Gown designed by Lester, 'The Wings of the Dove', 1997.
On the western coast of the British isle, with England proper at its back but facing the Irish gales over the Isle of Man, sits the broody region of Wales. Misty fogs bleed gray nebula over crescent bluffs and icy sands. It is a wet corner of the world. But when the sun’s golden rays break through the water-laden clouds, a joyful rainbow will light up emerald valleys peppered with stoic stone fortresses. Here is a land whose theatrical geography has produced a history tinged with mysticism and romance. And it was in this setting that Charles and Patricia Lester settled in 1963, and embarked on a lifelong journey to develop the craft of fabric sculpture.
In a Georgian house set amongst delightful informal gardens near Abergavenny, the duo has spent four decades creating a laboratory of design to rival the great studios of old, those of William Morris and Mario Fortuny. Over years of meticulous trial and error, they developed their own methods for dying and pleating, producing a series of garments that stun in their beauty and craftsmanship. The Lesters have maintained their singular perspective – not exactly informed by historical references, but rather a manifestation of a timeless ethos. Their process is anomalous to the confines of the heavily stratified fashion machine. The designs are entirely devoid of trends, seasons and collections, but rather designed around and created from the notions of artistic dexterity, noble craftsmanship and skillful execution.
Royalty and movie stars a like have worn their pieces with aplomb. Bridging the sumptuous and ethereal, timeless and nostalgic, a Lester gown will last a lifetime. And perhaps the success of the garments is due to the following paradox: they are shapeless yet intrinsically celebrate the female form. The delicately pleated gowns in diaphanous tones reveal as much as conceal, adding an additional layer of intrigue to the female body. And after all, isn’t that the sort of mystery every woman desires?
Lester herself calls her designs ‘Romantic Couture’, which is an apt moniker for what is, in the end, soulful clothing. We had the great pleasure of speaking with the designer herself about her process, her many passions and the beauty of the region, which has undoubtedly shaped the spectacular gowns that find their way from Wales to every corner of the globe. Read on for the exclusive interview with Shrimpton Couture.
Maria Echeverri: I would like to start at the beginning. You were born in Nairobi, Kenya during the war years – an exotic birthplace indeed. Moving to England must have been a stark change. Can you tell us a bit about your life in Africa – how long you lived there and what impression did such a colorful origin may have had on your spirit?
Patricia Lester: I remember very little about life in Africa. I was about 5 years old when my parents left Kenya. Sometimes I am hit by something I do not, at first, recognize and then a memory slips into place. The Agatha Christie film ‘Death on the Nile’ for instance seems to be very familiar – the steam boat – the atmosphere. Then I remember my mother telling me how she had to get back to the UK somehow - three children and the only way was down the entire length of the Nile and then flying out of Egypt in a freight plane with me tucked up in the stack of parcels. I still have her passport with all the exotic stamps in it of the countries through which we traveled.
I still use Swahili every now and then as it was basically my first language as spoken by the Ayha and my parents spoke Swahili too. Not much remains but again some words might just appear out of nowhere. Smells too – baking corn on an open fire, passion fruit – Christmas in a remote place where my father used to fish. Lying on the jetty in Mombasa watching the stripy Angel fish through the gaps in the jetty.
The options for a career path were much more limited to women of your generation. I’m wondering if you always had a yearning to work, and if so, did you have a notion in your youth of what you wanted to do? Where you always drawn to design?
Indeed options were very limited. If you were exceptionally bright you might get to be a doctor or teacher perhaps a nurse for the middle of the road brains – a secretary – then if you did not pass the required examinations – a shop assistant, a hair dresser. I did think I would become a doctor as I had spent so much time in hospital and it seemed to be a noble thing to do. Then I realized that fainting at the sight of blood might be a serious disadvantage. So off I went to Oxford to do a secretarial course with my father thinking that I might end up as a high-flying PA to the chairman of some huge corporation like Unilver! I enjoyed Oxford and managed to get a job in one of the colleges –St. Annes – as a secretary, then moving up to working for the Principal and people like Iris Murdoch. It was a fascinating place to work– I had different typewriters for old English and old French – and if I did not understand something the Tutors used to spend hours with me explaining what it was all about. When we got married and moved to Wales I got a post as secretary to the Chief Engineer in a Steelworks. Unbelievably boring I had been so spoilt in Oxford.
There is something about the nature of the fashion industry that seems better suited for partnerships rather than solo endeavors. In researching your work, I was struck by what a deep and fulfilling relationship you seem to have with your husband. Tell us a little bit about your love story. How did you meet?
We actually met at a mutual college friend’s home. Then the next day our parents had been introduced to each other by a medium in London and we turned up on their doorstep. Without thinking I said that we had already met at a party – oops he had told his father that he was studying with a friend – his father was very strict!
Do you naturally fall into your different roles in the business? How has working in tandem affected your creative output?
Indeed it is a miracle – we still get on well after more than 51 years of marriage. We have different strengths but often guided by the same thinking. It can be a bit unnerving when I say something that he is thinking, but we are used to that. We have rather grand ideas, like building this house, and somehow it comes together despite restrictions like lack of knowledge, skills, finances whatever – we problem solve intuitively all the time.
People always assume that he is the brains and I am the dotty artist. However he can be and indeed is very creative and I can be quite bright. We have different skills in both the art and the business, but they are complementary. Charles has a passion for colour just as much as I do; I love pattern and form. I draw and paint – Charles takes stunning photographs. We are both ‘busy’ people and others often ask how on earth we get so much done – we don’t stop. We also take on new skills and experiment even if we do not know ‘how’. A bit like William Morris’s ethos – if someone else can do it – then so too can we.
Your designs and aesthetic have a very personal perspective and I wonder if that stems from the fact that you are largely self-taught. What affect does this process of experimentation and discovery have on your appreciation for the products you create?
A self –taught apprenticeship is tough because you pay for your lessons in more ways than one. But education can also be very stifling and I don’t think that I would have been able to design with any originality if I had followed rules. I design on the mannequin putting cloth on the body and seeing what that cloth dictates taking care to allow the fabric to be seen rather than forcing it into unnatural shapes. I do not use patterns, except for trousers and a simple camisole top. The pleated fabric would be impossible to be dictated to by a pattern – the designs are created with straight pieces of cloth and if shaping is needed the fabric is swirled into ripples and the pleats stitched together to hold the shaping. The work is very time consuming but very effective and still flexible enough to accommodate different shapes. I rarely use traditional smocking but that too works very well too if a shapely look is wanted.
The essence of my design work is that I create clothes for women – real women who are different shapes not different sizes. I say that a woman’s body has taken millions of years of design combinations and is therefore totally unique. Even identical twins are different!
Let’s talk a bit about pleats. I’m interested in hearing what about pleats appeals to you personally.
Pleats – well first I will tell you how we started pleating fabric. I had decided that I did not like any of the fabrics that were generally available. 1960s a brave new world with easy care fabrics the fashion - a time of nylon, crimplene, harsh cloth with no comfort in the wearing – yes easy to wash and no ironing – pure plastic that did not breath or move with the body in any kind of sensual way. So I decided to try dying natural fibres like cotton and silk. 1960’s and all that hippy stuff going on – tie-dye, batik etc. much in vogue. However although I liked this kind of work I thought it too ethnic and wanted something that was unique to us and, arrogantly thinking, more sophisticated.
We had experimented with various ways of applying dye and found that if we applied it dry and added water afterwards we could get interesting effects. Different dye colour molecules ride out into dry fabric at different rates – like the colour rings of ink on blotting paper – the rings of colour break up into their individual colour group. We experimented with roughly pleating (more like scrunching the silk up) down the length, added the dry dye which migrated out into basic colours. Then after washing the cloth we ironed it all out – the patterns that formed were a bit like tree bark very different from tie-dye.\
Then I started handling the pleated fabric and decided that it was rather intriguing the way that it caught the light, played with shadows which added a unique dimension that changed with the direction of light. So we tried to make the pleats a bit more uniform – again down the length of the fabric. It took us two years to perfect it and get the fabric to behave in the way that I thought would be the most interesting. It used to take the two of us 8 hours to pleat one yard of fabric – a basic dress would take 6-8 yards. The original technique was painful because we used pins and various other things to anchor the pleats in place. What we wanted was a fabric that was textured but also fluid.
Most designers utilize pleats at some point in their career, but then there are a handful of designers that have their entire aesthetics perennially aligned with this very ancient, very compelling technique. There is a beautiful essay published in Miyake’s book "Pleats Please" that examines the immutable connection between pleats and genius and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this passage::
What is it that defines the pleat? The monumental pleats of the earth, the painful pleats of the mind, the pleating and folding of paper and the pleats of the body itself? The deep fold of the soul or the surface wrinkle of our skin? … [Pleating is] a reversible dialogue between the dark and the light, the negative and the positive, vital energies creating tension and creativity… There is just one step, one repetitious, continuous movement of transforming the plane into volume, creating life in the amorphous, installing movement in the still.
I don’t think I can compete with this poetry but I can relate to it. It can be applied to anything that has depth of structure and enhancement of colour imagery. And yes once you have your mind programmed to see certain shapes you see pleats in everything. Dried daffodils and tulips gradually wither and concertina up into minute and delicate pleating. The colours of a plain pink tulip transforms into a rainbow of colour enhanced by the pleated dried petals. The extraordinary way that a butterfly’s wing is pleated up when it emerges from its chrysalis, or a stick insect coming out of the egg all wrinkled up in tiny pleats.
And the mind does have to be educated. Our granddaughter once asked me how I could find fossils on the beach and she could not. I told her that my mind was trained to see shapes and once she had found one or two and that experience gave her pleasure she would be certain to find many more. That is how it works for my anyway. I can often find four-leafed clovers too.
The designer you are most compared to is Mariano Fortuny, and while there is a clear stylistic connection with his work, I was struck by the similarities in your lifestyle. He worked very closely with his wife Henriette Negrin, and I see clear parallels to their commitment to the integrity of production, as well as their devotion to their beautiful palazzo. What do you find analogous to his work? Where do you see differences?
Fortuny did have the advantage that his parents collected antique textiles and he lived in a place where textiles were lavish and vividly painted in the art of the Renaissance, which would have been a significant part of his life. Similarities – yes in some ways in that he was also very interested in and involved with inventing and designing different things especially for the theatre and lighting. We too create more than garments and interior art pieces. We create fantasies and follies out of reclaimed architectural pieces – indeed this whole house has been built using various things that we have collected over the years – but that is another story. A palace on a shoe-string.
Despite the similarities, neither Fortuny or Issey Miyake, or in fact any other clothing creators were part of our knowledge. A secretary and a physicist would not know anything about other people in the field of textile and fashion design – our interests earlier had been in other directions. We worked completely on our own following our own path – it was not until much later that we actually saw anything by Fortuny when we were asked to show a collection of our work in an exhibition of Fortuny’s work in Milan, as being a contemporary version I suppose. That was the first time that we had ever seen a Fortuny dress, many years after we had invented our own pleating process, which although often likened to that of Fortuny and used for film costume of that period, it is very different.
Miyake being a contemporary of your must also be closely related to your work. What are your thoughts on these comparisons?
We were told that we had inspired Issey Myake with our pleating – he started his search to perfect his pleating in the late 1980s – we were doing it in the late 1970s and eventually showing during London Fashion Week in 1985/86. I can’t remember which year it was that we had 28 pages of editorial in British Vogue alone.
Issey Myake works with polyester – a fibre that can be permanently pleated because when heated the fibre molecules can be fixed with the heat. Our fabric is pure silk – so it is not permanent as such, but with care will last for a very long time. We can also have the fabulous colours that is the signature of our collection because we hand paint the fabric for each individual garment before it is pleated.
Both these men designed pleated fabric that was comparatively rigid – in other words if you formed a blouson shape the pleats would be angular. What I wanted was something that was sensuous and fluid to follow the contours of the body without necessarily clinging to it. A fabric that would make you feel almost naked in its lightness of touch. Femininity is not about nudity or exposing body parts – it is the whole story and mystery for both the wearer and the admirer. The liquidity of the pleats somehow does this with little effort.
They also have a timeless quality and this has allowed us to have dresses in films that are centuries apart. 1200 BC Egypt in ‘The Ten Commandments’ – turn of the 20th century – ‘Wings of the Dove’ and ‘Belle du Seigneur’ as well as sharp contemporary images that have been featured in magazines. They do not date, which is perhaps a bad commercial mistake because people are still wearing dresses that they bought more than 30 years ago.
My mother took me to see Wings of the Dove for my 12th birthday. It was the first film that deeply roused my sensibility and has stayed with me like a poignant dream. The costumes are all spectacular, but there are two gowns that go beyond aesthetics to deepen the story and characters. Can you share a bit about the costuming choices and design process?
As a costume maker you do not really get involved with the ‘stars’ but I did meet Helena Bonham Carter when we were first asked to make two dresses – one for her and one for Charlotte Rampling. I had sold to Helena’s mother somewhere along the line and we used to go to London regularly to meet people. Having made the two pieces at the request of Sandy Powell (who had previously asked me to make a dress for Tilda Swinton in Derek Jarman’s film Caravaggio) I thought nothing more of it.
Early one morning I had a call from Sandy Powell’s assistant saying that the Director loved the clothes and could they have some more. We went through the colours and story etc. with me making notes on the kitchen wall. I asked when they needed them – ‘they have to be in Venice tomorrow morning’. If I was daunted, I did not show it; I went into the studio and said: ‘right, we are working on a film today and the clothes have to be in Venice by 4 o’clock tomorrow morning’. We pulled out various garments that were somewhere near the colour pallet that was discussed and some fabric already painted and pleated was made up. Our amazing team conjured up the most incredible group of clothes. We had arranged for a courier to take the clothes to Heathrow, but he would not wait even though we were sticking the tape on the parcel – so in the end our coal merchant couriered them up to Heathrow.
I wanted to ask you a bit about inspiration. I read that you are often inspired by your vivid dreams. Can you tell us a bit about how inspiration becomes actuality?
I don’t think it is possible to anchor down any hard and fast rule as to what inspires me or in fact either of us. We are both attracted to shapes and colours – the intricacies of natural form – industrial structures – accidental patterns like the touch of a bird’s wing in the sand – the little stars that are made in clusters where the sea birds have been dabbling in the mud. A bright blue drinks can discarded amongst the copper of fallen beech leaves – I see the colours first and then swear at the b****d who threw the can out of their car.
What do you look for when you collect and gather antiques? What catches your eye?
We have a strange collection of antiques. We both love unusual things that we want to live with, never thinking at the time of investment although that is a consideration because we have always had a limited budget. We started collecting when we first got married. Not collecting as such, but old furniture that was not yet fashionable was all we could afford – Victorian couches – we were bought drinks to take those away and friends would not go in the same room for fear of potential mice and fleas!!! We re-upholstered these pieces as best we could using all sorts of inappropriate stuffing – but they looked good on the outside! Gradually as and when we could afford it we began to buy more serious pieces, even bringing things back from New Zealand when we went to visit my family who had all moved out there after I left school. A very special piece that we bought in New Zealand, for instance, is a little Japanese desk top cabinet with tiny drawers – the front of which is decorated with egg shells. This we did not know until we had some Japanese visitors and they explained what it was.
I read a beautiful quote where you talk about Wales and how it informs your work. “Somehow the combination of the tranquility, colours and the dimension of history all provide inspiration. As for Welsh culture – there is an aura of mystery in the old stories and the atmosphere is rather Arthurian – the castles, the battles, the mist and richness of diversity in the landscape.” It reminded me so much of the work of Dylan Thomas. Do you think you chose Wales or did Wales choose you? Any updated thoughts?
Yes Wales is where I am at peace – it is a wonderful place to live, to visit, to enjoy. It is not highly commercialized and you can still find those gems that transport you back in history or that show you nature at its purest in a very heavily populated world. The walks are stunning – one going very near is the coast path – a new section just opened a few hundred yards from us.
Here we are touching on the dreadful decision of Carmarthenshire County Council Planning Committee to allow a turbine to be built in this very beautiful, so far unspoiled area in Wales. We overlook Laugharne and can easily see Dylan Thomas’s boathouse and the castle. The area is designated as a Special Landscape Area and one of historic importance as well as the estuary and bay being designation by the EU as a Marine conservation area. The proposed turbine will be only 500 yards from our home that we had hoped to set up as a place for art exhibitions, master classes in music, writing, art, meditation etc. *(See editor's note below for more on this)
Your pieces are reminiscent of another time yet still timeless. How does historicism function in your work?
I am fascinated by everything – historical – ancient and more recent but it does not dictate to me how I will create unless it is work for film or opera – then I do a very detailed study which I love doing. I create intuitively and if sometimes it looks like I have been influenced by other’s work – it is probably because we have been inspired by the same thing whether related to clothes or just an atmosphere of a time. Artists like Lawrence Alma Tadema painted his models in their under garments trying to neutralise the period, making the images timeless. Many allegorical paintings depicted the characters is clothes that were ‘out of’ the artist’s time, a way of making them float in time in order to focus on the story rather than dating the piece to a certain period.
You’ve spoken before about how your work is purposely removed from the frenzy of the fashion industry. I was wondering if you have your own way of organizing and presenting new ideas in lieu of the fashion calendar. Do you make pieces and then sell them? Do costumers place special orders? Are your palettes seasonally defined? I would love to know a bit more about the process?
Our creativity is a constant process, it evolves through the seasons in a complete mix. Our customers are international, and in this time in history – with accessibility from all corners of the globe – seasons become irrelevant.
What legacy would you like to leave?
Perhaps leave something to inspire other people, of all ages, to strike out on their own and follow their own path whatever that is. We are stifled by rules and convention we do not encourage entrepreneurs – this should change because it is the original thinker that gets us out of a rut of just existing.
(L) Model wearing Charles and Patricia Lester, The Duke of Westminster's jewel feature in Hello Magazine. (R) Vogue Italia.
(L) Vogue, October 1985. (R) Vogue, May 1986.
Vogue Italia, May 1986.
Cosmopolitan, May 1986.
Gowns designed by Lester, 'The Wings of the Dove', 1997.
(L) Opera Holland Park. (R) Couture velvet luxury jacket by Charles and Patricia Lester.
(L) Two piece in golden brown by Charles and Patricia Lester, Vogue. (R) Vogue, December 1988.
(L) Textiles in the home of Charles and Patricia Lester feature by Francesca Fearon for Hello magazine. (R) French Elle Magazine.