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