Lewis poaches in Africa and goes wild in style


WHILE leafing through an edition of The Royal Geographical Magazine (on a visit to the dentist?) Richard Lewis's eye fell on a colour photograph of an African tribe in full - well not too full - dress. He had found the inspiration needed for his autumn collection.

The audience at his show in the Solomon Gallery, in the Powerscourt Centre in Dublin, would have been sure to spot the source, especially as some of the clothes were modelled by an Othello lookalike who particularly suited a blood-red kaftan and gold bracelets. Honestly, men seem to have all the best fashions now.

Poaching in Africa turned out to be a great idea, giving the designer a feeling of freedom and release. A lot of the collection was hardly recognisable as being Richard Lewis, though there were some beaded jerseys. But there were more strong, true colours than usual: deepest grape, poppy red, olive, and black with white.

It was not the colours that put us under African skies, however, but the shapes. And most of these were originally designed for men, especially for beautiful six-footers with oiled black skin like Damon Sylvester, the model. It must have been quite a job adapting to the curvy, white woman, this designer's usual client. But he did it; he certainly did it.

For the drapey garments, the sarongs, zouaves (originally worn by north African soldiers), the baggy apron trousers and the stoles, the fabrics were soft jerseys and silks, often finely pleated. For fitted jackets and regal kaftans, with their sculpted, half-moon necklines, a stiffer damask brocade served its purpose well.

Bernadette Madden had done strange, exotic patterns on trailly bits of silk that Africans are able to adapt into anything from a hat to nightie, (but which in western hands tend to end up as a scarf). Plain gold torcs and other jewellery, added a great deal.

When taken apart, the collection is not impossibly exotic. There are black jersey, fitted dresses and matching cap-sleeved jackets piped in black and white braid. And there" are neat jackets worn with the tight or wide-legged trews, which not only look un-African but would suit anybody, not just a tribal warrior. Come to think of it, a tribal warrior would look daft in any of this.

It is a strong, refined collection - shapely, but undemanding on the figure. It could be good on fatties because there is a curviness to the line. And, of course, a full kaftan is always wonderful camouflage, on men or women - although it has to be said that in blood-red damask it looks particularly stunning on the likes of Othello (alias Damon Sylvester of New York).

Richard Lewis's collection is now available at his studio at 22 South Frederick Street in Dublin, at around £350 for a jacket, £320-£370 for a dress, £140-£180 for trousers, and £575 for a kaftan.

He said he was "tired of making Audrey Hepburn dresses" and wanted to run wild. And a chance flip through an old Geographic gave him that freedom.