CHARLES & PATRICIA LESTER
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Linda Rogers, internationally known poet and author, has written this essay about the designers Charles and Patricia Lester and their work with textiles and fashion.
DISCOVERING BEAUTY, the found art of Charles and Patricia Lester.
by Linda Rogers
Imagine climbing the steps to a medieval tower and finding the lady "in" six hundred years later - her skin flawless, her velvets and silks preserved, perfect. She turns to the light and her pleats fall as gracefully to the floor as the waters that inspired them. The turret window opens. Our timeless beauty glides through the opening, walking on air.
Dream weavers Charles and Patricia Lester have spent their working lives making this fantasy available to women who appreciate that clothing can be wearable art, as enduring as paintings in galleries. Rediscovering old techniques and inventing new ones that make wearing and caring for their dresses as comfortable as stepping into a bath strewn with rose petals, the Lesters and their crew of needle fairies have resurrected the past and made it relevant to the present.
Lester creations, pleated silk garments as beautiful as the Fortuny couture in the Victoria and Albert museum and pre-Raphaelite jackets and coats in devore velvet, bespeak romance. They are worn by film stars, opera singers and ordinary girls and women who want to look and feel beautiful on that special day and for years after, because these dresses never go out of style.
Devotees of the Arts and Crafts tradition, which resurrected ancient crafts and advocated a synesthetic approach to harmony and beauty in the home and on the person, the Lesters have a studio in Abergavenny, Wales, where green hills sleep like cats guarding the secrets of the past. There are mysteries surrounding the production of flawless garments by the dyers, printers and sewers who work with the Lesters in the former workhouse, which they have converted into a workplace lit by stained glass windows created by their daughter, Georgina, who also makes a line of hand-crafted jewelry.
Charles, who is a physicist and former head of the Design and Technology Department at Monmouth School for Boys, has created the means to print, dye, etch and pleat the bolts of fabric bought in black and white only. He is the builder who has converted the home of terrible suffering into a joyful workplace. Soon, the Lesters hope to open a textile and art museum as well as the shop already on the premises. Visitors will be invited to examine archival pieces and observe the transformation of unadorned silks into garments of sumptuous beauty. There will also be accessible pieces for sale - accessories such as the popular Lester scarves, evening bags and sachets made of their signature pleated silk and velvets and filled with their home grown lavender - that are within reach of the ordinary pocket book.
Charles and Patricia Lester may dress the rich and famous, but they understand the needs of working people for a touch of beauty in their lives. Patricia made beautiful children's dresses which she sold for pin money in a village shop at Pontypool and later at Newport Market. They have struggled, renovating their home and the studio at Abergavenny, raising their artist daughter and establishing their business in a very competitive market. Reminders of penury surround them. "Others" haunt the former workhouse where one of a kind dresses are created.
Sometimes the ghosts of disadvantaged women laugh while the Lester sewers joke and tell stories. When the inmates who lived and worked in the building are upset, they unthread needles and wreak havoc in the workrooms. Charles and Patricia talk about the "cross frocks" possessed by these unfortunate ladies. They are the ones that, like the finest violin bows made of temperamental wood, have the most "personality" on their wearers. Who wouldn't want to inhabit a Lester dress? It is impossible to blame women who died in poverty for taking advantage of the opportunity to feel beautiful in dresses made for their more fortunate sisters.
The past lives in Lester garments and in the historic building where they are handcrafted. Charles and Patricia are an anomaly in the throwaway fashion industry with its seasonal trends and fads. Their creations endure. Buying one of their pieces is very much like investing in painting or sculpture and may be a once in a lifetime experience or the beginning of a luxurious habit. Even though many famous faces have passed through their studio,, the Plus Department in Harrod's, and other world locations, there are many brides, bat mitzvah girls, graduates, débutantes, mothers of brides, poets and working women who have made a Lester dress essential to their significant occasions.
Central to the Lester philosophy is a respect for the individual who wears the dress and the elements that go into its making. Patricia, who has a magpie's eye for detail, is ever on the lookout for organic material that will inspire or even produce the colours for a fabric. She collects discarded egg shells, feathers, leaves, petals, moss, and rusty metal, anything that feeds her relentless search for beauty. The shimmering fabrics in her designs reflect the reality that every colour is composite. Just as inky blues and greens are found in the blackbird's black feathers and a fish's silver scales might be highlighted with magenta and red-violet, her dresses shimmer with the vibrant chromatics of nature.
For the Lesters, making dresses is a lifestyle that incorporates gardening, chemistry, and listening to music. The hand pleating process they invented thirty years ago has been compared to earlier Mediterranean and Japanese techniques, but with a difference. The Lester pleats give maximum suppleness, flow; if there is a musical analogue, it is water music. Indeed wearing one of the pleated silk gowns feels like swimming naked in a pond filled with water lilies.
Margot Fonteyn once said that ballet should be as transparent as music; none of the effort should show. Lester dresses, in spite of the fact that the intricate beading alone can take a sewer days to complete, look as if they have grown out of a Celtic garden, the soft and subtly coloured surfaces made to attract the attention of pollinating insects and birds.
Even though their life is their work, Charles and Patricia Lester have taken the time to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Patricia says her greatest joy is watching the transformation of a woman who, upon trying on a dress in their studio, realizes that she is beautiful. "Beauty comes in all ages, all shapes and sizes." Amazingly, her designs flatter every figure from the 'svelte' to the 'zaftig'. There is a psychologist in California who believes that the dresses are therapeutic. Who wouldn't feel better dressed in beauty, like Lord Byron's mysterious muse?
After the Boxing Day tsunami disaster of 2004, Patricia hemmed scarves that were donated to the relief fund. When she sees these scarves being worn, she has the satisfaction of knowing she helped and also of making it possible for women on limited incomes to own one.
The Lesters are as thrilled by wedding photos of happy brides as they are by seeing their costumes on stage or in a film. They have made costumes for three Holland Park productions, a magnificently Oriental 'Iris', an opalescent 'Pearl Fishers' and a luminous 'Norma' for the 2004 season. Film actors who have worn their dresses have keeping the costumes written into their contracts. A Canadian writer recently told me he has seen 'The Wings of the Dove' - nominated for an Oscar for costume design - four times because for him the Lester dresses evoke the romance of Venice. Helen Mirren wore Lester in 'Greenfingers'. The firm has dressed Charlotte Rampling, Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Barbara Streisand, Toni Braxton, Maya Angelou, and Whitney Houston. Princes Michael of Kent, also a keen gardener, appreciates the comfort and organic integrity of her Lester dresses.
Unlike other couture houses, the Lesters do not pay celebrities to wear their clothing. "We work hard and our staff work hard. We expect to be compensated and our customers appreciate that."
If love can be worn then it is incarnated in Lester creations, each one of them a poem. Everyone from divas to the nurse who came down from Leeds for her one special dress can be a princess in a 'one of a kind' Lester ensemble. The Lesters have sold worldwide in stores and will soon have a comprehensive collection online. In addition to their couture line, they make luxurious household appointments: pillows, bedcover, dressing gowns and screens for houses as comfortable as dresses.
It is easy to imagine a perfect world in which everything moved as harmoniously as the threads that find their way from mulberry leaves to the silkworms, to the Lesters' studio overflowing with the colours, sounds and textures of the garden. The dresses rustle like leaves in the trees that guard the graves of Welsh coalminers and the lords and ladies who lived in her castles. They whisper like the wind in medieval turrets and gossiping seamstresses. They laugh like ghosts from the pat and women in love. They move effortlessly from room to room, as if there were no walls. This is ideal dream material.
Linda Rogers is the author of several books of poetry, young adult fiction, and three novels; these include 'Women at Mile Zero', 'Say My Name' and 'Friday Water'. Her fourth novel is to be published in 2006.
She has also edited anthologies of essays on the work of several major Canadian poets, including Bill Bissett, P.K.Page, and Al Purdy.
A past president of the League of Canadian Poets, Linda is now a full-time writer and grandmother.
Linda Rogers is the Cardiff International Poet of the Year 2005 the first prize in the Cardiff International Poetry Competition 2005 as part of Baylit Festival 2005. More about Linda Rogers
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Our couture design studios in Wales are easily rached beiing less than two hours from London or Birmingham by train. We are easily accessible by road as we are close to both the M4 and M5 motorways. If you would like an interesting day out seeing our studios, with good food at some of the local resturants, it can easily be done in a day. Bath and Bristol are within easy reach, only one hour by car. This is a working design workshop, which is open Monday to Friday. you are welcome at any time but it is better to make an appointment if you want to meet the deigners. We are under two hours from Heathrow International Airport and one hour from Cardiff International Airport. Please contact us for more information.
ANTICOPYING IN DESIGN.
Directors: Patricia Lester M.B.E., Charles Lester.
Things to do and see in South Wales and its luxury hotels and famous restaurants.Useful LINKS
Abergavenny is known as "The Gateway to Wales" and is at the start of the Brecon Beacons and the Brecon Beacons National Park. The M4 motorway makes all the South of England and home counties accessible to this unique bustling market town, vibrant in its diversity. Abergavenny is in South East Wales - not far from Cardiff, Bristol, Bath, Hereford, Newport and Swansea. There are very good rail and road links with the West Midlands, Birmingham, Oxford and the West Country (Devon, Dorset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Avon and Cornwall). From London the route is easy and direct - crossing the new Severn Bridge is an experience in itself - a wonderful giant sculpture particularly spectacular agaist dark clouds or early evening or the low light of dawn.
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