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Where did you get that hat?

Welcome to this edition of the Gladstonian Journal in which we share our passion for craftsmanship and love of refined elegance by showcasing some of the artisans whose work we most admire. This month our Guest Editor Denise talks to the celebrated milliner, Justin Smith aka J Smith Esquire, a fellow London based brand.
Let’s face it everybody loves a hat. Just like shoes, bags, and one’s outfit du jour, hats make a defining statement. But Justin Smith’s creations are no ordinary hats. They are veritable works of art. And here’s the thing. You or I could pitch up, by appointment, at Justin’s studio for a bespoke, beautiful hat of our dreams. But if we’ve done our homework, we would do this do this knowing we’d be in the hallowed company of Justin’s dazzling portfolio of clients. Global icons from the world of film, fashion and the media. What’s more, we would be afforded the same level of innovation, creativity and bespoke care and attention.

So, how lucky are we that Justin found a space in his busy schedule to talk to us about his beautiful studio, his totally unique craft and his phantasmagorical creations.

I’m often asked how I ended up where I am now, doing this amazing work. I really feel blessed.

I like to think of my career path as being organic, almost evolutionary. There was no great strategy. I didn’t get up one morning and decide to be a milliner. Actually I started out as a hairdresser. That’s a good place to start though - the two jobs are fairly symbiotic!

I moved to London from Devon and rose to become creative director of Tony and Guy. Here, my avant-garde sculptural hairstyles were featured in photo shoots and working for global fashion brands. My artistic flair and ambition were bearing fruit.

The next stop was my own business, and in 2002 I opened my own hair salon in Soho.

Then, down the line a bit, I had an epiphany. I enrolled at evening classes to study millinery and as soon as I completed my first hat, I was addicted. I began studying part-time, eventually going on to complete my MA at the Royal College of Art. It was seven years of training but worth every minute as I received critical acclaim for my graduation show.

And so, J Smith Esquire was born

I arrived at my brand name which I love as it’s so British and old school. A kind of paradox to my hats and my personality!

Serendipity! I found the perfect location

Through a conversation with a friend-of-a-friend who ran an antique shop in an old hat factory, I discovered that De Beauvoir Town has a history of millinery trade. There was also once a button and a mannequin factory in the area. I knew right away that this was the perfect area for my shop.

Islington’s De Beauvoir Quarter is suitably arty

The area was developed in the mid 19th century, much of it as a carefully planned new town designed to attract prosperous residents. The new town was based around De Beauvoir Square and primarily built in the Jacobethan style. The special character of the neighbourhood has been retained and is recognized by the designation of the De Beauvoir and Kingsland Road Conservation Areas which include many listed and other notable buildings

Justin outside his shop, J Smith Esq, in London's De Beauvoir Town
Justin outside his shop, J Smith Esq, in London's De Beauvoir Town

De Beauvoir Town is a creative, collaborative bubble and I feel so fortunate to live and work somewhere like this. The ethos of my shop, which fits perfectly with the area, is ‘artisanal’, eclectic and olde-worlde. It offers the perfect ‘atelier’ for my work.

The vibe of the area is fun and inspirational

I enjoy the new river walk from Canonbury to Angel. There are so many great independent shops and cafes in the area, especially on Upper Street and increasingly on Essex Road. Too many to mention, but to name a few, I love Storm in a T Cup for clothing and the De Beauvoir Deli for just about everything! And Akari on Essex Road for Japanese is lovely.

Millinery in the making

I make all sorts of hats and caps for artful pieces from film to fashion. I collaborate with a team of wonderful and talented designers from many disciplines, right through to much-loved old headwear that needs remaking for a personal wardrobe. I work in partnership with the person commissioning the piece and that’s what I love about the diversity of the work I do.

Precious heirloom I have a vast array of specialist millinery equipment in the studio, from wooden blocks and hat-stretchers to ovens and steamers. My favourite is the bowler-hat brush, passed down from my great-grandmother, Iris, who was herself a milliner.

The word gets out. My hats take off! From the outset, I’ve produced my own millinery collections, from ‘Dance With Me’, Autumn/Winter 2008, to my latest collection, called ‘Gold’ (the two pieces below are from this collection). Over the past 10 years I’ve been involved with Fashion Weeks all over the world, collaborating with designers from Stella McCartney to Moschino.

I’ve been lucky to enjoy international recognition My work has maintained a constant presence in the press and has been displayed in galleries internationally, including London’s V&A. Several pieces are in the hands of international collectors and museums, such as the FIT in New York. In the movies Having J Smith Esq creations featuring in major motion pictures really is the icing on the cake. Perhaps the most memorable of all the commissions was the ‘horned hat’ created for Angelina Jolie to wear in Maleficent. I was engaged to work with Angelina at Pinewood Studios to create the striking headpiece. She played an active role in the design process as we had fittings with her every day and she would help choose from samples. She was so pleased and said I sculpted the ‘medieval’ head wraps to be strong, unique and iconic. Praise indeed!

It could be easy to get star struck

I worked with Robert Downey Jnr creating his millinery for the movie Dolittle and with designer Michael Kaplan on Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The elegant wide-brim cream sun hat I made for Angelina Jolie for By the Sea was the perfect foil for her visceral black headpiece for Maleficent. If you go to the movies and see Cruella, you’ll catch the millinery I designed for Emma Thompson. Here’s a pic of a bespoke hat I made for Alicia Vikander for the movie The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The piece de resistance though - a personal commission - I created Amal Clooney’s hat for her wedding to George.

I so enjoy what I do! I am often referred to as the ‘artist of the millinery world’ pushing the boundaries of the tradition. I aim to passionately uphold the traditions of millinery, whilst redefining classic headwear, challenging conventions and technique alike. That’s how I like to define myself! I love this testimonial:

‘It is very refreshing to see a different point of view in millinery at last. Justin’s hats have culture and they are original.’
Stephen Jones OBE, milliner.

Proud to be bespoke My bespoke commissions are very important to me, and I like to think that my shop window sets the tone from the start. Every J Smith Esquire hat is made to order and hand made and finished in my London studio. A bespoke hat will usually take 2-6 weeks from commission to completion though for some special events hats can be made in a shorter timeframe. A client came to me with a hat from Cecil Beaton’s private wardrobe that he bought in an auction. We had the block remade to the exact measurements to fit the client. These are the five different fabrics we chose for a complete collection for him for his everyday wardrobe. Five lovely trilbys!

Quality is paramount with my millinery I can see a real synergy between J Smith Esq and the Gladstn London brand. Bespoke hand made craftsmanship, creativity, innovation and uniqueness are our shared USPs. My hats would sit perfectly with Glasdtn’s handbags and luggage and I’m very partial to the ‘Hands Free’ in Shark! 

I love to have my familiar objets around me My studio is an eclectic mix of much loved treasures from all over the world that inspire me. A bit of a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ – people always love to come to the studio as it’s truly unique.

Gladstonian Journal

Justin Smith was speaking to Denise Barrett, Guest Editor of the Gladstonian Journal and author of Handbag Homage

We love to chat bags, luggage and all things craftsmanship so if you’ve got any feedback on this edition of the Gladstonian Journal or any suggestions for us, do get in touch
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