opening its first London appointment-only shop and bespoke showroom.
What are you working on right now?
Right at this moment I’m making a black trilby. I have a lot of bespoke commissions on hand in my studio and there are some very exciting projects in the pipeline. That’s all I’m going to say about them for now.
Fabric right now?
Japanese super-fine denims. That is my fabric of the moment. Love them!
This is 7 years ago but a fun video: