Getting Real, and Surreal, With Angelina Jolie’s Favorite Milliner

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LONDON — Not everyone’s in the market for a pair of curved horns or a Greek goddess wig made from golden feathers, which is why the London milliner Justin Smith is launching ready-to-wear after more than a decade of making hats for the big screen, and for clients including Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Amal Clooney.

Although Smith is going more commercial, he hasn’t relinquished his sense of fantasy.

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This was the man who helped create Jolie’s curved horns for her starring role in “Maleficent,” fashioning them from resin, python skin, stingray and lizard. In his early days as a milliner, he incorporated materials such as oversize buttons, doll’s heads and bunches of pearls into his designs.

For this latest collection under the brand J Smith Esquire, he’s pivoted only slightly from his surreal designs to create hats that are meant to be worn every day, and in all sorts of weather.

The rtw offer includes sun visors, baseball caps, trilbys and flat caps made from ethically sourced, and often recycled, materials such as linen, cashmere, cotton and Swarovski sequins.

They’re also meant to shield their wearers from the elements and last for years. They’re unisex, too.

London milliner Justin Smith has spent the past 15 years working on film and TV costumes, and couture. Now, he’s moving into rtw.
London milliner Justin Smith has spent the past 15 years working on film and TV costumes, and couture. Now, he’s moving into rtw.

“If you’ve got a head, you can wear them,” Smith said during an interview from his North London studio. “Whoever you are, you can buy that sequin beret and put it on when you feel like it. Everything is gender-neutral.”

The hats are also practical: sun visors have elasticated straps with Velcro fastenings to accommodate various head sizes, while the brim is wide enough to shield the face and the shoulders. The visors also have washable, removable pads on the inside brim in case of sunscreen or makeup smears.

His waterproof, waxed cotton hats come with removable, knitted beanies for chillier days, while other hats have been lined with recycled cashmere or silk. An internal drawstring means the trilbys can be one-size-fits-all.

Smith said his priority for the rtw has been to create “wearable staples” and allow people, who aren’t actors or couture clients, access to the brand.

Rtw prices range from 295 pounds for a sun visor to 995 pounds for a wide brim felt fedora. Smith is set to add more designs in the coming months and will present his spring 2023 collection during London Fashion Week in September.

The collection is currently selling direct-to-consumer, although Smith is in talks with department and specialty stores on both sides of the Atlantic about wider distribution.

Smith comes at hat-making from an unexpected angle. He began his career creating avant-garde hairstyles and eventually became creative director at Toni & Guy. Later he set up his own salon in London’s Soho.

A look at Justin Smith’s new rtw collection. - Credit: Courtesy image
A look at Justin Smith’s new rtw collection. - Credit: Courtesy image

Courtesy image

But the siren call of millinery was too strong. One of Smith’s grandmothers was a milliner, the other was an embroiderer, and he started collecting hats as a child. Armed with an MA in millinery from Royal College of Art, he founded J Smith Esquire in 2007.

He said hats and hair have a lot in common. “I treat every hat like a haircut,” said Smith, and the inverse is true, too. Some of his hats, in particular the Monroe, the Harlow and the Loren, resemble hair, although they’re made from vintage ostrich plumes, gold beads or sculpted feathers.

“I wouldn’t be the same milliner without my experience at Toni & Guy,” he said. “For both, you have to take into account a person’s face shape, stature, lifestyle and hair texture. Your designs need to fit properly, and give people confidence.”

After showing his collections during London Fashion Week, Smith eventually moved on to couture, film and TV, which forced him to consider the proportion and impact of his designs, and to conceive and create each hat as if it were a bespoke Savile Row suit.

In addition to “Maleficent,” he’s worked on films including “Cruella,” the “Marvel” franchise, “Star Wars,” “Dr. Dolittle” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”

He made the hats for Ridley Scott’s upcoming film “Napoleon,” and is working on the costumes for season two of the HBO series “The Gilded Age,” and season three of Hulu’s “The Great.”

Smith wears a hat every day, whether he’s walking his dog, designing in the studio or out on the town. If it’s a sunny day, he might opt for a wide-brimmed fedora but for formal events he prefers a pinch-brim trilby made from fur felt and lined in silk.

He’s eager for others to do the same, to think of hats as everyday, life-enhancing accessories. Smith said that hat culture pretty much came to a halt in the ’60s when hairstyles stole the show, and people simply forgot how to wear them.

People need to be sure that their hats will fit like a dream, and won’t blow off at the first gust of wind, Smith said, promising that his hats stay put, rain or shine.

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