AS I enter the dazzling and expensively refurbished Café-en-Seine to view Richard Lewis’s Spring Collection, my trepidation as a clueless male evaporates. I had expected catwalks, and haughty and unforgiving gurus of haute-couture, though Lewis’s relaxed and fluent radio interview had earlier deflated this caricature somewhat. The atmosphere is relaxed, expectant, and happy. Women here are indeed exquisitely dressed, but in an understated way which bespeaks a quiet self-confidence, which in turn suggests there is no need to put anyone down in order to feel superb about oneself. Instead of a catwalk, the models will use a cleared space around the long middle row of tables, thus ensuring that the maximum number get the closest view. It is intimate, and classical in its simplicity.
I relax into a premature sense of security, swapping jokes with happy women on both sides of me. It is only when a stentorian Jim Greeley announces the beginning of the show and the dreamlike, poly-racial models begin their hypnotic walk that I realise I am in the realm-I-know-nothing-of, a disconcerting yet necessary experience for a novelist as long in the tooth as your scribe. And yet in an odd way I do know something of it. Unexpectedly, to me at least, my eyes are less on the models and more on the symbiosis of model and fabric, how the beautifully cut material and the exquisite colour projects the model in a new way every time she comes around again in a new ensemble. It is theatre of the purest sort. I glance at the rapt faces of the predominantly female audience. There is a quietly excited on-going commentary on either side of me – and if unspoken, perhaps also in many of the minds present. Projection, dream, yearning, self-knowledge – it is all there.
I once wrote a poem, recently republished in a photographic catalogue, about how a Mies van der Rohe sketch became a skyscraper, and all which that entails. Similar thoughts are occurring to me now. I imagine we all doodle in some way or other, to allow space for an idea to express itself. In someone of Lewis’s sensibility, a lifetime of passionate aesthetic involvement with colour and line informs that doodle, gives it a unique energy to become his sketch, and the sketch in turn a concept which becomes fully formed and worthy of the Lewis name. In other words, it’s the artistic process in mysterious motion.
If it ended there, of course, it would never culminate in tonight’s dazzling show. Like the doodle of van der Rohe, it initiates an economic chain reaction affecting and involving many people and livelihoods: fabric designers and manufacturers, in several countries; seamstresses; jewellers; hair stylists; make-up artists; musicians; students; buyers, critics – and least suspecting of all, a novelist invited to write about it in this magazine. All of this and more, arising from the mind and doodle of one man, before it finally adorns the person for whom it is intended: the woman who loves and can afford fine clothes.
The process is indeed fascinating, in all its ramifications, but the crucial thing tonight is the end result. It is mesmerising, even to this mere male, but why? I have no fashion vocabulary, but I know proportion and rhythm in form when I see it. All affecting art has it and one false move and it slides into a lesser category. There are no false moves here.
As someone who cannot take it for granted, I am fascinated by the human ability to walk upright. It is so complicated a process that not even the most sophisticated mathematics can describe it. It’s self-evident that few women walk like models in a fashion show, but if a woman wears clothes of the finest quality which understand and complement the rhythm of her movement and repose, how can she not feel like the daughter of a royal line?
And then there is the not insignificant question of colour. Again, my vocabulary here is limited, but I respond strongly to colour. In the programme, words like Damson, Old Mauve, Smoke, Blackberry and Watermelon, are all evocative and descriptive. While response to colour is subjective, Lewis’s colours seem to me to evoke happiness. But one, which I presume is that described as Smoke, but which I took to be grey, puzzled me. It puzzled me because I normally recoil from grey, and yet in Lewis’s haute-couture I favoured it above the others, and very much so. In his book, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Colour, Philip Ball speaks about how a good blue was hard to find. How much harder, though, to find a good grey. Exciting and grey in the same sentence has been to me an oxymoron. But of course it is the subtle eye of Lewis, with his great sensitivity to shades of colour, which puts blue water between the grey I recoil from and the grey in this collection. Smoke is, after all, the perfect description for this Lewis grey, mixing perhaps silver and blue in combinations I can’t quite pin down, and herein lies its fascination and glamour.
What stories are beginning to happen here as a beautiful model glides past? I wonder if these clothes are seen as desirable objects in themselves, or are they seen in the mind’s eye in a particular context, of how the wearer is perceived in a certain, perhaps intimate, mise-en-scene? Or will they be worn for the deep, private, aesthetic satisfaction of their beauty? Perhaps a little of both scenarios, at different times. In any event, they will be part of the future history of the woman who wears them, and an important part of her own satisfaction in herself.
[FIRST PUBLISHED IN SOCIAL & PERSONAL, Dublin, 2002. See The Romance of Urban Elegance]