Dear Diane and Shaded Viewers,
Ten years ago, Noel Stewart launched his millinery label. Since then, the Royal College of Art graduate has collaborated with the likes of Erdem, Hussein Chalayan and Oscar de la Renta, proving his skill for a wide range of designs from the understated to the avant-garde.
Incorporating holographic materials and PVC, he has displayed his creative talent in dreaming up headwear creations for women, but for two seasons now has shown that he can work the same millinery magic when it comes to male designs. His latest A/W 13 collection was a leather, sports mesh and tweed-packaged affair of reinventing classic shapes such as the trilby and trapper hat.
Stewart sat down at his Dalston studio to discuss a decade of designing, sculpture projects and the powerful volume of headwear.
What aspects of the transition from women’s to men’s designs did you find challenging?
In some ways, it’s a lot easier because I’m a man and find it a lot more straightforward. Also, there’s no occasion wear for men really, so the hats had to be more versatile. There is only so many times a man can wear a hat. With a women’s collection, you’ve got so many different points to hit, so many different aspects and facets to the market. I find it really hard to keep the womenswear collection succinct, whereas with men’s it’s so much clearer. It’s all about the quality of the materials and manufacture. It’s got to be luxury in terms of design, so you’ve got to have something interesting in there.
What would you say is your trademark?
There’s a soft angularity to my work. I like to create something that is unusual, but at the same time you can get it, it’s still flattering and something that you want. I’m not into wearing ridiculous things on your head. I want it to be something beautiful, but that’s a broad spectrum.
What is it about a hat that makes an outfit?
It’s a volume button. You can be wearing your outfit but if you put a hat on, there’s a range. You can turn the volume up to ten, or you can put it down to four or five. It gives you an extra layer of subtlety or accentuation.
Especially in England, because there’s a strong tradition and certain localisation of the millinery craft, for example with the Queen or Ascot races.
The craft side and discipline of it is pretty unique here. There is something about England, I think it’s partly the fashion here, which is constantly so adventurous and exciting, and has been for many years. Combined with millinery, it creates this extraordinary crucible of talent. When I started, people constantly asked: “Don’t you wish you were living in the Edwardian era where everyone had to wear a hat?” No, I do not, because apart from anything else, it was a convention. For me, it’s far more exciting that someone has chosen to wear a hat as part of an outfit, are trying to make a statement, or want to be chic and hide themselves at the same time. There’s all these different aspects to it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked with Royals and it’s kind of liberating because they have gotten to that point where they really know what they want. Sadly, the vast majority of people don’t wear hats on a regular basis. But once they’ve discovered it, it’s like a kid in a sweet shop, all these wonderful things they can do, try and experiment with. If you can have that sense of adventure with hats, it’s a real bonus and makes for a much better experience.
You’ve worked with quite a lot of names in the industry. Is there anyone that you would love to collaborate with in the future?
So many people. I’d love to make stuff for Björk because she can do something quite radical. I’ve always wanted to work with Balenciaga or Celine. But that’s on the fashion side. There’s an artist friend of mine named Alice Channer who does extraordinary work which is decisively referencing fashion. We’ve collaborated before when she was at college, but I’d really like to work with her again. She’s a sculpturer and that was my path that I didn’t take.
But there is a sculpting aspect to the shape of a hat as well.
I found when I started off in my education that I was always addressing the body three-dimensionally. When we collaborated, she got permission from the Henry Moore Foundation and the Barbara Hepworth Foundation for me to make hats for these sculptures. It was really satisfying, such a completely different thing. It was about doing the thing, as opposed to a product, which was a release in many ways, and quite fun.
Do you have any iconic men in hats that stick to your mind when designing?
There’s an Avedon picture of Quentin Crisp wearing a trapper and I kind of modeled my trapper style on that. The hat swamps him, it’s this fantastic fur explosion on his head and very beautiful. That sticks to my mind, but there's so many. Men wear hats more often and understated as part of an outfit on a regular basis. I love that. But now, men’s fashion is really exciting. If you want to do exciting things, you have to be in menswear at the moment.
Which is quite interesting because London has Savile Row and its very traditional tailoring, but especially now that we have our own menswear fashion week, you see people really pushing that.
I don’t think anyone was quite prepared for how established it feels. It's got its own voice, is authentic, not following anyone else, and unique. That’s what you’d expect from London, but no one was expecting it to be so fully formed already. It’s all been there, it just hasn’t been brought together. It will be interesting to see how it will integrate with the rest of the fashion press. Only time will tell.
You worked Stephen Jones quite early on in your career, what was the most important lesson you learned during that time?
I learned a lot from him. There were always tidbits of millinery advice, like how to make something or what was important in terms of a catwalk experience. We had just done the Dior couture show and were walking back when he said: “You see Noel, it doesn’t necessarily always matter about the precision of the line or the finish of the edge or something like that, it’s more about the image at the end of it, the statement, the drama or the impression”. It was couture and full on, every millimeter of those outfits was embroidered or covered in feathers or whatever. I actually found it quite overpowering how intense the entire look was. It was at the height of the Galliano drama, so it was about that concept being communicated, whereas I was always thinking, it’s got to be so precise, perfect and finished. He is too, it’s just sometimes it’s not about that. It’s about something else.
What’s inspiring you at the moment?
In terms of next season for womenswear, we’re looking at vorticism. I found this beautiful picture of Isabella Rosselini’s feathered hat collection. I’ve never visited feathers properly before, have always tried to avoid the standard millinery things like feathers and flowers. If I do it, I really want to do it differently. The fluffiness belies the subtle and complex nature of them in a way. So we’re having a look at feathers and the graphicism of Moroccan and Arabic tiles.
You just celebrated your tenth anniversary. What can you say looking back on that decade?
When I started people said, “What are you doing you crazy person, you’re going into hats, no one wears hats anymore, it’s a dead industry, why are you bothering”. Literally everyone told me this. But I had just discovered this thing, fallen in love with it and what I was doing. And then I launched my own label. At that point, there was only two people really doing work that I was interested in, Philip [Treacy] and Stephen [Jones]. But since then, there’s been a complete turnaround. Now, there’s so many more milliners than before. I don’t think people really looked at hats but Stephen highlighted them at his V&A exhibition [Hats: An Anthology] in 2008. Since then, it’s been non-stop. That was on the brink of the recession and my business just took off from there.
That’s amazing though, to be able to positively make it through the recession.
But it makes sense. Do people want another bag that is covered in studs? How many bags does one actually need? If you really want to create something individual, you can’t get better than hats. There is always going to be that desire to be and reinvent yourself, to explore what you can wear and the potentials and possibilities of your own garments. Hat wearing is such a fantastic luxury, it’s one of the few left in terms of apparel.
Since you started, how have you seen your label evolve?
There’s a lot more acceptance of a varied range of millinery that wasn’t there in the beginning. It’s been great for me to see the industry turn around from ‘oh don’t bother it’s a dead zone’ to actually being very valued. The wonderful thing about fashion is you can have someone who makes millions of pounds for a label and under the same umbrella, somebody do something as artisanal as what I do.
Would you ever want to branch out your brand into other areas as well?
I’d love to have a shop. That’s always been on my mind. It’s a critical thing, but it’s got to be right. That’s the next big step, we’ll see what happens after this year.
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