Ask Justin Smith where he gets his inspiration and he’ll shrug and offer a rather ambiguous response. “I don’t know. It comes from my brain somewhere,” says the Devon, England, native. Perhaps Schiaparelli, I ask, pointing out two of his most fanciful hats—a tutu-shaped chapeau made from strips of pleated pink tulle, and a topper fashioned from eight martial-arts fans bundled together. Maybe there’s a hint of the surrealists there? “I can be really, really random.… It’s an organic process,” Smith continues to nonanswer, though he finally admits to at least one exceptional muse: “I like Diane Arbus.”
Arbus, as far as fashion influences go, comes out of left field. Then again, so does this new player in the English millinery world, who received his M.A. from the Royal College of Art last May. Forget tradition; Smith’s debut made-to-order line, J Smith Esquire, is the sort of collection Federico Fellini might have launched if he had done hats.
One design is covered in tiny whirling leather pinwheels; another comes in the shape of a delicate Twenties finger wave. Smith himself could qualify for a part in Fellini’s famous character tableaux: He sports a gold tooth, a bristly Dalí-style mustache—both of which make him appear older than his 29 years—some serious tattoos and weighted tribal earrings that drag down his lobes. And this, he notes, is the cleaned-up version of himself. Smith went on a body piercing spree about a decade ago, racking up a total of 35. “Most were on my face—ears, nose, lips, tongue,” he recalls during an interview at Maria Luisa’s accessories boutique in Paris, where his collection was shown during the city’s spring Fashion Week. Today he’s dressed dapperly in a button-down, pullover and trousers, all by Vivienne Westwood, but the contrast between his punk figure and the store’s posh surroundings is still obvious. “I took [the piercings] all out when I was 23, 24,” Smith goes on. “They were uncomfortable.” All that remains now is a barbell above the bridge of his nose, smack between his eyes.
As a teenager growing up in what he describes as a “quite conventional English” household, Smith always felt like the odd man out. “I was the extreme one, with zebra-striped hair,” says the designer, who has two brothers—an accountant and a mechanic. But Smith’s tale doesn’t involve a childhood spent escaping from the mundane to his mother’s closet, going Edward Scissorhands on her old accessories and clothes. He didn’t even grow up in a particularly hat-obsessed, or even fashionable, home. His entrée into the industry came by way of the culinary world. Smith originally wanted to become a chef.