Annabel Lewis: Say it with a spray of silk flowers

She supplies crystal curtains for Madonna's bedroom, gorgeous trimmings to the likes of Matthew Williamson and Antony Price and ribbons to everybody who is anybody. The woman who is reviving the lost art of passementerie
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The Independent Online

Walk down Old Burlington Street, past the ugly grey slabs of modern office blocks and the grim black boarded-up corner that will be the new Jil Sander store, and you will notice something very special. Outside an old Georgian building, squares of brightly coloured felt tied with waxed flowers cover the sharp spearheaded tops of black metal railings and the doorway is guarded by two May poles twisted with coloured ribbons that dance in the wind. These childish dollops of colour giggle at the very sobriety of this street, sticking two fingers up to everything that is staid and boring. This is VV Rouleaux Atelier. This is the most delicious lifestyle shop in London.

Chances are you might have heard of VV Rouleaux; you might have even popped into the original shop in one corner of Sloane Square to marvel at the trimmings, ribbons, braids, tassels and at the prices of these exquisitely made whimsies. On the other hand, you may not have given a second thought to such trivialities as ribbon. "I opened the atelier to show people all the possibilities of these wonderful trims," says Annabel Lewis, who has certainly proved her point.

You thought ribbons and trimmings were the stuff of Miss Marple's sewing box? Then take a look at the Victorian chaise longue covered in bright sherbet yellow 1920s millinery velvet with two stripes of 1930s ribbon racing up the seat; or the modern chrome chair (£450) covered in fucshia python skin with a flirty silk fringe trimming its seat; or the row of 1930s theatre seats (£1,820) upholstered in shot metallic green "Matrix Leather" and screen printed with a filigree ribbon design. What about cushions covered in dayglo rabbit fur and trimmed with peacock feathers (£395), blue velvet with silver leather fringing (£395), or neutral canvas covered in hand-cut leather and suede leaves? There are handbags made of coiled ribbons or felted wool with flowers, scarves made from wisps of silk tulle with felt polka dots, and felt flower petals strung up into necklaces (£51.50). You want this season's must-have corsage? There's a bouquet of them in silk, hand-painted velvet, beaded wool, or sequinned in fluorescent colours.

"It's fashion antiques, dressing furniture, mixing fabrics and architecture, romance within the boudoir, sculptured elegance, a playground of ideas," says Lewis. "The emphasis is on the revival of passementerie."

And revived it she has, planting the jump leads of her creativity right on to a dead dog of an industry. In fact, some go as far as to say that Lewis has saved the industry and its craftspeople from oblivion, seducing fashion designers and interior decorators with her modern direction. "I'd been a florist first, which isn't bad training, actually," says Lewis, who hails from the Lake District. "We used lots of ribbons, and flower arranging is about improvising, display and the look of it all. But I needed to try something new." She closed her florist's shop in Fulham in 1990 and decided to concentrate on what was an important part of fashion for pre-war ladies after she discovered books of ribbon design and samples dating from 1840. The first shop, in Chelsea, was a success, Conran published Annabel's Ultimate Ribbon Book in 1995, a Marylebone High Street shop was opened in 1999, and her latest outpost is the atelier in Mayfair.

All of this with ribbons? But it's not just the interest in passementerie which Lewis has revived. More important is her resurrection of old skills and techniques and her patronage of craftsmanship, injecting a much needed flourish of gorgeousness into this age of homogenised mass manufacturing. Her products fly the flag of individuality, exclusivity, and employ the old fashioned skills and techniques of the haute couture atelier that struggle to survive. As such, her shop has been a mecca for fashion designers such as Matthew Williamson, Paul Smith, Betty Jackson, and Ben de Lisi, who even asked Lewis to edge his staircase carpet in ribbon.

Now, the atelier is becoming something of a salon for those designers without a central London showroom. "When they haven't got a place to see clients, the atelier provides an opportunity to meet them in a good place," says Lewis. "Antony Price sees clients here and uses the atelier. He's hilarious. He'll come in and root around, using the vintage fabrics, ribbons, and beading." But it's not just respected designers such as Price that Lewis is encouraging.

Alison Young, 26, graduated from the Royal College of Arts last year and uses VV Rouleaux ribbons to put a playful feel into her clothes. "I use a lot of fine ribbons, wires and threads within the initial design process because they are more fluid than pencil line," she says. "They help me create abstract garment ideas." Zoe Bradley, 28, has also been taken under Lewis's wing. Bradley has fans in Isabella Blow, film director Tim Burton's wife Lisa Marie, and Alexander McQueen, for whom she made the aero-ply wood fan skirt and winged corset for his spring/ summer 1999 catwalk show. "What I aim to do with all of my work is to combine fashion and sculpture. The stage is the showcase for my more extravagant pieces but I offer a made-to-order service for clients and I can do that through VV Rouleaux Atelier."

Sometime last year, Bradley came into contact with Lewis who commissioned her to make the pink silk corset with its eruption of red and hot pink silk flowers that spray onto the neck and trail across the bodice for the opening of the atelier shop in November of last year. "She's kindly offered me a meeting point and an abundance of couture materials: hand-painted silk flowers, cut crystals from chandeliers, necklaces, decorations and objects from all around the world," says Bradley. "Annabel is a creative force. She gives you advice and exposure. She's really positive. She makes you believe in your ideas, that there is a market for your work. Annabel would have me fill the shop but I don't have the time and I need a financial backer ­ or else I would!"

Grade II listed, the building was created for the Earl of Burlington about 1720. At the turn of the century, it was an antique furnishings showroom and the silk wall hangings originally fixed in 1906 have since been lovingly restored by Annabel and provide the colour for the front of the shop ­ a dirty sage green. "In about 1720, it would have been bright turquoise," says Lewis, as she leads the way to the back of the shop which is painted neon bright acid yellow, a colour that was inspired by, "a piece of 1920s velvet." An ante-room used by the shop as a fitting room for the designers used to be the King of Norway's personal dressing-room from the time when No 32 was a tailor's work room, and the door still bears his coat of arms. I wonder if he would approve of all this frippery? "Well, I love to use old things in new ways," says Lewis, "reviving old techniques, making them in new colours to emphasise them."

The King of Norway may not be a client but everybody else is. Madonna has ordered one of Annabel's crystal chandelier curtains to go behind her bed. (Handmade by Annabel and employing the crystal cutting techniques of Asprey's top man, it measures 4 x 3 metres). "We did one for Robert Hansen, Sophie Anderton's ex-boyfriend. It was the most extravagant thing we've done," says Lewis. "It was enormous and was made to fit a huge bay window." At just under £6,000 for a small version, I dare not ask how much it cost. Meg Matthews has a horseshoe footstool (£395) covered in chartreuse coloured velvet with gilded wood. Other devotees of the shop include Martine McCutcheon, Joanna Lumley, Kylie Minogue, Yasmin Le Bon, and Joan Collins. "Ivana Trump has our stuff but she gets it off interior designer Robin Anderson," says Lewis. "Oh, and we do all the restoration ribbons for Queen Victoria's clothes on exhibition at Kensington Palace ­ and the Rothschilds."

The list could go on and on. But this is Annabel Lewis we're talking to, a woman so busy she makes Anna Wintour look like a slob. A woman who has become a fairy godmother to craftspeople, taking the humble ribbon and inspiring a whole generation of textile, interior, and fashion designers. A woman who has created what looks like a saucy boudoir set from the film Moulin Rouge in the midst of sober Old Burlington Street. "We're sex on a spool," she says, adjusting the ribbon in her hair. She's not wrong.

 

V V Rouleaux Atelier, 32 Old Burlington Street, London W1 (020-7434 3899, www. vvrouleaux.com)

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