Fabric as diaphanous and translucent as silk chiffon, Grecian draping and 27 hours of hand stitching to a fitted bodice. Got that image? Good. Don’t gasp when I tell you it’s made of tissue. When Kleenex’s launched their Ultra Soft range they asked Ben de Lisi to realise this fantasy.
After a timing mix up, I phone the designer’s press office only for de Lisi to answer the call. This seems so refreshing, so him: upfront, polite, endlessly professional and focused. I’ve got 10 minutes to interview him.
A laconic New York accent steers me through the themes of the project. Similar to how he steered his career from East Coast America to London, a project brief was articulated and de Lisi interpreted it adding another dimension. Having been approached by Kleenex as a couture designer, he viewed the tissue not in its original context but as he’d view a roll of fabric with its delicate qualities. ‘There is an iconic feel to the brand, a sensuality. A softness next to the skin and a luxury that I drive for in my design.’ This fashion steeplechase took him just three days using 21 metres of tissue ruched and hand-stitched to a fitted bodice to create a full length organza gown to dress his friend and muse, Lisa Snowdon.
I ask what defines him as a designer after nearly 20 years shaping the British high street with Debenhams, he reflects ‘Simplicity. I don’t pander to theatrics.’ It is this strong design identity which refreshes celebrity dressing with his focus on dressing the woman and allowing the dress work for her. The de Lisi brand has been the choice of Kate Winslet, Rachel Weisz, Liz Hurley and Jemima Khan for some of the most important events of their careers. I ask him who he likes to dress, without hesitation he responds ‘Women with substance’. He continues, ‘I’m a classicist, a traditionalist so my designs transcend time. But they’re evolutionary and modern.’ Perhaps he’s the antidote to our preoccupation with throw-away fashion. Take note, invest time and money and your clothes begin to work for you.
‘Simplicity. I don’t pander to theatrics.’
This design ethos transferred to the high street effortlessly when de Lisi agreed to re-establish Principles for British fashion’s stronghold Debenhams. He tells me ‘There will always be a strata of people who will spend a lot of money. I’m not against luxury, but it’s uncool to splash money. People are losing homes and their jobs. It’s about prioritising’. De Lisi’s created a collection which has the women who buy his clothes as its focus which he interprets as a way to pay back their loyalty and trust by designing a range with a fantastically strong identity to suit them. He’s reintroducing polished, chic, timeless design to invoke a refinement in the way British women dress. Don’t expect utilitarianism and stiff collars, de Lisi’s collection channels a demure sexiness, he cites Sofia Loren, Kim Novak and Natalie Wood as style muses. The collection creates a balance taking you from sharp tailoring to elegant cocktail dresses. He reflects ‘it’s more Hamptons than Blackpool, more Madison Avenue than Oxford Street. Quality speaks volumes’. The range has outdone all expectations since its launch in February.
‘’It’s more Hamptons than Blackpool, more Madison Avenue than Oxford Street. Quality speaks volumes.’’
Ask which of de Lisi’s contemporaries he most admires, he replies Valentino and the classic American designer Calvin Klein. It is this clean-cut American quality which de Lisi has balanced with the specific demands of British fashion. He knows what works and steadfastly refuses to bandwagon. De Lisi’s illustrious career has its foundations in his studies at the Pratt Institute of Art, Brooklyn majoring in sculpture perhaps allowing the clothes he creates to respect the curves they’re dressing. He lists Rothko, Braque, Brancusi, and Arp as inspiration creating a link between his designs and the sophisticated work of his favourite artists. It’s this design approach which has defined him, an intrinsic understanding of how British woman deserve to be dressed but more importantly how they want to be dressed.