After a few years working at a local bakery, however, he decided “it wasn’t creative enough” and switched, at age 18, to a career in hairdressing. So he packed up and moved from his hometown to London, scoring jobs at Toni & Guy and its sister company, Essensuals. The shift isn’t as odd as it sounds. “I used to make all the icing patterns on the cakes,” he explains. “It’s sculpture, the idea of shape.” Smith spent the next five years working his way up, eventually becoming Essensuals’ creative director while also taking on numerous avant-garde gigs, which basically meant “having a higher percentage of [clients] with asymmetrical haircuts and radical colors,” he says. It also included a bevy of styling competitions. “I shaped hair into butterflies or lilies. The craziest thing I ever did was a collection based on London architecture, like the Millennium [footbridge],” he recalls. In 2002 Smith branched out on his own and opened a private salon named And People Like Us in London’s Soho district. He still works there three times a week.
These days, however, there are no Big Ben coiffures coming out of his parlor. Smith says he gives mostly routine haircuts now (the occasional asymmetrical bob notwithstanding), saving the creative finger work for his millinery. “That’s where the hats really started from,” he says. “I had taken a hat class to help me with the avant-garde hair, and when I left Toni & Guy, I had no reason to do that [experimental] stuff anymore. So I did hats. I could explore more bonkers creations through that.”
Bonkers, indeed. One design in his J Smith Esquire collection, known as the “whip hat,” is shaped like an abbreviated question mark. Embellished with Victorian French jet beading, it has a spray of curled coq feathers rising from the top. Smith gestures to a large flat-screen television near the entrance of Maria Luisa for an explanation. It’s currently playing, on a loop, video from his Royal College of Art graduate presentation. The hat’s concept is immediately obvious: A Rubenesque redhead, dressed in a waist-sucking corset, jacket and knee-high boots, is wearing the piece, and she’s power-charging down the runway, bullwhip in hand. “She’s the first lady to come out,” Smith says. “And when she cracks the whip, the feathers [in the hat] actually whiplash. I wanted it to be about hats as performance rather than just a hat.”
To that end, in a move reminiscent of John Galliano’s spring 2006 collection, Smith enlisted a number of carnival characters, many of them friends, to wear his designs in the show. That redhead is Lucifire, a performance artist–cum–flame eater. London burlesque entertainer Empress Stah, meanwhile, came down the catwalk in an enormous five-foot-wide sun hat and little else. And then there were a giant and a dwarf, Big Grey and Little Ray, who walked together in matching brushed-silk and felt top hats—except the dwarf’s was three feet high and the giant’s, squashed down to two inches. “The idea was that they would both be the same height,” Smith says. Yet another model juggled a stack of felt bowlers, and two of Smith’s tattoo artists donned translucent pigskin toppers decorated with tattoo imagery. If that wasn’t enough, he closed the show by sending out the proverbial fat lady—singing, natch. She wore a dainty floral hat.