Style and Travel 19 December 1993
When you’re wearing this winter’s Pre-Raphaelite robes, looking as pretty as a picture takes on a whole new meaning, says Nilgin Yusuf.
Take a trip to Abergavenny, South Wales, and you might come across an eccentric, fiftysomething couple. They drive a mud-splattered Rolls Royce, have a mission to recreate a life-size Victorian barge, and scour shops and markets for authentic fixtures and fittings. They live in a large house by the river Usk, with stone griffins perched in the bathroom, 17 chickens in the garden, two Staffordshire bull terriers and three cats.
Charles and Patricia Lester are the people behind those ingeniously pleated silk column dresses that have synchronised with one of this season’s quintessential styles – the rich, luxurious Pre-Raphaelite painting look, that turns every woman into a contemporary Elizabeth Siddal, the flame-haired muse and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Mysterious coils of fabric, about the size of a clenched fist, are sold in small, silk drawstring pouches. Once they are unravelled (a quick process – like spinning a lasso), they are transformed into sinuous twists of silk. On the body, they take on yet another life, moulding to every female curve. Sold in a wide variety of lengths and shapes and a whole spectrum of rich, deep colours, the pleated dresses are a concept the couple have constantly been defining and refining for the past 20 years.
In that time, there have been both bountiful and fallow periods. “We have never been fashion people or fashion followers. We are aesthetic-orientated, and we will never be a ‘volume’ company,” says Patricia Lester – one reason, perhaps, why their profile has remained low after two decades of dedicated design (and an MBE, awarded five years ago). In a past life, Charles Lester taught design, craft and technology to the boys of Monmouth School. He was also a fabric physicist. Patricia Lester started by making children’s clothes, which she sold on a market stall in Newport (“hundreds of Crimplene hot pants”). The couple have one daughter, Georgina, a stained-glass artist who is also involved in the running of the business.
The 1990s have been kind to the Lesters. A revived interest in craft-based, individual clothes, has seen their order books bulging. “People have their basic suits and now want to treat themselves,” says Patricia Lester. “Customers don’t mind paying, as long as they can see the work that goes into something. What we do is more like fabric sculpture. It’s an art, a skill, a craft.” The Lesters’ devoted fans include Princess Michael of Kent, Shakira Caine and Barbra Streisand.
In London, the department store, Liberty, has been incredibly successful in selling the garments, despite their high prices. Dresses, which start at £1,200, are hand-painted, pleated, beaded and constructed. Tireless experimenters, the couple constantly seek new ways of treating and decorating their fabrics.
Recently snapped up by the retail Joseph Ettedgui for his new flagship store on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, the garments are also stocked by Corso Como in Milan, the chic shop owned by the former editor of Italian Elle, Carla Sozzani. The company has recently secured a lucrative contract with Japan’s oldest kimono manufacturer to sell a large collection of their clothes in several shops across the country: “They wanted someone whose clothes would epitomise the exoticism of the West.”
The Lesters’ dresses have often been compared to the work of the Venetian couturier Mario Fortuny (1871-1949), whose clients included Isadora Duncan, and who found inspiration in the brocades and velvets of the Italian 15th and 16th centuries. Patricia Lester, however, insists that when they devised their secret technique, two decades ago, they had never even heard of him.
As timeless as a classical Greek column, these dresses do not depend on any fleeting and fickle fashion whim. They exist in their own time and place.