WHEN Kate Winslet sashayed up the red carpet in that scarlet frock, Ben de Lisi became an overnight sensation. So why has designing for the high street brought the deepest satisfaction?
How the fash pack must have sneered when Ben de Lisi gave up the rush of the red carpet, the biannual ego trip that is fashion week and the celebrity circuit for a job designing for high street giant Debenhams. Twice voted Glamour Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards (in 1994 and 1995) and the man responsible for one of the most memorable Oscar frocks of all time (Kate Winslet’s scarlet number, one shoulder draped in fabric roses, worn for the 2002 gongs), it seemed such an anticlimax.
But to look at him now, across the table from me, he doesn’t seem too bothered. In fact, he’s positively glowing – possibly something to do with his recent travels to Miami and Chile with his partner Gerardo Vidaurre. Slim and fit-looking, his deep tan is set off by a white, open-necked shirt and immaculately cut black suit, while the wooden beads on his wrist hint at a free spirit.
Now he’s back in the UK promoting his latest collection for the Principles by Ben de Lisi label, which includes swimwear for the first time (“we decided she needs a holiday,” he smiles, “she’s been working hard”). Most importantly, he looks happy. Tired, but happy.
‘Twas not always thus. In 2010, the fashion world still reeling from the death of Alexander McQueen, de Lisi gave an interview saying it could so easily have been him. Heartbroken at the end of an important relationship, his label no longer brought him the pleasure it once did and he had set about dismantling things. He said at the time that he felt close to the edge and ready to jump. “I think every designer feels ... spent,” he says now.
“You get to a point when your back’s against the wall. Some designers – not me – are totally indebted to backers and banks and investors, and they feel the pressure and are acutely aware of that bottom line all the time.
“I didn’t have that. I didn’t have backers. I had a bank and there was me. So while I had the pressure of the fact that I was the one who was bankrolling it and it could have gone terribly wrong, there was the feeling, especially in England, that they move you on. It’s always the next person. In Milan or Paris or New York it’s more inclusive as an industry.
“OK, I had my day in the sun when I was winning awards and I dressed them on the red carpet – one of the most famous dresses ever on the red carpet was my dress – and it’s still not enough. They want the next best thing. Yes, fashion is about moving forward, but it should also be about wearability and style rather than trends. That was what I found disillusioning about the industry. I don’t have the darker side that I think Alexander had. He was a genius. But I could see how you could just lose hope.”
He describes his own label as his baby. “I’m not a parent – I don’t have children – but I invested in my label for 30 years. Now my child has gone out into the world and Dad is taking a break. That’s basically what’s happened. It’s payback time.”
No regrets, then? Does he never wish for one more moment at the end of a show when the audience applauds your most magnificent collection yet?
“No,” he says before I have even finished the question. “I don’t miss the pressure and the stress of it.”
Then he thinks for a moment and adds, “The ego in me sometimes misses the catwalk but I don’t miss the anxiety the catwalk brings. I don’t miss the buyers and the press arguing that they didn’t get the right seat or a bottle of Evian on their chair, or the fact that they know you one season then they don’t know you the next.
“I don’t miss the duplicitousness about that side of the business. There are a lot of egos out there from people I think are frustrated designers themselves. The pity of it is that they can make or break a designer with just a couple of sentences, and that is quite nerve-wracking.
“I was never part of that world anyway. My closest friends are not in the industry. I do what I have to do when I’m invited to the British Fashion Awards and those sort of things but I was never in bed with the other designers and the models and the parties – I never did that. Maybe to my peril, because I was never seen as a with-it designer. I never built my entourage. But that wasn’t me. It was my job, not my life.”
And besides, he still has the best of both worlds. “I still have couture clients,” he says. “Right now I have one dress with a budget of £13,000. Then I have six very different bridal dresses for a very important wedding in Mykonos that’s coming up in June. They’re all wearing the same colour but they have to be very different dresses.”
Growing up by the beach on Long Island, New York, de Lisi moved to live with his grandmother, a sample-maker, when he enrolled at the Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn, studying sculpture and painting. But when he spotted a pair of trousers in Bloomingdale’s that he just had to have but couldn’t afford, his future career took an entirely new direction. “I think they must have been about $60,” he says, “and that was 35, 40 years ago.”
So, on his grandmother’s instruction, he bought fabric and a pattern and set about recreating the trousers on the kitchen table. “She would look at it every now and again and say, ‘No, strip that bit out,’ but by the end of the evening I had made a perfect pair of trousers. And I got the bug for it.”
Not that he sees fashion as that much of a departure from sculpture. “I have a fine arts background so was able to paint and draw and I had a perception of colour. Fashion design is just different – instead of using clay or stone you’re using the female form and you’re accentuating the positive and playing down the negatives. Especially when you cut on the bias, which is 98 per cent of what I did, you are able to change the way the body looks – if you cut it correctly.
“I think clothing was in my blood anyway because of Grandma and my aunt – everyone somehow had some kind of affiliation with the industry.”
He moved to London in 1982 and started showing at London Fashion Week in 1995, with customers including Anjelica Huston, Rachel Weisz, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson and Helena Bonham Carter. Gabby Logan chose him to design her wedding dress when she married Scots rugby star Kenny Logan. But the game-changer – the moment the Ben de Lisi label went stellar – was when Winslet sashayed down the Oscars’ red carpet on the arm of Sam Mendes, wearing that killer frock. Simple but deadly. “It was a big changing point for me when that dress hit the headlines,” he says.
“I was not prepared for the enormity of that moment. It was worldwide and it lasted months. And every Oscar-time they bring it back and say it’s in the top 20. So that was a very important time for me.
“But what was life-changing,” he adds, “was when I won my first award for Designer of the Year for glamour, because I felt then that people understood me and accepted me into the fold. And they saw that an immaculately cut black dress was where it was at. It wasn’t about adding superfluous details for the sake of it. When you design something that’s simple, it’s more work because it has to be perfect. You can’t hide things.”
The designer approached Debenhams in 1992 to create an exclusive range of evening wear – a move that proved way ahead of its time. He was one of the first designers to collaborate with a high street store and since then everyone from Marni to Madonna have followed suit “Then I put homewares on the map and that went ‘whoosh’ out the window.
“Then during the US elections, Michelle was on the campaign trail wearing high street – like J Crew – with Philip Lim and other designers and I thought that was a very strong message. So I put together a range of daywear and took it to Debenhams.”
The range went out, initially, to 30 stores, but within three weeks he was called in for a meeting. His bosses at Debenhams wanted to know if he had heard of Principles. “I said, ‘Yes, it’s a much-loved brand, it’s lost its way, blah blah blah.’ ‘Well,’ they said, ‘we don’t think there’s room for Principles and Ben de Lisi daywear in the same store and we’re buying Principles for you. You can call it whatever you want to call it. How do you feel about that?’”
He describes the move as a “stroke of genius”. He took the tired, old label and breathed new life into it. Interestingly, he chose to retain the Principles name. “It would have been foolish to have got rid of it as it has a following,” he reasons. “Ben de Lisi just gave it a little more class and fashion credibility.”
From daywear at the beginning, there came handbags, then shoes, then watches. And now his first collection of swimwear. “I said it cannot be bling, it cannot be overly sexy, it has to be immaculate, polished, hard-wearing, but it has to have that chic Capri, Southampton, Long Island kind of feel. We kept it to a really tight colour palette – black, white and red – because that’s what we started with at Principles.”
But his design sensibilities don’t stop there. In 2010 the department of health offered him a redesign project – any one he wanted. He chose to revamp the old, gaping-back hospital gown. I’m guessing this means he would pretty much turn his hand to any design project, given the opportunity. “If you’re a good designer you can always look at something from a designer’s eyes.
“I can visualise. You see the world as your studio. I would design pet stuff, menswear, children’s clothes, I would love to do furniture. I wouldn’t be presumptuous enough to think I could throw my hand at everything. Some celebrities will wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m a fashion designer.’”
Oh my, who could he be talking about? “I have nothing against people using their celebrity to make money,” he continues, “that’s the world we live in. But I think you have to come clean with that. You can’t just say one day, ‘I’m a designer.’”
In the past he has been openly critical of Victoria Beckham’s attempts to rebrand herself as a major player in the fashion business, but he says now that his opinion of her has gone full circle. “She is amazing – she has done an incredible job and I’ve completely turned around.
“I have a lot of respect for her. She has a lot of focus, she has found her métier, she had a good start, she learned quickly and she has an innate sense of style. God bless her. I eat humble pie now after some of the things I said about her.”
His highest praise, however, he reserves for Scottish designer Jonathan Saunders. “I think he’s an incredible colourist. His concept of prints is incomparable. He has terrific style; it’s very modern, very wearable, fresh. I absolutely love what he does for women and I love what he’s doing for men.”
As for de Lisi, the closest he gets to the celebrity circuit these days is spending some time as a judge on the TV series Project Catwalk and an appearance on Celebrity Come Dine With Me (he cooked Italian spring rolls and chocolate pudding for Ulrika Jonsson, Helen Lederer and Mica Paris). The rest of the time he’s happy to relax at home with Gerardo and his three French bulldogs – Luca, Noah and Tea. “My dogs are my life,” he says. “They are such expressive animals. The only thing they don’t do is speak English.
“They are little beings and I know what they’re thinking and they know me. They make me a better person. I’m a happier person because of my dogs. I think people who are pet owners live longer, healthier lives.”
As if to prove it, he goes on to explain the source of his healthy tan – and his happiness. “I went to Miami for a week, then we went on to Chile for five days to visit Gerardo’s family. Then we were back in Miami, where we were holidaying with Alan Carr and his partner and some friends – we had a really good time. We were back in London for three days, then went to our house in Ibiza. We have a beautiful home in the north of the island and go there every month for a long weekend, or sometimes for ten days at a time.”
It sounds like a nice life, I tell him. “Ruth, I pinch myself,” he smiles. “I never, ever thought it would happen. And it’s all down to Debenhams. With a stroke, they changed my life.
“The Oscars dress got me to the point where people around the world stood up and noticed Ben de Lisi, and my collections were very well respected. If I achieved one thing in my life as a designer, it was credibility and respectability.
“But all that got me to the point where Debenhams believed in the brand and were able to put their backing behind it. I have complete autonomy. I couldn’t be happier.”
• Principles by Ben de Lisi is available at Debenhams (www.debenhams.com)