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.