Fashion: People in fashion - In love with de Lisi

If Debbie Lovejoy won't wear it, you won't find it in a Ben de Lisi collection. Annalisa Barbieri meets the muse of a great designer
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT MUST BE tough being Debbie Lovejoy. "She is my ideal woman," says designer Ben de Lisi of his muse and business partner. "She encapsulates what I want from a woman both spiritually and physically. She's strong but vulnerable, shoots from the hip but is diplomatic and I love the composition of her face; she's an unusual beauty." Even her name is glamourous, like something from the Thunderbirds. Lovejoy is unreservedly credited by de Lisi for helping him "make it". Two years after joining his company, he gave her 30 per cent of the company. Today she is his sales and PR director and he designs every piece of clothing with her in mind - and if Lovejoy doesn't like it, it doesn't go in. So this girl gets two collections designed for her every year. And before every catwalk show, de Lisi buys Lovejoy a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes. If de Lisi didn't fish from the other bank, theirs would be a marriage made in heaven.

For those looking for imperfections Lovejoy broke her nose "four or five times" horse-riding as a young girl; just that day (she is in the process of moving house) Lovejoy had found her 1974 diary which contained "today I took a rosette on Misty", and other 11-year-old gossip.

Lovejoy, 35, was born in Hull, and didn't show any particular interest in fashion until after graduating from an English and American Studies degree (having previously done a stint as a truck driver for her father's firm). That summer she was reading an article in 19 magazine about PR, and thought, "'PR that sounds interesting' but I didn't have a clue what it was." But Lovejoy's first job in fashion was working as a sales assistant for Midas, a job given to her by Josephine Turner, now co-owner of A La Mode. "She was very competent," remembers Turner. "Even now, Debbie is one of the most helpful and competent people in the industry."

But Lovejoy knew she didn't want just to sell clothes in a shop. So she went to work at Liza Bruce, as a secretary/receptionist. On her first day Lovejoy had to ring her mother secretly to ask her how to turn on the typewriter, because she had forgotten. After four months, Lovejoy was promoted and Bruce gave her the chance to sell the collection to buyers of stores such as Harrods, Pollyanna and A La Mode. Here Lovejoy remained for six years.

Then she heard of a sales job going at de Lisi and off she went to his shop, Benedetto, in London's Soho, with her CV ready to push it under the door. "But when I got there, his mother was there and she said 'who are you?' and there was Ben, painting in the background and he said 'who's that?' This was not how I wanted it to happen. I was slobbed out and dressed for Sunday." I relay this story to de Lisi who laughs, "Debbie's idea of Sunday dressing and everyone else's is a little different." I can believe this. Years ago, when I interviewed de Lisi himself, I wrote that Lovejoy had an annoying effortlessly chic way of putting things together that made me go home and raid my wardrobe to try to emulate her look. Although a proper interview followed for Lovejoy, de Lisi said he knew immediately that she was the one to hire: "She had that Northern way about her, very straight-talking. I can get caught up in all the glamour of it sometimes, and I didn't need a yes person; I needed someone who could reel me in."

Lovejoy was making enquiries of her own. "One of my stylist friends said that Ben was mad," she remembers. Is he? "No, just driven, he's an emotional animal." However, at the interview, de Lisi took a call from the factory and, in anger he punched the wall:

"My friend's words crossed my mind, but I thought, how mad can he be? Then he put the phone down said, 'Sorry about that. When can you start?' And that was it."

Their friendship grew very quickly, and Lovejoy took over more and more of the everyday running of the business so that de Lisi could concentrate on designing and being creative, which they both agree is what he does best. "Often Ben won't even know there's been a problem until afterwards. I absorb things for him." During the interview she gently chides him when he makes an appointment "Have you checked the diary downstairs?" and "Ben! Don't shout across the street," as de Lisi opens a window to cancel his reservation for lunch in a rather hands-on fashion. This last remark brings de Lisi to heel immediately. But this is no one-sided "organised girl/scatty boy" partnership. De Lisi points a finger at Lovejoy, "You need to call him and her and him before midday," he reminds her helpfully. The bond between them is formidable.

When designing, de Lisi is not only inspired by Lovejoy but she tells him exactly what she thinks - all the clothes are fitted on her. "We used to do it on a showroom model," Lovejoy explains (this is what most designers do). "But they never really tell you what they think. And what looks right on a 16-year-old model isn't right for our customer, who isn't 16." Lovejoy will say if a garment doesn't feel right, or feels tight or baggy in the wrong places."My big thing is, because I have to wear a bra, as most women do, most of the dresses should cover your bra strap or be cut so that the seams will support you," she explains.

It was difficult to know what to wear for an interview with Lovejoy, so in the end I didn't try. She wore a black grosgrain pencil skirt, a de Lisi cashmere top and flat, expensive strappy shoes - Lovejoy is famous for her collection of Blahnik shoes (currently pruned to 60 or so). Her concession to slobbing-out is Joseph sweat pants, with cashmere. And the recent acquisition of a pair of Levi's. "Ha!" says de Lisi, "but she wears them with a white shirt and Manolos."

The Ben de Lisi shop opens at the end of October at 40 Elizabeth Street, London SW1. For further stockists call: 0171 730 2994

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