when a man loves a woman

He cut his first two collections on a restaurant table. Now Ben de Lisi (left) has twice been voted British Glamour Designer of the Year. As a man, he remains surprisingly down to earth. As a designer, he sends women to heaven
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Indy Lifestyle Online
you look at Ben de Lisi's clothes and you imagine the sort of woman who might wear them. These are not the vulgar, obvious, slip-on-sex-appeal garments beloved of some designers. They are quiet, discreet, mysterious and beautiful. Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca might have worn them. Although the designer behind these sublime creations has twice been voted British Glamour Designer of the Year (1994 and 1995), his ascent has taken ten years of hard work. Today it is difficult to imagine that his first two collections were cut on restaurant tables, pushed together to mimic long cutting tables (his partner owned the Belgravia restaurant), and that he paid one of the waiters pounds 20 to deliver his first order by hand: "I didn't want the buyers thinking I did everthing," smiles de Lisi, although he did.

De Lisi was born in Brooklyn in 1955, but he grew up in Long Island. He studied sculpture and painting, but after graduating he could not find a job, so he answered an ad from a designer who needed fabric painted. "We had an order for 1,000 gingham shirts and I was to paint geraniums spilling from the pockets." He got 50 cents a shirt and he streamlined the process, "until earning 50 cents was viable". He had already had "mini'' collections of his own, designing childrenswear and lingerie while living with his grandmother, a seamstress, which sold to the likes of Bloomingdales, Saks and Bergdorf Goodman. "These were little earners that grandma and I did together, I would design them and we would both sew them, she taught me how to sew."

In 1982 he and his partner came to London and the following year de Lisi started making clothes again, six easy pieces in fine quality wool jersey. He rang up the buyers of stores such as Liberty and Joanna's Tent and got pounds 30,000 worth of orders. Then the slog began. "Between lunch and dinner I'd put all the tables of the restaurant together and cut and then bring the pieces upstairs and sew them together. I did it all myself." How long did it take? "About a month." And what drove him? "I was terribly motivated, very hungry. I wanted to make it. I wanted my own business. I wanted to be famous and successful and I didn't ever want to work for other people like my parents did."

The following season the orders doubled and he got more customers. "I found that very difficult to produce. I was still on my own." But walking down Margaret Street one day he spotted a studio for rent, hired a sample maker and an assistant, and they were in business.

But recognition was a little way off yet. His clothes sold well, but this was the late Eighties and discreet, stylish clothes did not grab the headlines. Neither did healthy sales figures guarantee entry to the fashion club, what mattered was image. "I didn't court a particular image at that time. I was never invited to any parties, the editors that now bang on my doors and die to borrow my clothes never said hello to me, never came to see my collections, never requested clothes, even when I called. And I never forgot that." Like all industries that exude glamour, it's fabulous when you're in, but cold when you are out.

His business partner and muse, Debbie Lovejoy, joined the company four years ago. It is she who is credited with helping him succeed. To the question "did you ever think you'd get this far?'' he answers emphatically: "I did once Debbie joined me, but not while I was on my own. Too many nights of crying my eyes out and getting sick." The collection is designed around Lovejoy "I cut the collection around Debbie, I design everything with her in mind. For me she epitomises what I admire and find attractive in a woman: she's intelligent, attractive, strong, confident and chic. She's not tall and willowy, she's curvaceous." Lovejoy is indeed the type of woman who is effortlessly stylish. When I interviewed de Lisi she was wearing a pencil skirt, satin shirt and Manolo Blahnik mules with kitten heels. Nothing particularly original but she looked so good that when I got home I raided my wardrobe to try to emulate the same look, alas without success.

It is however, always difficult to imagine a man designing clothes for women. How can a man understand what a woman wants, what she seeks to hide or accentuate? "I know women's little hang-ups, that they may not want to show this or that. I know these things from talking to my mother, to my customers, to Debbie. I look at the sale racks of other designers and work out why some of their designs haven't sold. If you see hundreds of trapeze dresses on sale from various designers, you know women don't want trapeze dresses."

De Lisi has made his name around fluid evening dresses, although this is only a part of what he now designs. This season he tiptoed into structure, using duchesse satin to make tailored pieces in conjuction with the tailor Timothy Everest. He even used cellophane (as shown here) which "pushed me one step further, it was not something that was expected of Ben de Lisi". His design process starts with the fabrics, but this is no hit and miss affair. "I do a list of the fabrication groupings that I need to cover, it's quite scientific, I have to have my crepe because it's the bread and butter of my collection, then a jersey or two. I do something which is quite high evening and then I do some linking groups that marry things together." In 1993 he added swimwear to his collection, in the future he hopes to go back into menswear (he designed menswear for a brief spell back in the States).

In March of this year de Lisi held his first catwalk show, showing the autumn/winter 1995 collection from which the clothes featured here are taken. Beautiful women wore his beautiful clothes. It was not high on theatre, but then neither are his designs. It was certainly glamorous. He had received his first British Glamour Designer of the Year award some six months before (he had been nominated many times before). Unlike some designers who shun this annual ceremony (the fashion world's Oscars) or pooh-pooh the importance of winning, de Lisi was childlike in his joy. "I was thrilled. I was on a cloud for days." Now, people flocked to his door.

The irony of this is not lost on de Lisi. Ten years before he had been cutting among the salt and pepper pots, now his designs graced an international catwalk and he had been voted the best in his field. "After the show, Debbie and I packed all the clothes up and brought them back to the studio. We looked at each other quietly and without saying a word we thought, 'it was glamour, glamour, glamour and here we are loading a truck'." He smiles ruefully. "There's always something to bring you back down to earth." But the woman who wears his clothes will not worry about this, for she will always feel like she is in heaven.

8 The Ben de Lisi collection is available from: A la Mode, 36 Hans Crescent, London SW1; Pellicano, 63 South Molton Street, London W1; Alison Harrison, Cheltenham; Scottneys, Leicester; Catherine Barclay, Norwich; Eva's, Ipswich; Bernards, Esher; Pollyanna, Barnsley and Glasgow; Jenner's, Edinburgh; Firenze, Dublin. Enquiries 0171 734 0089