Alexander the great

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Designers

Words by Clare coulson Photography by Fay Elizabeth Harpham

hen Alexander Lewis was growing up in San Francisco, attending the Catholic school Stuart Hall for Boys in his neat tailored shorts and knee-high socks, he already had fashion goals. “I was about four or five, but I was very conscious of clothes. My parents used to take me to a shop called Young Man’s Fancy, which was like Savile Row but for kids, and I used to really enjoy that experience.” By the time he was studying at Harrow in London, he was thinking about a career making the sort of precise, tailored clothing he loved.

Today, Lewis, 30, perches on a stool in his snug Knightsbridge studio, a stone’s throw from Harrods – a store where, a few years ago, he worked as a personal shopper for “a very particular, very demanding” group of clients, putting together wardrobes for their globetrotting trips. There, he realised the appeal of clothes that were less about seasons and more about situations – an idea that was central when he launched his own label in 2012.

“I would have customers ask me to make up a suitcase of clothing for a week on a yacht, or skiing. I’d put together the looks for their entire trip,” says Lewis. “The idea that people were shopping based on their travels resonated with me – it’s how many of us shop, too.”

Weaving a destination spirit into his collections also chimed with Lewis’ nomadic upbringing. He was born in Chicago to an American father and Brazilian mother, but grew up between San Francisco, London and his family holiday home in Bahia, Brazil.

A South American sassiness has always been at the centre of the brand. For Lewis’ debut season, his sister served as his fit model. “It was really important that those pieces, which have now become signatures, were fitted on a real girl’s body rather than a model. She’s tall and slim, but she has curves. And there’s definitely a confidence that Brazilian women have in their bodies.” One of those very early designs, the sleeveless Giovanna shift, featuring cut-outs around the ribs, has since become a signature with its playful but elegant voids.

While Lewis’ slick, sensuous aesthetic has been winning over fans (and a sizeable roster of private clients, including Keira Knightley), he had anything but a standard entrée into the industry. He originally studied communication and business at the University of Southern California. In his final year, he attended a symposium and met fashion historian Cameron Silver, the charismatic owner of vintage boutique Decades. A part-time job there and a thorough two-year grounding in fashion history followed. Silver’s incredible inventory of couture stock was a seductive introduction to this intersection of Hollywood and fashion. “At that time, Decades was so powerful in the industry,” recalls Lewis. “Vintage was still on the rise, and design teams were coming in the store buying product for inspiration. There was also a lot of vintage on the red carpet back then. It was my Fashion History 101.”

Through a friend, Lewis then got a gig assisting André Leon Talley, American Vogue’s Contributing Editor, who was working in LA. “It was quite an experience,” admits Lewis. “The pace I had to work at was something else.” But he absorbed Talley’s passion for film, music and fashion and was encouraged to hotfoot it back to London once he really knew he wanted to do design.

Lewis set his sights on Savile Row, as it was “the closest you could get to being in a Paris atelier in the 50s”. On the advice of the MD of Kilgour, he enrolled on a three-year tailoring course at London’s Newham College, from where the Row’s historic houses hired most of their apprentices. Within three months, Norton & Sons’ Creative Director, Patrick Grant, had offered him an apprenticeship.

Rather than easing into this over four or five years, Lewis was thrown in at the deep end. “Norton & Sons was becoming very popular and the head-cutter, David Ward, was overrun by orders. They needed me to step up to do the work straightaway.” Lewis spent three months learning from an under-cutter and then took over his position. “It was scary – the clients were very discerning and were paying a lot of money. But it was an amazing fast-track.”

After two years, and keen to start his own company, Lewis still wanted experience at a brand, so he crossed over to Norton & Sons’ ready-to-wear offshoot, E Tautz, where the small team meant he could work across numerous roles, from sales to brand development to collections.

In retrospect, it’s clear how all these building blocks have fed into Lewis’ work now. His collections have a tailored feel, a respect for materials and a deep love of craft – such as the use of shibori (Japanese tie-dye), which he made at home in the bath, and a jacquard created to give a lighter alternative to denim.

Four seasons in and Lewis is busy perfecting past hits for AW16: a cropped leather biker, reborn as a more streamlined, formal leather jacket without lapels; a simple tee, reworked with embroidery and buttons at the back, so that it can be turned around and worn as a plush evening bolero; and his best-selling cotton shirt dress, which is being laboriously refined. “This collection is quite focused on separates, or pieces that look like separates. We’ve spent time tweaking, making sure that everything is right,” says Lewis.

One of this season’s starting points is also the insouciant, understated style of 90s ingénues, such as Winona Ryder, Drew Barrymore, Sofia Coppola and Martha Plimpton. “There was a casualness to how girls dressed at that time. When we look at it now, it looks so cool, so laid-back,” enthuses Lewis.

It’s a spirit that reverberates through a flowing long-sleeved plum satin dress; simple, open- backed crêpe de Chine blouses; and snug little knits in mohair or a waffled Geelong wool, and chunkier, oversized cardigans, that are all produced in Wales. In fact, everything is made in the UK; a move, says Lewis, that’s based on many reasons, not least the logistics. With a small team, he can’t afford to spend time away from the studio – and all his manufacturers can be easily visited by Tube or train.

The making is what makes Lewis tick, whether it’s seeing knit production or dreaming up inventive surface decoration. His fuss-free silhouettes are the perfect foundation for exploration. This season, they range from a sci-fi, quilted lilac plastic layered on fleece, to dynamic metallic embroidery, all inspired by the brash, kaleidoscopic aesthetic of Japan’s pachinko parlours and retro pinball machines. The Far East also crops up as inspiration for lush blossom jacquards that Lewis has designed – some blown up into more abstract camouflage prints in coral and dusty pink.

This is also the label’s second season as part of the Swarovski Collective, so the AW16 collection includes crystal embroidery in neat sprigs on clean-cut skirts and dresses; crystal transfer badges that echo those gaudy pachinko-parlour emblems; and a shimmering, light crystal fabric in midnight or pale lilac pink.

“This is a whole new arena for me to try stuff out,” says Lewis of his collaboration with the Austrian house. “It’s a great way to experiment – I love applying innovative materials to something simple.” As a result, he has deconstructed his Giovanna dress into a top for this season, using Swarovski’s fine crystal fabric.

For Nadja Swarovksi, he is the perfect collaborator. “There is a real warmth and elegance to Alexander’s designs,” she says. “We were drawn to his enthusiasm for working and experimenting with the various shapes, colours and applications of crystal.” Swarovski cites a silk-organza gown speckled with different cuts and shapes of crystal as a standout in his light-themed collection.

However, the customer is always at the heart of Lewis’ ethos. No matter how much he loves to try new techniques, his private clients provide the very best research. “They are all over the world, so I see how they buy into the collection in different ways. And I get their feedback in comparison with other brands they have.” It’s what keeps Lewis closely attuned with what his customer wants. And so far, they keep coming back for more.

Alexander Lewis is presenting today, from 11.30am to 1.30pm, in N1

Clare Coulson is a fashion writer


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