Richard Lewis...Fashion designer with divine spark
He loves women. He listens to them, dresses their curves and hides their tummies in glorious creations. No wonder Ciara Dwyer genuflected when she met fashion designer Richard Lewis
If you want to make an Irish woman swoon with delight, show her a dress designed by Richard Lewis. Thank God for the 68-year-old Drimnagh-born genius, for he is a man who knows all about the female form. "My big thing is that my clothes should make the woman look good," he says. "If somebody walks into a room wearing one of my dresses and someone says, 'Oh, that's a Richard Lewis dress,' then I've failed. But if someone says, 'Oh, Mary looks great,' then I've won. If they happen to say afterwards that it's a Richard Lewis dress, that's fine, but above all, it's about the woman and making her look good."
He mostly uses matt-jersey, a perfect fabric which allows for elegant curves but has enough weight so that it doesn't cling to the wrong places. And of course, it's all in the cut.
"I enjoy all those pernickety things, a quarter inch here, a half inch there," he says.
Such precision results in perfection. Richard Lewis has been a fashion designer for 50 years, and to celebrate, from August 26, as part of 'Irish Designers Create', there will be a retrospective of his work at Brown Thomas, complete with his latest range for autumn/winter 2014. But there is no monstrous ego here. Lewis is a decent sort. He is looking forward to seeing what the new Irish designers will be showing alongside his own creations.
For the exhibition, Richard has borrowed his clothes from some of his clients who still have his dresses in pristine condition decades later. He shows me a stunning black dress slit to the breastbone with beautiful beads and the tiniest of pleats. The model Sharon Bacon bought it from him 40 years ago and she still wears it. At 17, she became his muse.
"She was tall and slim but she had a woman's shape," he says.
Richard Lewis understands women, especially Irish women. He says that we tend to have large hips, so he highlights other areas instead, like necklines. It's all about optical illusion. He believes that he can make women look a size smaller.
"I suppose I'm a bit like a hairdresser in the way that people confide in me. I know all their lumps and bumps. Nobody is perfect. You hide the bad points and play up the good points."
Richard tells me that initially people are afraid to see him in his studio. They think they are going to be forced into wearing something they don't like. On meeting him, they soon learn that his other great skill is that he listens.
"When women try on clothes, I always look at their faces. They have to look confident and relaxed. I get so many calls from women saying that their daughter or son is getting married but that they don't want to look like a mother-of-the-bride."
One time the journalist Nell McCafferty bought a dress from him for an awards ceremony. She told Pat Kenny on the radio that she paid £300 for it and that Richard told her it'd last for 10 years, so that worked out at £30 a year, which was great value. It did wonders for business. Women began to think, 'Well, if he can dress Nell, he can dress me.'
Some women have even taken their Richard Lewis dresses to the grave with them. On several occasions, the designer has been at a funeral of a client and told that she was dressed in one of his creations. You can't get richer praise than that.
Richard Lewis grew up on the Comeragh Road in Drimnagh. His father was a carpenter and his mother and aunts were all involved in the production of school uniforms. As a young boy, Richard was always drawing women in his copy books while at school in Drimnagh Castle. He tells me that there was some obscene graffiti in the boys' toilets there.
"The teacher asked, 'Are they your drawings?' I said, 'No, I can draw much better than that.'"
The teacher grinned and suggested that Richard sign up to study dress design at The Grafton Academy in Dublin. It seemed like a smart move.
"I hated school because I wanted to get out and get on with what I wanted to do. On the day of the mechanical drawing exam in the Inter, I was also given the art paper, even though I wasn't doing art. I finished the mechanical drawing bit and then did the art paper too. It said - draw a poster for a fashion show. I couldn't resist."
When he started in the Grafton Academy, his family thought that he would end up manufacturing dresses for department stores. They had no idea that he had big dreams of becoming a fashion designer. At first he opened a little studio in Walkinstown and then he moved into the city centre, to South Frederick Street. He still works on that street.
When business was going well, he decided to do some volunteer work with The Samaritans. This was in 1975.
"I'd had a really good life. Up to then, I'd never had anything bad happen to me. It was about time that I gave something back."
While working there he met a man called Jim. They became friends and Richard would often give him a lift home or they'd go for a pint after their shift. One day, Richard gave Jim a driving lesson in the Phoenix Park. The novice driver became overly-confident, leaving his teacher a nervous wreck. When they got into town, Richard got plastered. He looked at Jim and realised that he wanted to be with him and he confessed this to him. Up until then, he had had some girlfriends but he knew there was something amiss when he was non-committal with them. Instead, he looked forward to his time with Jim. He tells me that the difference was that he loved him.
"I didn't know that I was gay but here was this guy and I fancied him and he fancied me. Things happened and I realised that this was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, and it worked out great. Jim was such fun and he had a great smile."
They were kindred spirits. The pair would enjoy parties -Richard shows me a photo of the two of them at a fancy dress, Richard as the demon king, and Jim, in turban, as Ali Baba. Jim had worked at Stewart's Hospital looking after handicapped children, but when Richard offered, he joined him in the business and soon they started to make profits. He was brilliant at organising unusual fashion shows, like the Berlin-themed one in the old Gas Company on D'Olier Street with the art-deco furniture. He had a great sense of theatre.
Eight years ago, Jim had a sudden heart attack on the way into work and died. He was only 52. Richard says that he couldn't function that year and eventually he ended up so depressed that he had to be hospitalised for three weeks.
"I thought I knew about depression until I got it," he says.
But he got the right medication and the right help and eventually, he found his feet again. During that time, his friends and clients were hugely supportive. Now, he sees a therapist once a year and he has learned to pace himself. He doesn't work Fridays and he is taking drawing classes. Twice a week he sees friends and he has begun to invite them for weekend breakfasts in his home, just as Jim used to cook for their pals. Richard tells me that he writes to his late partner and talks to him all the time. Also, his upcoming retrospective in Brown Thomas has a deeper significance for him.
"Jim used to work in Brown Thomas doing window display, and, years ago, he urged me to call them up. That was my very first introduction. After that, they started to sell my clothes there. When he died I felt that he was there looking after me, and I still feel that he is looking after me."
He smiles, just as Jim did all those years ago.
'Irish Designers Create', a celebration of Irish innovation and design, will take place in Brown Thomas Dublin from Tuesday, August 26, until Saturday, September 27. 'Create' will showcase an exclusive 40-piece collection by Richard Lewis, and his retrospective exhibition, as well as 15 other Irish designers. www.brownthomas.com