The Milliner of the Film Industry. Interview with Justin Smith about working for the movies.

26 October 2021


Our Archive features one of the tallest cylinder hats you can immagine. It was conceived by a genius under the name of Justin Smith. This is possibly one of the least extravagant creations by Justin, of whom Stephen Jones famously said “It is very refreshing to see a different point of view in millinery at last. Justin’s hats have culture, and they are original”.

Known as the artist of the millinery world, Justin’s designs are iconic, attracting numerous accolades and displayed in galleries around the world. Since his critically acclaimed 2007 RCA Masters show (and selection for ITS Finals in 2008), his design, teaching and consultation skills have been in constant demand. Over 15 years, under his couture brand “J Smith Esquire”, he has designed for screen, stage and projects requiring innovative fashion-forward creations.

For almost a decade now Justin has been collaborating with the movie industry developing headwear for incredible productions, often working closely with the leading actors. We sat down with him for a chat about what it is like to work on costume design in such a fast-paced industry.

ITS: How did you first get in touch with the movie business?

JS: At the time I was receiving a lot of press coverage and had been doing collections, showing at London Fashion Week every season for over five years, as well as selling in Paris to global buyers. I started to get approached by costume designers, who had seen the press coverage and were inspired by my work. Once I did a few jobs within the industry I was approached by other costume designers and it grew from there.

ITS: What was the first job you did and what was your first impression?

JS: The first major film that I worked on was Disneys’ “Maleficent”, designing and making a collection of head-wraps for Angelina Jolie’s horned character. It was such an honour to work with her so closely on the pieces. I loved the intense focus on a single project in collaboration with very talented people at the top of their game, working round the clock to achieve excellence. It was endlessly fascinating to see how dedicated everyone was and how everybody’s work ethic was similar to mine. We worked very long hours, often turning things around extremely quickly to respond to demanding schedules.

ITS: What’s the best part?

JS: The best part for me is being challenged to create something new for the screen within the limits of the story or production. I love challenges, as well as striving for excellence, and expanding my range of techniques and skills. Helping to bring screen characters to
life using couture millinery techniques is deeply satisfying. Of course, its a thrill to see my work in the movies, especially since I’m quite the film fanatic!

ITS: First time you saw your work on the big screen? How did you react?

JS: Of course, it’s amazing! Sometimes you work at a movie and then it takes two years before it comes out, and its a great feeling after all the waiting. But I am always a little self-critical because I am so much of a perfectionist. I am constantly looking at how to improve and learn for the next time.

ITS: The project you’re most fond of?

JS: I’m really blessed to have worked on, and be currently working on, wonderful projects, from period dramas to science fiction fantasies that demand iconic, high-end sensibility. Each one is a different challenge in its own right, so it’s always more about the making of the piece for me. So which project am I most fond of, the next one!

ITS: Fun fact. How many hats did you develop for the movie industry up to now?

JS: I’ve lost count! Sometimes for one movie I will make 40 designs and then I work with the costume designer to choose which ones to develop, so it can easily go into quite a few hundred hats, without any problem at all. For instance, I did the hats for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Episode VIII; I made roughly 150 hats which required me to work at Pinewood Studios for quite a few months.

Watch the full development of Justin’s BTA project

ITS: Can you share anything about future projects?

JS: I’ve done some exciting work for US streaming services and TV, like Season 2 of “The Great” an edgy comedy with the fantastic Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult. Elle Fanning plays Catherine the Great and the costumes are really beautiful. There’s quite a lot more but… I can’t talk about them because they are all coming out next year. You’ll have to keep up on my instagram because that’s where people get to see them first!

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