Orient-Express Magazine, 1997
Fashion on the Wings of the Dove
Dressed to Thrill
In the new film The Wings of the Dove, the costumes by Charles and Patricia Lester threaten to outshine the stars whom they bedeck. Lucille Grant unpicks the story.
The Wings of the Dove, a new film based on the Henry James novel, received a rapturous reception at this year’s Venice Film Festival, and is now opening to applause around the world. Its cast includes a galaxy of famous names: for their many dedicated fans, however, the real stars of the film are the sumptuous costumes designed by Charles and Patricia Lester. This highly talented couple, pictured right, handpaint and screenprint silks and velvets, transforming them into garments that are gorgeous, richly coloured works of art. Silks are hand-pleated to create the Lesters’ remarkable signature couture dresses which gently mould to the body. According to Helena Bonham Carter, whose character in The Wings of the Dove wears a deep peacock dress: “They have a wonderful texture and shape, are incredibly comfortable to wear and are very flattering.”
The film’s costume designer, Sandy Powell, wanted to recreate the authentic costumes of the 1930s for the many scenes set in Venice and knew that Charles and Patricia’s designs would replicate the contemporary clothes of the period: “I had used one of the Lesters’ dresses some years ago and knew their work,” she explains, “the colours were beautiful and I wanted something similar to Fortuny.” The latter is a parallel often drawn but when Patricia Lester started designing 25 years ago she was unaware of the work of the pioneering Venetian craftsman Mario Fortuny, whose pleated silk sheaths shot to fame in the early years of this century, and are now collectors’ items. “We have often been compared to him, but when we began I didn’t know he existed,” says Patricia. Charles and Patricia do not consider themselves fashion designers, but artists and craftworkers. They create all their fabrics, clothes and soft furnishings from an idyllic location in Abergavenny, Wales. This setting suits them both perfectly and Charles says: “We like the tranquillity and have never wanted to move away.” Everything is produced in the quixotically-named “Workhouse”, an old Victorian workhouse, and their large Georgian house nearby in the picturesque valley of the River Usk.
Like all great couturiers they are dedicated to their craft. “We explored our own techniques of dyeing the fabric, then added crude pleats which we ironed out to create a tree-bark effect,” says Patricia. “It took two years to refine the process, in order to avoid the rigidity of machine-pleats and create a fabric that would mould around the body without clinging.” Like Fortuny’s famous plissé treatment of pleats, the process is now a closely guarded secret.
Their unique house style has resulted in clothes that are highly sought-after, earning them much respect both within the world of haute couture, and from serious collectors of textiles. Amy de la Haye, curator of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s recent exhibition, The Cutting Edge: 50 Years of British Fashion, says: “Their clothes have a timeless appeal and their incredible craftsmanship is unparalleled.”
The Lesters’ collection is shown only in Paris and they are one of the best-selling labels in Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman in America, as well as Liberty in London. An impressive client list includes HRH Princess Michael of Kent, who has been a dedicated customer for 15 years, Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, who wore a pale-green velvet robe over a finely pleated dress to her 65th birthday party this year, and Sian Phillips who recalls: “About five years ago, having admired the Lester clothes for some time, I asked the designer of a film I was working on if she would buy or hire a dress for me to wear. Once I put it on there was no question of my returning it and I bought it on the spot. Since then I have gradually acquired a small, cherished collection. It’s heaven being able to pack full evening dress into an overnight bag!” British television star, Pauline Quirke, recently chose the “Anybody” jacket – so named because it suits anybody – in “ember” (burning-coal red) in Design, Craft and Technology. His knowledge helped him develop not only the fabrics and techniques, but also the necessary machinery. Patricia is responsible for the design of the clothes and is entirely self-taught. Unhindered by the traditional methods of formal training she creates clothes which are totally original. She designs directly on to a tailor’s mannequin and everything is structured to mould to the shape of the body. “The only pattern in the factory is for a pair of trousers!” she says proudly.
The process of pleating meant that many yards are required to complete one of their trademark dresses: “We are very generous with fabric. An average, simple dress takes eight yards and many of our velvets are cut on the bias, using even more material. Our most expensive garment was a pleated coat which cost £7,000,” explains Patricia. Producing a garment is also time consuming, as much of the work is by hand, in true couture fashion. An exception dress for HRH Princess Michael of Kent took 300 hours to create, being delicately beaded as well as pleated, and Patricia recalls one bedspread using 100 yards of fabric and taking three months to make.
The late Jean Muir was a designer whom Patricia Lester greatly admired for her total control and attention to detail: “She was a clothing engineer with an understanding of precision. She understood garment structure.” Patricia also admires the work of Charles Frederick Worth, who established himself as the first couturier in Paris in 1858. However, she says: “Generally, I prefer to study artists and architects rather than designers. I like anything quirky or individual.” Charles believes that the skills of art and craft are entirely bound together: “To be an artist you have to be a craftsman first.” The Lesters appear to embrace the ideals made popular by William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Movement over 100 years ago. Patricia feels that many of the skills employed by our grandmothers to clothe their families and furnish their homes have now been lost.
In common with other highly creative people, they find inspiration from many sources. Photographs taken by Charles portray such images as the reflection of light on water, stained glass and dried leaves – all of which generate ideas for designs. Patricia also cites painting, one of her hobbies, as an influence on their work. The results of their artistic endeavours line the walls of their home, as well as being interpreted throughout their collection.
Patricia sees the typical Lester customer “as a woman who has the combination of budget and style, as well as the aesthetic understanding and appreciation of what we do. These are women who are self-confident and do not feel that they have to be tied to the whims of fashion. They are sophisticated and make their own choices.”
Both the Lesters admit to a passion for creativity, but they are also “creative with the business. We don’t sit back and say we are artists.” Charles believes that to be successful the ability to handle business techniques is every bit as important as artistic development. Patricia agrees: “You must have a talent to start with but, to succeed, you need to be good at both your craft and your business, one or the other is not enough.” Their own consummate skills in both fields – particularly their extensive knowledge of textiles – is evidenced by their expansion into a range of interior accessories, including silk tapestries and bedspreads.
These accessories, which resemble antique textiles, with a particular affinity to 19th-century British Aestheticism, led to Charles and Patricia being invited to design fabrics for the refurbishment of Leighton House, in Kensington, London. Their involvement with the 1996 Leighton centenary exhibition included a stunning reconstruction of Lord Leighton’s painting Flaming June. The exotic setting of Leighton House was also the venue for a recent exhibition showcasing the Lesters’ textiles – tapestries, pictures and screens, all made with the same dedication to detail as their couture clothing. The exhibition also included 12 costumes from their first venture into theatrical design, the staging, last summer, of Mascagni’s Iris – which has echoes of Madame Butterfly – at Holland Park.
The opera was a project which Charles admits was a huge undertaking. Emphasising their dedication to authenticity, the Lesters immersed themselves in the culture and principles of Japanese ceremonial and social dress. Their unique methods were combined with a strong, stylised Japanese theme using specially created fabrics for the 240 ensembles. Mike Volpe of the Kensington and Chelsea Libraries and Arts Services, who were responsible for putting on the opera, says: “They did a miraculous job in producing, in a relatively short space of time, many incredible pieces that worked so well on stage and are also of museum quality.” The opera was very successful and may be created in the future.
When the call came from Sandy Powell at 8.30 one morning to provide nine samples for The Wings of the Dove for the start of shooting at 4.30am the next day, “We dropped everything,” says Charles. A number of Charles and Patricia’s dresses were also hired for a video starring singer Toni Braxton, and the Lesters have been approached by Woody Allen’s film company, with a view to providing costumes for his next film. Charles and Patricia have come a long way in 25 years. Full of enthusiasm and energy, they attribute their success to a passion for and total belief in what they do. As Patricia says: “It is having the courage to do something different”.
Pictures: Previous pages: left, one of the Japanese-style costumes created for the opera “Iris”, a satin kimono in copper-gold inset with red silk, worn over a red-ember robe tied with a silk obi; right, one of the scene-stealing stars of the film “The Wings of the Dove” a pleated-silk vest dress, shown with a tailcoat in rainbow silver. Above, also starring in the film was Leonora, a fiery burnt-orange, pleated-silk column dress, worn with a handpainted devoré-velvet kimono in purple lustre.
The Lesters’ dedicated clients include many famous names such as, top, Elizabeth Taylor, who wore this creation at her 65th birthday party, and, above, Princess Michael of Kent, a client for 15 years. This intricately beaded and pleated dress took 300 hours to create, mostly by hand.
THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH – STYLE
Sunday Telegraph June 29, 1997
All for the love of Iris
A forgotten opera will provide a fitting stage for the Lesters, two of Britain’s best yet least known designers. Hilary Alexander reports.
Photographs by David Anthony.
In a Victorian workhouse in the Welsh valleys, designer Patricia Lester is humming along to Pietro Mascagni’s forgotten Japanese opera, Iris. Placido Domingo, as Osaka, is singing the great seduction aria Oh, come al tuo sottile corpo s’aggira. Fittingly, the line translates as: “Oh how invitingly your subtle body is enfolded.”
As the aria rises in crescendo, Patricia is “enfolding” 20 yards of the white-and-gold hand-painted silk net that will form a stupendous kimono for his love interest, Iris of the title, around an obliging dummy.
Towering above her, on rails 20ft high, dangles a dazzling wardrobe for samurais, priests, geishas, goldfish-girls and fishermen. In jewel tones and porcelain pastels, mosaics of silk and devoré-velvet, their satin-trimmed hems and lantern sleeves trail on the wood floor.
Each piece is a work of art; hand-dyed, hand-pleated, hand-made with the same love and care that Patricia, 54, and husband Charles, 55, devote to their £3,000-£4,000 arts-and-crafts gowns.
Next week, a cast of nine principals, three dancers and a 40-strong chorus will be wearing the costumes for Opera Holland Park’s production of Iris, the first full-scale production of Mascagni’s great opera in Britain since 1919.
The project is the result of a chance meeting between the Lesters and Michael Volpe, of Holland Park Theatre, at Liberty last year, but the Lesters believe it was fated: years ago, Patricia bought an antique kimono decorated with irises at a charity auction.
The couple have previously worked on costumes for Charlotte Rampling and Helena Bonham Carter in the film Wings of a Dove, and also provided fabrics for Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. “But this,” says Charles, rolling his eyes, “is the biggest thing we’ve ever embarked on.”
The Lesters are one of British fashion’s best-kept secrets. The business began, almost by accident, 32 years ago, shortly after they moved to Wales. Charles was then a textile physicist with ICI. Patricia placed an ad in a shop window offering alterations and found herself repairing old trousers. She started making children’s wear and then expanded into dresses “which Charles sold like Tupperware. We never planned any of this.”
Today the Lesters are one of the best-selling couture labels for Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue in America and at Liberty in London.
Their private customer file includes Barbra Streisand, Angelica Huston and Diana Ross, along with assorted nobility. Some customers arrive by private plane and spend £13,000 without blinking a mascara-ed eye.
But although they own a vintage Rolls-Royce and a rambling Grade II-listed house in 8½ acres of woodland outside Abergavenny, French or Italian-style “designer-wealth” has eluded the Lesters.
The designs have always been more important. And next month, the cast of Iris will introduce them to a brand-new audience.
Diva Drama Double-layer rose-pink and lilac organza hooded coat, inspired by ‘Iris’, is in the new Charles & Patricia Lester collection. Underneath: ‘Princess Leonora wedding dress’, hand-dyed in ‘disgusting pink’, hand-pleated and with beaded neckline, £3,432. Flat gold thongs, £45, from Bertie.
Dance of Death Twenty yards of ‘Black Tulip’ silk were whipped into a cloak by Charles and Patricia Lester for dancer Christopher Lewis to wear on the opening night of Opera Holland Park’s production of Mascagni’s opera ‘Iris’. Mother-of-pearl earrings by Slim Barrett, £54, from Harrods.
Fantasy Kimono White silk net kimono, hand-printed with gold irises, will be worn by soprano Susan Stacey, singing the title role on opening night. Sterling silver/mother-of-pearl necklace, by Slim Barrett, £165.
Samurai Chic Crêpe-back satin trousers, worn by ‘Iris’ chorus, also available in the main collection, £338. Hand-pleated, tarnished-gold silk vest, £546. Ethiopian cuffs, £225 pair, from Talisman Gallery, Harvey Nichols, SW1.
OPERA HOLLAND PARK PROGRAMMES – IRIS
OPERA HOLLAND PARK – PEARLFISHERS
FRENCH – ELLE MAGAZINE
Regard sur une nuit de Noel fastueuse et romantique
Reportage Odette-Hélène Gasnier
Photographies Georges Fessy
Les couleurs chatoyantes prune et mordorée des panneaux de soie naturelle teintée et plissée à la main dans les ateliers de Charles et Patricia Lester (diffusion Galerie Eolia, Paris) mettent merveilleusement en valeur la malachite de ces trois couples sur pied, travail russe, dix-neuvième siècle (J.Kugel), auxquelles répondent les coupes en argent avec bague en malachite, le plat octogonal en argent et le centre de table en argent à pans coupés ornés de malachite et de lapis lazuli (Buccellati).
Harmonie d’or, de rouge et de bleu pour cette composition qui regroupe, de gauche à droite : un ensemble de coupes à décor, de fleur de lotus, Chine, époque Kang’Hi (1662-1722) (J.Kugel) ; un vase couvert, faisant partie d’une paire, en tôle laquée noire, décoré d’un bouquet de fleurs en or, Angleterre vers 1820 (La Galerie des Laques) ; et une lanterne, faisant également partie d’une paire, en émail cloisonné à décor d’entrelacs, dans un camaïeu turquoise et bleu outremer, la partie supérieure à perforations forme couvercle, Chine, première moitié du dix-neuvième siècle (La Galerie des Laques) ; délicatement présentée sur un coussin en panne de velours en soie teinte et frappée à l’or des ateliers Charles et Patricia Lester (Galerie Eolia, Paris), une importante boîte de forme ovoïde en laque du Japon (dix-huitième siècle) à fond noir et décorée d’arbustes fleuris avec des incrustations de nacre et d’argent, l’encadrement est en laque d’aventurine or et la terrasse sur laquelle repose cette boîte est en bronze, seconde moitié du dix-neuvième siècle (La Galerie des Laques). Au premier plan, deux coupes (datées 1792) en émail cloisonné, Chine, époque Kuian-Lung (1736-1796) (Eymery et Cie), et un pot-pourri en porcelaine de Meissen, à décor de fleurs et de feuillages en relief, bronzes dorés, époque Louis XV au « C » couronné (entre 1745 et 1749) (Daniel Duault).
Les joyaux les plus raffinés et les plus précieux se lovent au creux des plis de ces panneaux en soie naturelle (Galerie Eolia, Paris). De gauche à droite : clips « Nœud » en or jaune et diamants (Boucheron) ; boîte ovale en or et émail dont le médaillon représente des personnages, Paris 1775, maître orfèvre Michel René Bocher (Au Vieux Paris) ; boîte rectangulaire à cage en or, chaque face est ornée de miniatures signées Xavery, Paris 1767, maître orfèvre Jean Marie Tiron dit Tiron de Nanteuil, orfèvre bijoutier du Roy (Au Vieux Paris) ; broche « Chardon » à trois branches en or jaune, or rose et argent (Buccellati) ; boîte rectangulaire en or, nacre et émail, Paris 1750, maître orfèvre Paul Robert (Au Vieux Paris) ; broche « Papillon » dont le corps est formé par une perle baroque et les ailes par des brillants (Buccellati) ; de Buccellati également, une broche « Noisette » en or rouge, jaune et en argent ; boîte à cigarettes en deux ors à motif de vannerie (Boucheron) ; boîte ovale en or et émail à décor herborisé, Paris 1778, maître orfèvre Louis Joachin Colmet de Courty (Au Vieux Paris) ; clip « Nœud » à pavage de diamants (Boucheron) ; clip « Chouette » en or, brillants, brillants jonquilles, onyx et émeraudes (Van Cleef et Arpels) ; broche « Noisettes » en or rouge, jaune et argent (Buccellati) et trois feuilles clip en or et brillants (Van Cleef et Arpels).
Délicatement posés sur des coussins en panne de velours en soie teinte et frappée à l’or, atelier de Charles et Patricia Lester (Galerie Eolia, Paris), une collection de colliers de Sophie de Kinkelin (Galerie Naëlla de Monbrison) ; le coffret est en argent et vermeil, travail parisien 1819-1838 (Edouard de Sevin) et un tableau de fleurs dans un vase en bronze doré sur fond de paysage boisé par Pierre-Nicolas Huillot (1674-1751) (Daniel Duault).
Contraste du cristal et de l’argenterie sur fond de soie naturelle (Galerie Eolia Paris) : trois vases créés en 1988 par Marie-Claude Lalique. De gauche à droite, vase « Marrakech incolore » inspiré d’une palmeraie au Maroc ; vase « Tanega » dont le décor est formé d’une grande feuille d’un vert profond ; vase « Erimaki ». De part et d’autre jaillissent deux menaçantes têtes de lézard en cristal de couleur ambre (Lalique). Au premier plan, un ensemble d’objets de Puiforcat : un bout de table de 1930 à décor de filets avec des motifs en obsidienne ; une boite ronde de 1930, dont le couvercle est orné d’un motif de filets et d’un rouleau d’ivoire, et une coupe en argent et vermeil de 1937.
THE GUARDIAN WEEKEND
The Guardian Weekend, March 9 1996
Where can top-of-the-range fabric designers turn when they weary of frocks? To hearth and home, maybe. Fiona Murphy draws the curtain on the new world of interiors.
Ten minutes in central London will find you a cushion for the price of an armchair. Ten more minutes and you can track down a bedspread for the price of a house. Interior design has had a shot in the arm of late. People cannot sell their houses, but they are not necessarily short of cash, so they are nesting in them instead. Fashion retailers from Next to Joseph and Calvin Klein are leaping at this chance to expand and get a tighter lock on their loyal customers’ wallets.
For textile designers at the exclusive end of British fashion, who had been struggling with the sputterings of the British fashion industry, this has saved the day. Here is a whole new area changing fast, where adventurousness is not the two-edged sword it is in the rag trade, and where fabric is king.
Textile designers Patricia and Charles Lester live a life in Wales that is the dream of countless frustrated office-workers. It began when Patricia, having failed to get a job as a secretary, decided to take in alterations. Charles, who had been a textile physicist at ICI, helped her to dye fabrics. Over a period of 30 years, this pair, untrained and following only their own instincts, have worked their way up from a market stall in Pontypool to dressing Barbra Streisand for the Oscars and selling their magnificent pleated quilt hangings for tens of thousands of pounds.
The driving perfectionism that makes such an unlikely story possible cannot be easy to live with. Their workshop is an Aladdin’s cave of gorgeous shimmering fabrics scattered in heaps – all failed experiments. “I couldn’t have that. Can you see the acid green? It wasn’t good enough,” says Patricia, pointing to an almost indiscernible thread of colour in a waterfall of green and gold silk, stretched eight foot across at the top, and dropping through a ring no bigger than a woman’s wrist.
“If you don’t set your own standards, no one else will. I have to get it right. We realised quite early on that to make something really outstanding, the quality had to be there in the fabric. We started pleating silks because we were trying to get more interesting effects with the dye. Then we realised how it could move round a body when we left the pleats in.”
The bias-cut figure-hugging dresses swiftly became their staple, each dress a mass of shifting shadows and highlights like the Irish Sea on a sunny day.
“Apparently, when you’re wearing one of them, people come up and feel you all the time”, says Patricia. But their sales were mostly in American and the recession there five years ago hit them hard.
“We mortgaged the house and got the staff on to making quilts. There was nothing else to do, except lay them off.”
Patricia used the silk like paint, her huge hangings reminiscent of Abstract Expressionist paintings. They had come out of the lean years with a new direction.
Neisha Crosland was meteorologically successful as soon as she left the Royal College of Art eight years ago. After a while, however, she became fed up with designing motifs for the likes of Christian Lacroix, Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein, who stuck them on textiles she had not chosen, or cut them into dresses that she felt no connection with. “It sounded good, but it was not satisfying,” she says. Now she is designing her own fabrics and making her own-label stools and cushions, as well as scarves. Crosland is an elegant willowy shape, and wears unostentatiously fashionable clothes. She has a cool glamour. But when she handles her opulent velvets and jacquards, and you get her talking about the technicalities of producing them, her neutral, businesslike aura disappears. She becomes as intense as someone at prayer. This, for her, is a passion.
“I was doing fine art when I had my ‘calling’,” Crosland says. “I got lost in the textiles department on the way to a lecture at the V&A.” She has been tied to a print table ever since. Her style has an airy and graphic modernism. There are strong contrasts and outlines, whether the pattern derives from North African tiles, Constructivist zigzags, or Japanese flower motifs. In her textures and rich colours, Crosland has recreated the depth and patina of antique textiles and ecclesiastical garments.
Crosland is determined to succeed, if only because there is no other way to ensure that she can continue doing this sort of high quality craft-based work. “Scarves, clothes, interiors: they are all just vehicles for fabric to me,” she says. “The advantage of clothes is that they will come alive and move. With interiors, fabrics echo each other and work together. I’ll do both for as long as I can.”
Pictures: Wall game: Patricia and Charles Lester made their name within the fashion world with beautifully-dyed pleated silk dresses. Now, at the pair’s base in Abergavenny, they bring similar techniques to designing textiles for interiors (left), including their huge, colourful wall-hangings and quilts.
Charles and Patricia Lester’s home has featured in many publications as well as their designs.
NEW ON-LINE SHOP:
The home of Charles and Patricia Lester is a showcase for their fabulous textile designs. Lucille Grant is treated to an exotic tour.
Photography by Ian Barber
An idyllic late 17th century Grade II listed house in Abergavenny
provides the base and inspiration for the textile designs of Charles and Patricia Lester. It lies in the picturesque valley of the river Usk near their factory, an old Victorian workhouse which, like the house, they have converted entirely themselves. The Lesters’ speciality is sumptuous hand painted and pleated silks and velvets made into stunning dresses worn by celebrities including Sian Phillips, Pauline Quirke and Elizabeth Taylor. If you admired the costumes worn by Helena Bonham-Carter as she lay in a Venetian gondola in the film “The Wings of the Dove” then, as you enter the Lesters’ home, you know you are in for a treat.
An extensive knowledge of textiles has led to the Lesters’ expansion into the world of interiors. Their designs, which include silk tapestires, bedspreads, curtains, throws and cushions, with more than a hint of 19th century British Aestheticism, resemble antique textiles. Patricia feels that many of the skills employed by our grandmothers are in danger of being lost. Quite appropriately this concern fits in well with their love of hand crafting which is reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts ideals advocated by William Morris.
Above: The foot of the Victorian fireplace in their bedroom is a showcase for Patricia’s collection of shoes.
Victorian fireplaces in rooms restored to original proportions
The Lesters’ techniques transform their fabrics into richly coloured works of art. Screen printed by hand with metallic or toned designs, a devore process is sometimes applied, and finally it may also be hand pleated. The Lesters are both entirely self taught, with Charles learning how to build the machinery used to dye the fabrics and Patricia, the art of dress making. Their joint talents can be seen throughout their home in the wonderful furnishings, such as screens made of wood and silk, paintakingly pleated and stitched together entirely by hand.
Working in tandem, often for twelve hours a day seven days a week, the Lesters believe their greatest asset is having everything in-house and while Patricia says “Our home is our creation” it is also an extension of their business. The latest creations are shown to clients from all over the world in their drawing room, surrounded by an eclectic group of funriture and objets d’art lovingly gathered over twenty five years.
When the Lesters bought the house it still contained original Victorian fireplaces but the rooms had all been divided up. They decided to put the house back to its original proportions, renovating most of it themselves. In the early years they could not afford to emplopy someone else to do it so Charles completely rewired and re-plumbed the house himself while Patricia painted the exterior. Charles used traditional methods to replace the plasterwork, make his own moulds.
While they searched for bargains with which to furnish their home, Charles also made pieces of funiture, some of which Patricia upholstered. She was so passionate about a table that she sold her dressmaker’s dummy for £10 in order to buy it. A great believer that an antique piece of furniture is a far more rewarding purchase than one which is mass produced, Patricia found that their quirky sense of style, mixing different periods together, was highly unfashionable twenty five years ago.
The drawing room which leads to a conservatory, is made homely by the addition of Patricia’s velvet throws and cushions while the muslin curtains allow in plenty of light through the picture windows. The two armchairs, bought when the Lesters were first married, cost only £9 each and the stunning Murano glass chandelier was also a bargain at £200, bought while on a trip to Italy ten years ago.
The green silk screen took around thirty yards of fabric to cover the three panels. There are a number of other screens in the house, including one known as “The Liberation of Kuwait” in shades of rich burnt amber, gold and orange. Another in soothing tones of silver, grey and pewter enhances the luxury of their bathroom.
The Lesters’ personal sitting room is decorated with Victorian embroideries as well as their own wall hangings, while the hallways displays Egyptian tapestries dating from Thomas Cook Tours 150 years ago. The hall also shows the results of their leisure activities. Charles is an avid photographer and Patricia paints for pleasure. “We all need diversions to clear the mind and provide inspiration” she says.
The Lesters’ bedroom is a continuation of the sumptuous but lived in atmosphere of the rest of the house. Their bed cost £2 “at a time when people were throwing things out” remebers Charles, and is dressed with their own fabrics. Another bedspread Patricia was commissioned to make took 100 yards of fabric and three months to complete. Her collection of shoes is displayed at the foot of the Victorian fireplace while a small table holds a number of vintage handbags. Their beautiful mirrored dressing table was designed and made by their daughter Georgina, a talented stained glass artist, who was also responsible for the wall lamps in the bathroom.
The kitchen has a pine table large enough to seat the Lesters with their daughter Georgina, and grand-daughter Anouska, who live with them. Although only eight years old, while other girls of her age are interested in the Spice Girls, Anouska is passionate about antiques and Patricia is encouraging her to build up her own collections of spoons. The pine Welsh dresser provides a perfect backdrop for Patricia’s own collection of old and new lustreware.
The bath, set in the centre of this spacious light room, is encase in a marble surround and guarded by two terracotta dogs. Along one wall is a comfortable seat upholstered with blue velvet cushions. The rooms provides a very relaxing end to the day for two energetic designers.
Formal organic garden
Her other major passion lies in the development of an organic garden she is currently adding to the formal and vegetable gardens already in place.
25 Beautiful Homes
Author: Pat Garrett
Photography: Christopher Drake
Location Monmouthshire Wales.
Building. Part of a mansion built from 1690, split into two properties in the 1920’s.
Rooms Hall, drawing room, kitchen, conservatory, library, study, office, 2 cellars, studio, sitting area/landing, 6 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms
Moved in 1972
The first few years in their Welsh hillside property were hard for Charles and Patricia Lester. ‘It was a huge mansion that had been split into two, and everything in our half needed work,’ recalls Charles. ‘The house was filling apart. However, if the place had been in great condition, we couldn’t have afforded it.’ If the state of their new home wasn’t enough to deal with, a few months after Charles and ——-
——–Patricia move in, tragedy struck in the form of a major fire. ‘It was so serious that it was actually shown on the news,’ recalls Charles.
Substantial damage occurred, including the loss of the roof. Even worse, as it occurred during the miners’ strike, the couple had to eat by candlelight during the power cuts. ‘The fact that the house had previously been divided into three flats meant that the best kitchen was on the top floor, so we had to cook up there and bring the food down to the ground floor to eat it,’ recalls Charles.
Converting the house into a habitable state took many years. Gas lighting and lead pipes had to be replaced, and the place hadn’t been decorated in ages. At the time they were tackling their home and bringing up their daughter Georgina, Charles was working as a textiles physicist, while Patricia had started up a textiles business. Despite the pressures on their time, they refurbished every room themselves. ‘We were terribly ambitious,’ says Charles. ‘When I was at work, Patricia would get up on the scaffolding and paint the outside walls. It took us eight years to decorate all the rooms.’
Located in grounds featuring mature trees and a pond, the house is accompanied by a ruined chapel that the couple built beside it. Ruins are a bit of an obsession for Charles and Patricia, who collect stone wherever they find interesting buildings being demolished, and hoard it for future projects. This passion for the past means that their home’s interior also exudes a timeless quality. However, the couple don’t despise mod cons by any means. The kitchen is an efficient space, while comfort is an important part of all the reception rooms.
One of the most striking aspects of the house is the collection of pleated silk wall hangings. Patricia devised the technique for using signature hand pleated fabric to create tapestries and, with Charles, has transformed her little dressmaking company into a business that supplies fashion and textiles to the worlds of film, stage and opera. The couple’s work has appeared in the film The Wings of the Dove and celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Barbra Streisand regularly buy from their collections. So it’s not surprising that, when decorating their home, the Lesters hung what they call ‘wearable art’ on the walls.
One particularly impressive item is the wall-hanging on the sitting area/landing, which was inspired by the burning oil wells of the first Gulf War, and required 100 yards of silk. ‘You “lose” about two thirds of the fabric in the pleating and stitching,’ explains Charles.
Perhaps it’s fortunate that, when this old house came on the market, the Lesters were there to snap it up. Their flair is the perfect match for this grand old property and, despite the disasters of the early days, the couple have no doubt that buying their home was one of the best decisions they have ever made.
Charles and Patricia Lester’s sumptuous textiles and timeless evening clothes are a byword in international fashion. GABBI TUBBS visits them at home in Wales. Photographs Jan Baldwin.
Photograph of the Welsh countryside by Charles Lester.
From a Georgian house set in a delightful informal gardens near Abergavenny in Wales, Charles and Patricia Lester set out daily for a nearby studio to create sumptuous fabrics famous throughout the world’s fashion capitals. I first came across their clothes at a designer show years ago when I was working as a fashion editor. The divine garments took my breath away. I had never seen such a unique style – reminiscent bother of the Renaissance and of Twenties Venetian designer Mariano Fortuny. Silk and chiffon, minutely pleated and stitched in glorious shades of oyster, pearly grey, russet and sapphire blue; velvet that was printed, panned and devored long before those techniques became a la mode. The clothes had a theatrical panache that has survived the vagaries of fashion.
The sheer beauty of the fabrics defines the clothes. Sensuous to the touch, the silks run through your fingers like quicksilver and ripple into drawstring pouches. The glorious ——-
Opposite page, top view of Blorenge from the Brecon Beacons. The soft colours of the Welsh landscape surrounding the Lesters’ home and studio have often inspired their silks and velvets. Centre Patricia and Charles Lester in front of their Georgian house with Staffordshire bull terriers Lettie (left) and Tigger (right). Below The clothes deceptively simply cut (and fabulously expensive) could have walked out of a pre-Raphaelite painting. Pleated silk dress from £1245, silk velvet jacket from £1170.
This page, above A focal point of the blue guest room is the fireplace with its blue marbled enamel electric fire which was bought for a couple of pounds. It is surrounded by Patricia’s collection of antique shoes and pearly shells collected from a beach in New Zealand.
luxury of the velvets is the epitome of glamour. Devotees include Princess Margaret, Diana Ross, Bette Midler, Elaine Paige, Anjelica Huston and Shakira Caine. Angela Quaintrell, fashion buyer at Liberty, is also an enthusiastic fan and supporter.
The Lesters complement each other well: Patricia designs and Charles develops the colour and printing side. Patricia was awarded the MBE in 1988 for services to the fashion industry.
Their fabric evolved as she was trying to produce a hand-structured cloth that wasn’t ethnic — they had mastered batik and tie-dying, and loved pleating. Initially Charles and Patricia pleated the fabric before dying to achieve an innovative surface. Instead of smoothing out the tiny pleats, they kept them and hand-stitched them in place to make them permanent — a process which takes hundreds of hours. Patricia says, “You can take inspiration from anything and everything, if you have a certain kind of vision.”
Yet these astonishing clothes, the height of sophistication, are created far from the city’s fashion centers, deep in the Welsh countryside. The Lesters live in peaceful seclusion near Abergavenny, surrounded by pet ducks and four Staffordshire bull terriers. From there they drive most mornings in a classic Silver Shadow Rolls-Royce through the countryside to their studio.
They found the house, built in 1750, more than 20 years ago in a terrible state of disrepair. Rotten windows were hanging off the hinges, some of the jumble of wiring dated from the Twenties, and some rooms were still lit by gas. Water pipes bled and gutters leaked, paint peeled and rendering crumbled. But it was the beautiful garden, seen from every window, that first attracted them. The previous owners spent little time or money on the house, but loved gardening. Charles now admits it was a huge financial risk to buy the property They constantly had to wait for a big cheque from sales of their clothes to continue its renovation, and Charles had to steal away from the studio every so often in order to turn his hand from silks and velvets to plaster and paint.
Stripping the living room’s wallpaper and paint resulted in most of the plasterwork being lost, so Charles painstakingly recreated the plaster panel effect in the traditional way. The doors leading from the drawing room into the conservatory were originally bricked up, but have now been knocked through to allow easy access. The Lesters love to sit in their conservatory reading the papers in a rare moment of idleness on a Sunday morning — especially when the sun is streaming in and the doors leading to the garden are open.
Upstairs their atmospheric textile landscapes decorate the landing walls and take on different moods as the light changes throughout the day The blue guest room walls are covered with old tapestry curtains and antique embroidery fabrics bought for next to nothing at the local market and restored from dereliction by Charles and Patricia, The room is filled with velvet cushions and hangings — originally the Lesters made them only for themselves until a visitor gave them a commission. Now they have added home accessories such as cushions, wallhangings, throws and screens to their collection. The bathroom with its spectacular view is almost totally taken up by an enormous bath which doubles as a jacuzzi — a luxury they have never regretted.
The peaceful kitchen, with its Welsh dresser crammed full of old china, new ceramics and paintings by granddaughter Anouska, is the hub of the house. Squeezed orange halves dried on top of a woodburning stove scent the air. The brass trinkets on the rustic beams, the dogs and the ducks, all seem worlds away from the glamour of international fashion where the Lesters’ work is so much admired.
Charles and Patricia Lester’s exclusive range of hand-produced clothes are made of silk and silk velvet. Prices are from £l50-£650 for a cushion, throw or wrap. Dresses, jackets and coats cost from £1,650 to £2,500, and are available from liberty London. For stockists call 01873-853559. The clothes and furnishings can be seen at Relentless Perfection — At Home with Lord Leighton (16 Feb-21 Apr; Mon-Sun I1am-5pm, Thurs-Sat 6- 9pm) at Leighton House, 12 Holland Park Road, Landon Wl4 8LZ (0171-6039115).
Opposite page, far left Patricia and Charles Lester’s minutely pleated silk and silk chiffon in glorious colours.
Top Piled high on the bathroom window seat are velvet and silk cushions in jewel-bright colours. Below The dressing table mirror in the blue guest room, made with deep blue and iridescent glass by the Lesters’ daughter Georgina, reflects Patricia’s collection of paste jewellery.
This page, above The blue guest room is a model of reclycling – as well as old tapestry curtains and antique embroidery fabrics on the wall, there is a mirror designed and made by Georgina out of broken china found along the river bank, which the canopy above the bed is made from the top of an old wardrobe.
Opposite page, top left A wooden horse, one of two brought back from China by the Lesters’ daughter Georgina, dominates the hallway
Below left Patricia’s wallhanging “Wales” was inspired by the lines and colours of the surrounding countryside.
Top right Patricia and Charles’s five-year-old granddaughter Anouska models a scaled-down version of a dress designed by her grandparents.
Below right A glass chandelier, bought on a trip to Venice, hangs from the ceiling of the panelled drawing room. The Lesters bought two from a factory that also supplies them with glass beads for their clothes
This page, above The Biedermeier bureau in the living room is topped by a fake crystal head-dress designed for a fashion show and a twig sculpture made by Georgina
Opposite pag, top left A wooden horse, one of two brought back from China by the Lesters’ daughter Georgina, dominates the hallway.
Below left Patricia’s wallhanging “Wales” was inspried by the lines and colours of the surrounding countryside. Below right A glass chandelier, bought on a trip to Venice, hangs from the ceiling of the panelled drawing room. The Lesters bought two from a factory that also supplies them with glass beads for their clothes.
This page, above The Biedermeier bureau in the living room is topped by a fake crystal head-dress designed for a fashion show and a twig sculpture made by Georgina.
Feature in Hello magazine – Report: FRANCESCA FEARON Photography: Paul Massey
Orient Express magazine.