Ben de Lisi made his name designing dresses for celebrities but he has since turned his back on high end for the high street. He explains why.
Fashion designer Ben de Lisi takes to UK high street
From his first hit design for Kate Winslet to the catwalks of the world's best shows one fashionista decided after 30 years at the top he wanted to ditch the glamour. So he turned from haute couture to the high street to work with the UK retailer Debenhams, writes Gillian Duncan
Every awards season, like clockwork, lists are published featuring the best Oscar dresses of all time.
One consistently makes an appearance - a scarlet full-length gown worn by the actress Kate Winsletin 2002. The dress was the making of the American-born, British-based designer Ben de Lisi's career but he has since turned his back on high end for the high street.
Here, Mr de Lisi, who was in Dubai last month to launch his spring/summer collection for the UK retailer Debenhams, talks about why he now designs for the mass market.
qYou made several dresses for Kate Winslet before she asked you to design a dress for the Academy Awards in 2001, when she was nominated for her role as Iris Murdoch in the film Iris. What instructions did she give you?
aThe only thing she said to me was, 'I want a red dress'. I said, 'Okay you leave it to me.' I sketched her a couple of dresses and she said she liked it and she came back for her first fit and the dress was as everyone has seen it on the form. She walked in and jumped up and down and said, 'I love the dress.' She put it on and it was perfect. We finished it and she took it away and then you only hope she's going to wear it for the Oscars. I was getting conflicting information from people in LA saying actually she's wearing Vivienne Westwood or she's got Dolce & Gabbana, so I didn't really know until the TV went on and I was watching it. It was extraordinary because you know, somewhat, the power of the press but that particular moment for me was indescribable. I wasn't prepared for the enormity of the success of that dress. It is the 13th most famous Oscar dress of all time. Every time the Oscars are happening they always do something about it.
Was that what established your name in couture?
I was always doing my ready-to-wear collection and couture was part of it but Kate made the industry at large stand up at notice.
But you no longer have your ready-to-wear collection. Why?
I decided that I had had enough of the catwalk and I wanted to change my business and my life. You work 30 years and you sacrifice and nurture and support a child, which is my brand, but sometimes you wake up and think, 'It's my time now.' I decided to focus on my licences, which is to bring my brand of clothing and name to a much wider market and at that point Debenhams and I were already intrinsically linked. I was already designing evening wear. I already had lifted my home furnishings brand off the ground, which was a big success. At that point I decided I wanted to up my game, so I closed my shop. I stopped showing on the catwalk. People in the industry thought Ben de Lisi was finished but it wasn't. It was just a sort of a reinvention of it. I saved what was good about the brand, which was the brand and me. And I do couture when I am asked to do couture.
What made you decide to design for the high street?
It was during the American elections, the first time Barack Obama was running, and Michelle Obama was wearing high street and designer that I thought there was something in that so I called the powers that be at Debenhams and said, 'I am thinking of doing Ben de Lisi day wear, are you interested?' They said, 'Yes, put something together.'
Your Debenhams collection makes your clothes more attainable but do you think it detracts from your couture reputation?
Not at all. Why, because I'm working for Debenhams?
No, because you are producing clothes for the mass market as opposed to where you started.
Debenhams is high street purely by the fact that they happen to be located on the high street. Selfridges is on the high street in [London's] Oxford Street. You have Selfridges three or four blocks away from Debenhams and the problem that I think people have is that Debenhams for many years would have been perceived as a dusty old department store. But Debenhams has a wealth of designers that nobody has these days. And it's growing. They just signed Marios Schwab. They have Stephen Jones, the milliner, now. They have Jenny Packham and she's designing for Kate Middleton. So for people to say, 'Ben, do you think people in the industry are going to shy away from you because you are designing for the commercial market?' Is commercial a bad word? At the end of the day, you know what? - this is not about poetry. This is my life and my business. And I worked for 30 years to make a brand and I am not going to go hungry like some designers do, because there are a lot of designers out there that design clothes and don't make a penny. And they sleep on their cutting table.
Why? Because they only do couture?
Because the industry is so difficult that for every buyer out there with a pencil to write an order there are masses of collections vying for that bit of budget. And if your collection is not absolutely spot on, made perfectly and delivered on time, they completely discount you and they move on. So, what are your choices? To starve and have your collection on a few people? And have a page in Vogue, which does not pay your rent or your mortgage. Or do you nurture a brand, build it up, get it to a place where it becomes aspirational and enviable. Team up with a reputable, amazing company like Debenhams, which shows confidence in your brand and together you bring it to a marketplace where everybody can get a piece of the brand.
What do you think your decision and that of other designers who create collections for the high street has shown the industry?
It has shown the industry at large that whilst I still dress this part of society, I am now smart enough to be able to extrapolate strength from the brand to reach to a larger [audience]. And I'm not going to lie; it's very lucrative and is there something wrong with business working? I make you a dress, you like the dress, you buy the dress. That's how business works. It's not about this ethereal kind of cerebral thing. It's about big business. We are the second-largest industry in the UK, the fashion industry, and I would say a lot of the designers that made the leap to the high street are only surviving because of the high street's backing. The list is longer than my arm of designers who are much bigger than me and who have graced many more covers than I have who are long gone and we hear nothing of them because they struggled and couldn't make it work. Not because they weren't talented.