Richard Lewis obituary: Fashion designer who knew what worked for Irish women
Dublin designer affectionately known as the ‘King of Cling’ for his use of matt jersey
Designer Richard Lewis after receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons.
Born: September 6th, 1945
Died: September 27th, 2018
The veteran designer Richard Lewis was one of the Irish fashion industry’s best-known names and one of its longest survivors. He was 73 and had been suffering from cancer for the past two years. Affectionately known as the “King of Cling” for his signature use of matt jersey and silk crepe – fluid fabrics in solid colours – he forged a successful career in Ireland for more than 50 years before closing his business in 2016.
For decades, his twice annual collections always featured those sinuous silk jerseys in jewel colours and softly tailored cardigan jackets, tunics and coats. A popular figure in Irish fashion circles, with a modest and unassuming personality, some of his most devoted followers were socialites Terry Keane, Miranda Iveagh, Mary Finan, Tona O’Brien and other fashionable Dublin women. He made wedding ensembles for Finan, Marian Finucane, Sharon Bacon and Emily O’Reilly and many others.
“I bought something from every collection and would never part with anything. He was the only person who could make a woman look attractive in a boardroom suit,” recalled Finan.
I am tired of skinny dresses and ugly shoes. I hate short sleeves. Hate centre back slits. Hate slouch
Showing in venues such as the Abbey Theatre, Christchurch crypt, the Freemasons’ Hall, the RHA, No 10 Ormond Quay and the Hallward Gallery, Lewis’s discreet elegance made him stand out from others and he remained fundamentally true to that aesthetic for his entire career.
“I am tired of skinny dresses and ugly shoes. I hate short sleeves. Hate centre back slits. Hate slouch,” he said in 2008 on receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at Dublin Fashion Week.
From Drimnagh, the son of a carpenter and a dressmaker who made school uniforms and nuns’ habits, Richard Patrick Lewis studied fashion design in the Grafton Academy – the only male in the class – and after graduation in 1965, set up in business in a small boutique, hiring a machinist and starting to make dresses, the first in white silk crepe. Considered avant garde for his use of softer materials and influenced by designers of the time, including British designer Ossie Clark and Biba’s Barbara Hulanicki, his fluid style steadily evolved and in the 1970s he moved to a shop at 120 Baggot Street in Dublin. “We sold mini dresses, maxi coats and matching trousers and played Ravi Shankar all the time,” he recalled.
In 1977 he moved with his partner Jim Greeley, a former psychiatric nurse, to a salon on South Frederick Street in Dublin city centre where he was to remain for the rest of his career. The pair had met volunteering for the Samaritans and Greeley became central to the operation, organising show venues and publicity and generally running the business. In 2006 Greeley died suddenly of a heart attack, a devastating blow both personally and professionally for Lewis, a loss from which many close friends say, he never really recovered.
One of his most successful dresses (beloved of Miranda Iveagh and Terry Keane who bought two) in black jersey with a plunging neckline embellished with jet beading was designed in 1979 for model Sharon Bacon, a favourite of his on the catwalk. It was revived at a show in 2008 in slinky red jersey and its success, according to Bacon, lay in its narrow cut and the precise fit of the waistband which anchored the décolleté keeping it in place.
Bacon first modelled for him at 17 and remembers the timeless elegance of his clothes. “He could dress anybody, any size, any height and would always make them look their very best. He loved women and thought they should embrace their curves and that informed his approach to design. When others would show something totally different each season, he kept his own handwriting, so anybody could recognise a Richard Lewis garment at a glance. His clothes went on forever,” she said.
He knew what suited Irish colouring, claiming that “anything red or burnt orange is always best for the Irish complexion. The only shades of green that sell are olive and jade”.
His clients appreciated tailoring that flattered the female figure and for one 1930s-inspired collection he took a novel approach using mannequins rather than models and a video. He regularly collaborated with textile artist Bernadette Madden and used jewellery by Jean Cashman. His “Priest Dress” of 1992 was accessorised with crucifixes long before such sacerdotal items became a catwalk trend.
Respected in the Irish fashion industry, he was a longstanding member of the Irish Council of Fashion Designers founded by Eddie Shanahan who organised a special retrospective of his work in Brown Thomas three years ago, and a 50th anniversary fashion show on his retirement. “He knew his customers and was true to his vision and was admired for his longevity and ability to survive,” Shanahan said.
“It feels like the end of an era,” commented designer Peter O’Brien, a close friend for many years. “He made these wonderful gentle clothes that were timeless. He was resolute in his taste and his jerseys were fantastic, and in an era of throwaway fashion, people wore his clothes and kept them – that is a pretty good legacy.”
Richard Lewis is survived by his sister, Mary.