Interview with Justin Smith

There's a fin de siècle atmosphere in the London studio of milliner Justin Smith. As if from one moment to the next poet Paul Verlain could walk right in, without knocking, and have a coffee with the young hat designer. On the walls, bold or classic hats seem to be masks from a long-gone sophisticated Venetian Carnival. Sculptures with a vintage touch, to be worn or to be contemplated, as occurs with works of art before they became reproducible thanks to technology, as Walter Benjamin would say.
Justin’s expressivity overflows from his imaginative head pieces and from his completely decorated body. An explosive imagination that has not given in to self-referencing and pure aesthetic pleasure, but rather perfected itself in technique, with love for craftsmanship, for the British style and for the traditional elements that make a piece wearable.
Mr. Smith tells us his creative adventure, begun as an award-winning hairdresser at Tony & Guy and now an enterprising managing director of his label J Smith Esquire, as well as tutor at the Royal College of Art.

Justin Smith Esquire

From an exclusive hairdressing salon in London to haute couture millinery. What's the link between these two careers?
I've been a hairdresser for ages since I was 19. At that age I moved to London and started with Tony & Guy, where I worked my way up the company really quickly. I did some design competitions and won quite a lot of awards doing avant-garde hairdressing, very sculptural and playful, mostly for shows. I was doing collections about twice a year and I was Avant-garde Hairdresser of the Year finalist twice. After 6 years with Tony & Guy I decided I had had enough of working for a company. It was 1998, I had quite a lot clients so I decided to rent a chair in a salon somewhere in Soho. I did that for about a year to get more clients before opening my own salon in Soho, and during that time I decided I wanted to have another creative outlet, so I started making a few hats.Justin Smith Esquire
How did hairdressing turn into millinery and how did it grow?
I was doing all this avant-garde hairdressing and then it gradually turned into doing hats and millinery because I wanted to know more about how to balance things on the head and how to make things stay on the head proportionally. So I went on a millinery evening class at the London College of Fashion to actually push my hairdressing career.
I did the first course and made a really crazy, tall, bowler hat, which was in my exhibition in London Fashion Week and that just inspired me to go on. During this time I was doing hair for magazines so I would take along a little hat that I had made and introduce it into the photo shoots. I started to get press for my work pretty early on and it gradually just grew from there.
Justin Smith Esquire
How did you manage to both follow the course and run your salon?
The evening class was once a week for 9 weeks and I became friends with the teacher, who told me I had a natural eye for this. I would go to his house a lot and practice with him, making small pieces for friends. It was just a hobby, and then I decided to do another course with him. The first was beginners, I then took the intermediate and later on the advanced. Overall it was 3 years working with him in his home and on the course, making pieces in my spare time between hairdressing, which was 5-6 days a week to keep my business going.
Justin Smith Esquire
I then decided to push it further and found a course that was part-time, at the Kensington & Chelsea College in London. It was 3 days a week so I had to stop my hairdressing on those days. That course lasted a year and then I knew I wanted to do the Masters of Arts in millenary at the Royal College of London. I worked really hard and got the place, just through the hats that I had made from other courses and from my portfolio of sculptural hairdressing. I suppose they liked what they saw even though I didn’t have a degree.
Justin Smith Esquire
I was 27 when I went to the Royal College and that was a massive step because I was still running my own hairdressing business and this was a 5 days-per-week commitment for 2 years. I explained my situation and managed to take the class from 5 to 11 at night every night of the week. During that time I was actually sleeping on the floor of my hair salon so I could afford to do everything.
I studied for about 6 years in total, working closely with different people regarded as the best teachers in London.
Justin Smith Esquire
Who was your teacher at the Royal Collage?
A guy called Ian Bennet, who was an amazing teacher. 2 people were accepted when I was at Royal College and that was myself and Soren Bach, who is now living in Copenhagen.

How did you develop your taste and what inspires you today?
My personal taste has always been the way it has. I've always been really determined about what I wanted to wear, how I want my hair. My tattoos and piercings started really early in life. As you can see I'm completely decorated. I've just always been very expressive.
I also really love tradition. I guess with the millinery, I explored the traditional elements. My family is very English, I'm from the South West of England so I love the fact that millinery is very British. I try to respect that within my work, respect the craft, in the way things are made: it's very important to me that things be beautifully constructed because I think I reference a lot of vintage in my work and I would love my work to last and become vintage.
Justin Smith Esquire
I love Art Déco, The Aesthetic Movement furniture, those kind of periods. A lot of my references are turn of the century. In that period nobody would have gone out of the house without a hat on. I'm always referencing that and trying to turn it on its head to make it more contemporary.
I don't try to be fashionable. I don't think of what the next fashion trend is, I just do things that I love. My first collection was based on 1920s vintage ballrooms. Then there’s my collection based on safari, all in denim. It starts from a seed idea of buying denim, because at the time it was the only thing I could afford so I decided to do a whole collection with it and explore the techniques within it. If I'm not challenged it's not exciting. I'm constantly moving things around in my house and rearranging furniture, covering it in fabrics. Constantly changing, growing and learning.
To me millinery is just an art form, an expression of what I want to say and a lot of the time either they’re art pieces that are going in an exhibition or pieces I would want to wear. It's a juggling act because if you are overly creative, which I have been in some collections, then your pieces don’t sell. They become show pieces that the press love, but you don't sell them and people don't enjoy and wear them. It's always a challenge creatively to make things people actually desire to have on their head, because the head is quite a sensitive area, and people don't want to look like fools.
Many say I have a really interesting view and take on hats, but it wasn't planned. The reason I built my brand is the love of technique and craft and pushing the boundaries of design and technique further.
Justin Smith Esquire
Could you give us an example?
It ranges from my leather cut-out hats that are one piece of leather stamped out that you wet and mold yourself, ranging to something that takes 3 months to make like the parrot hat I showed at Rome couture. It was an exploration of wanting to put a real parrot on somebody's head, without using a real parrot because I love nature and during the Victorian times lots of birds became extinct because they were put on hats.
The idea came when I was in Venice and I saw some masks that inspired me shape-wise. I thought “that mask would be gorgeous if it had a parrot on the top of it…”. Maybe I took too many drugs when I was young! So a week after my trip to Venice I did an interview for an intern and she said: "I do some taxidermy". I replied "That's amazing, come and work for me, let’s explore this!" She agreed and we worked for a few weeks, found the measurements of a parrot and researched the postures, trying to make it look like a real bird from a distance. 
Justin Smith Esquire
What's the creative concept behind your hat collection for the doormen of Guoman Hotel?
That hotel actually just asked me if I was interested in making hats for all of the hotel doormen. They were all bespoke, we made nearly 50 handmade hats. It all came from them wanting to do a press and marketing event and also have their doormen in something very handmade and British. I did a lot of research on the history of the hotel, on doormen and what they represent to people who come to a hotel and I tried to bring all that into the project. Mostly, I took inspiration from the hotels’ architecture.
Justin Smith Esquire
If your personal imagery were a world, how would you describe it?
I definitely have a bubble I live in. I love sci-fi and fantasy, I love Tim Burton, one of my collections was based on a book called Neverwhere, which was a fantasy underground London book by Neil Gaiman where you go through a door inside the tube and suddenly find yourself in a whole new world, so for me it's fantasy. Probably a good way to describe my world is "bonkers".
Justin Smith Esquire
How did your collaboration with Fabrizio Talia for the Limited/Unlimited exhibition at Alta Roma begin?
I met Fabrizio at the International Talent Support competition in Trieste 9 years ago, but we really didn't become friends until 2 years ago, when we connected properly and started to talk. He was looking for somebody to make hats for a Moschino show because at the time - 2009 - he was with Moschino, so I said "Sure, of course, bring it on, what can I do?".
We kind of fell in love with each other, creatively. We were mutually inspired by each other. He came to my studio in London and we spent 3 days intensively working on the hats we were going to do for Moschino. I think we fell in love with the inspiration we both had for the project and the freedom of our working relationship, he would come to my studio and we just played, but made something beautiful.
Then he left Moschino and we didn't have the opportunity to do more collections there so I tried to convince him to start his own brand. We worked on it and started to do more things together and that was really the birth of (Es)* Artisanal. Now we work together quite closely. We both show in Rome at the moment and we are doing an installation there in January, then we have plans for another installation in July.
Justin Smith Esquire
Any exciting projects for the future?
Loads of exciting projects for the future. It keeps growing. For the first five years of my work I guess a lot of it has been one-off pieces, most of it has been bespoke. I've been stocking shops but everything has been made by hand, super high-end and super expensive. Finally In February I'm launching my first ready-to-wear collection; the same design, ethics, quality but just more ready-to-wear.
Justin Smith Esquire
I'm also starting a collaboration with a really well known hat company in London called Lock & Co. They are a very old hat company in St. James's Street, open since 1676. Hopefully we are doing a launch in February and then they will be for sale in the shop in August. That's exciting because they have been one of my inspirations since I started millinery. I'm doing 6 special pieces for them and then I have my own 30 ready-to-wear pieces as well that will be showing in London. We are sponsored by Ascot which is a collection of milliners, four of us, under the bracket Hedonism and we get a fashion room at London Fashion Week, which is where I'll be showing my collection.
And then the collaboration with Fabrizio in Rome the 28th of January, that's a big one. Next year we are going to do a lot of collaborations with (Es)* Artisanal.

Any revelations about your next collection?
My next collection will be heavy with new shapes. I'm playing with fedoras and top hats, but it's all a funny, modernized street wear version like what I would normally do.
Justin Smith Esquire

Justin Smith Esquire

Justin Smith Esquire
27 January 2012