The designer's secret of stylish, glamourous dressing
The average woman can't afford bespoke, made-to-measure clothing but Richard Lewis has shared insights gleaned from dressing some of Ireland's most glamorous, stylish women for the past 50 years, writes Bairbre Power.
The anecdote about a client's 'revenge' dress catches my attention when I sit down with couturier Richard Lewis to discuss his 50 years working in Irish fashion.
"This girl had split up with her boyfriend and she came into me and said 'I'm going to be meeting him at a party, I want a dress from you and I want him to eat his shoes'. She phoned me the following day and said 'he ate his shoes.'" Mission accomplished with a high necked navy dress in liquid jersey "and a slit somewhere."
Richard (68) has dressed career girls and blushing brides, socialites, dinner party hostesses and Mothers-of-the-Bride who don't want to look like MOBs.
After half a century in the business, to say that Richard Lewis has a few design tricks up his sleeve is an understatement.
Drawing out his gleaming shears, Richard slices through a layer of sooty black jersey using a paper pattern covered with notations which he has drawn himself.
A judiciously placed dart, a technical device he places under the armhole, will play down and ease the shelf effect of fabric cascading over a double D bust line.
His couturier's bag of clever cutting techniques that camouflage our problem areas includes the art of drawing attention away from tummies and hips by creating unexpected movement in the hemline, thus pulling the eye to the lady's great legs.
Richard is like a cosmetic surgeon working in fabric, not flesh. Taking coffee with him outside his salon on South Frederick Street, our Q&A session swiftly throws up some invaluable wardrobe advice.
"For a first date, go for simplicity with a little bit of mystery," advises Richard, with a twinkle in his eye.
"For a job interview, go for a simple jacket and skirt but be careful about the length of the skirt. I recommend barely covering the knee because it can still look as sexy as a short skirt but short may not be appropriate at an interview. Underneath, I would go for a simple camisole rather than a frilly blouse."
Hung up about baby weight or a tummy? Richard recommends adopting a 'trompe l'oeil' approach with a jacket and skirt with a brightly coloured belt inside."The hint of colour from the belt glimpsed inside the outfit gives the illusion of a small waist," he explains.
"I've always done low necklines and I like a bit of cleavage but I do not like flesh everywhere," he says. "If you are showing cleavage, then go for long sleeves and a long dress. Nothing is better than a simple dress with no back and when you turn around, it's a big surprise."
The Mother-of-the-Bride fashion sector is littered with women who dread looking like a walking cliche in frothy pastels, organza and a giant hat. It can often feel like an out-of-body experience because on the inside, the women feel 35 at heart.
"Yes, the prospect of buying the Mother-of-the-Bride outfit can cause anxiety but what I find works is to buy an outfit with mileage which you can change during the day such as taking your jacket off after the formal photographs and you can have a glamorous throw, in a pop of colour, which gives your top or dress a completely different look and feel," says Richard.
"Back in the 1960s when I started working in fashion, if you didn't have good legs, you were done for and if you had curly hair, you hadn't a hope in hell.
"It was very much a uniform back then but things loosened up in the 1970s when you had a choice and there were a lot of different looks from sharp tailoring to hippie, plus, you didn't have to have straight hair," says Richard who met his muse, Sharon Bacon in the late 1970s when she came to work for him as a teenage model. Forty years later, she is still wearing his dresses, including one of her original buys which says a lot about finding a look that suits you - and sticking to it.
Confidante to many women as they head in and out of relationships and careers, Richard admits "some women are too influenced by fashion and not enough by style. You don't have to change your wardrobe every season," he says robustly.
When it comes to chosing clothes, Richard recommends "look at your bad points and camouflage them, then look at your good points and play them up."
Watching hemlines shoot up and down through the decades, Richard stresses how "incredibly important hemlines are to looking great. The best, I think, is just under the knee but anything hovering around here," he says, pointing to mid-thigh, "can be dangerous and while I like mid calf, for that length, I think you need to wear boots."
The 1980s weren't his favourite period and while the lust for 'Sue Ellen' and 'Dynasty' shoulder pads went out of control, Richard acknowledges how crucial shoulders are to your outfit looking good.
"If a dress or jacket doesn't sit well on the shoulders, then it's done for. Shoulder pads work well but don't overdo it by putting in too many because bulking up with shoulder pads only brings your shoulders up and shortens your neck."
You will rarely catch Richard doing seams across the body (except on the empire line) "because they only draw attention to the hips which is the Irish woman's weak spot." Richard's penchant is the 'nothing dress' which you can wear to the office and then add jewellery and heels for an evening out.
On the topic of accessories, Richard says "I've always noticed how when Irish women put on belts, they push them down, but when I put belts on a client's outfit, I will always push them up. You are narrower a little above the waist so for my dresses, I always do my waist a fraction above the normal waist."
Richard, who celebrates his 69th birthday next week, has paid special attention to necklines in his upcoming AW14 collection of 40 pieces. There is a series of Little Black Dresses with five different necklines - round, asymmetric, horse shoe, square and bow front with a low back.
"Women are viewed from the waist up when they are seated behind desks and tables at meetings and dinners, so I decided to explore the same black dress but with different options."
The new collection will be showcased and available to buy at Irish Designers CREATE which opens at Brown Thomas, Dublin next Tuesday and runs until September 27, featuring 15 Irish fashion talents.
Richard has curated a retrospective exhibition, gathering up clothes from clients going back 45 years and you can follow his tale in the BT's windows and in the store.
"I remember being on a nude beach in Greece and there were two beautiful Swedish girls who didn't have a stitch on sitting behind us. Suddenly we noticed this woman walking along the beach in a black halterneck, backless swimsuit and no one could take their eyes off her, men or women. She wasn't as beautiful as the two Swedish girls but this woman just had it. She held everyone's attention. That's what the element of mystery does. You don't have to be half dressed to get people to notice you."