NEW YORK (AP) — Stephen Jones was in a London taxi when a conversation with the driver turned, inevitably, to hats.
"'People say I love hats, but I never wear them,'" the cap-wearing driver told the master milliner. "I asked him what's that on your head and he said, "'That, oh that's not a real hat.'"
Jones begs to differ, but that space between haute couture and the hard-working baseball cap left its mark on the radical creator — and pied piper — of headgear.
After more than three decades of designing hats out of everything from Kewpie doll legs to human hair, for fashion houses and fancy clients, Jones put on a new one himself as curator of a wildly popular exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The 2009 "Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones" drew about 100,000 visitors to the V&A and spanned 17 centuries of head adornment. It also opened millinery's workroom doors for an inside look at inspirations and mechanics, trends and iconic fanciers.
The show is now touring, with a stop through April 15 at the cozy townhouse of the Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan following a trip to Queensland, Australia. The rest of the travel schedule had not yet been firmed up.
Jones put the exhibition together using the V&A's archive, his own collection, pieces he borrowed from private owners and hats he tracked down at movie studios in Hollywood and Germany, the latter yielding a Marlene Dietrich beret she wore in the 1957 film "Witness for the Prosecution."
He also wrote a companion book covering hats through time, behind-the-scenes photos on how they're constructed and an accounting of the two years he spent making his way through more than 3,000 pieces to select just the right 250 for the exhibition.
Jones put a U.S. spin on the show here, including the work of New York milliners Ellen Christine, Eugenia Kim and Albertus Swanepoel, along with Darth Vader's Star Wars helmet, a green foam Statue of Liberty crown and one of Andy Warhol's wigs.
There's also a Babe Ruth baseball cap, Mouseketeer ears and a trilby in fur felt and peacock feathers by Rod Keenan for Brad Pitt.
"Fashion is about exclusivity, but I really wanted to make an inclusive exhibition because I think that's just the way hats are," Jones said by telephone from London. "They're so visible. They really announce the person who's wearing them."
Jones said he and just a handful of contemporaries around the world whip up creations for top runways and clients. After helping to establish London as a contemporary hub of hat design in the 1980s, he grumbles that today's glossy magazines fail to give hats their due among a parade of accessories.
"It irks me sometimes when fashion magazines do accessories," he said. "There will be shoes and handbags and maybe one scarf if you're lucky, and probably no hats."
So who's wearing hats these days?
In the U.S., sales in all segments of hats totaled $2.2 billion from July 2010 through August 2011, according to data from the NPD Group. Hats are hardly what they used to be since regular folk fell out of the everyday habit after the 1960s, but Jill Hammer of the Headwear Association, a Los Angeles-based industry group, said it's nowhere near time for a death knell.
There's a relatively stunning resurgence in fascinators, she said, since Kate Middleton became the duchess of Cambridge. The show "Mad Men" helped bring back the '60s, including hats, and Lady Gaga, Johnny Depp, Sarah Jessica Parker and Justin Timberlake have lent hats a hand as well.
While wrangling sales data is difficult considering the scope of the trade (basically anything that lands on a head), Hammer said:
"Over the past five years, the industry has experienced an uptick, partially due to the prevalence of celebrities who have started wearing hats. We're also seeing more designers send hats down the runway."
The hat-loving '60s is when Jan Fenty and three friends met while raising their kids in suburban Washington, D.C., where she still lives. One made matching felt derbies with a burst of pearls for the four on a recent trip to New York City to celebrate the 70th birthdays of all but Fenty, who's a few years younger.
They learned of the hat exhibition while lunching nearby and headed over in their matching headwear. "They're like our party hats," Fenty said. "We had champagne and hats. I'm definitely an admirer of hats."
Allegra Kochman, a New York City architect, also considers herself a hat person with a collection of about a dozen mostly functional hats. The parallels in construction of hats and buildings isn't lost on her.
"What's really exciting as an architect is to see the creative process and how it all comes out," she said during a visit to the show with her mom, Carol Kochman.
"I do love hats, but I can't carry it off," Carol added.
There's no such thing as a person who can't wear hats, said the 54-year-old Jones, who began in fashion at what is now London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, migrating to hats after a trip to the millinery department.
Jones left college in 1979, making hats for friends and fellow clubbers. He opened his first millinery salon in 1980 in Covent Garden and has designed for the catwalks of Jean-Paul Gaultier, John Galliano at Dior, Vivienne Westwood and Marc Jacobs — and the heads of Princess Diana, Mick Jagger and Madonna.
Hats were once a symbol of conformity, he said, but no more.
"We can express what the fashion designers can't, and we can do it in a much more lighthearted way," Jones said. "If you put that sort of information into clothing, it looks like costume."
Yet the exhibit, he said, isn't "an academic treatise" on hats. "It's just my personal take on it. It's really the life cycle of a hat."
Hats, Jones said, are the punctuation in the alphabet of fashion: "We provide the apostrophes, the question marks and the exclamation points."
If You Go...
HATS: AN ANTHOLOGY BY STEPHEN JONES: Through April 15, 2012, at Bard Graduate Center, 18 W. 86th St., Manhattan; http://www.bgc.bard.edu/gallery/gallery-at-bgc/main-gallery.html or 212-501-3023. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday until 8 p.m. Admission, $7; students and seniors, $5.