Thea Porter describes the women she designs for as “thirtyish, tall and slim,” but she laughingly adds that “I design clothes that I know will suit me too, so they do just as well for short, fat people.” Whatever their shape, Thea Porter’s customers live a high-society, jet-set life. Their clothes must be dramatic, brilliant and packable, and Thea Porter designs are exactly what they need; the clothes are among the most coveted in the world. How did Thea break into the rarefied atmosphere of high-fashion design?
In 1965, Thea and a couple of friends launched an interior decorating service. “we started the fashion for enormous cushions, and we were just beginning to make a name for ourselves,”‘ Thea reminisced, “when I happened to bring back an antique caftan from overseas. I wanted to use the material in a decorat-ing scheme. Suddenly caftans came in to vogue but the only ones you could get from abroad were either minute or voluminous. So, with the help of a dressmaker, I started making caftans from lovely old fabrics. Then a photo-graph of Fenella Fielding wearing one of my caftans appeared in the Daily Express. More people began wanting them and eventually I decided to bring out a collection which I showed in a Kensington restaurant. I was still mainly a decorator but from then on things started snowballing. I had designed some jackets with masses and masses of braid which the Beatles bought, for instance. At the end of 1967, I took the plunge and started the shop in Greek Street.”
Without any formal training, Thea Porter became a dress designer. She knows nothing of cutting and sewing, and recalls her only attempt at dress-making as a child when she succeeded in cutting through her own skirt! An assistant takes all her designs to the pattern and cutting stage. The import-ant thing, to Thea, is the designing. She describes her philosophy quite simply. Using her hands to emphasise, she explains “you know how a line of poetry sounds right, as if it has been waiting for someone to write it down. That’s how it must be with a dress. It must be a complete entity and nothing must jar —unless clashing colours are an intrinsic part of the design. The shape, colour and fabric should be in perfect harmony. I put together every detail of the dress myself — down to the last button.”
Thea finds that she designs best away from her Soho shop, and works in spurts according to her mood, but she finds it difficult to describe the sources of her inspiration. “My two absolute standards are that I must like the dress myself, and every season I try to bring out five good shape’s. The collections are different every time. It can take me three weeks to do a collection — or three months. Some-times I get my inspiration from a fabric. Sometimes I do a sketch and then choose a fabric. I often buy fabrics without having the least idea of what I shall do with them.”
“I don’t use a method that you could describe”, she continues thoughtfully. “There are so many influences. For example I got the idea for a nautical theme when I was leafing through a book on Victorian painters. To be a designer I think you need a broad culture — certainly my knowledge of the East has shaped my creative thinking. A conventional art course would have been a waste of time for me.”
Thea Porter specialises in glamorous evening clothes and if there is a theme running through her creations, it is that the materials are almost invariably soft, flimsy and graceful and chosen to reveal the contours of the body. She buys them from all over the world: from India, Italy, Switzerland, France and England. She designs some fabrics herself. “I do a sketch, give it to a textile designer to translate, we work out the colours and we have it made up.” Expensive? “Very,” she agrees.
The tiny Thea Porter shop in Greek Street, London, is full of the exotic feeling she translates so expertly into her clothes. Amid the display of dia-phanous dresses, rolls of richly coloured fabrics are heaped on shelves and piled several deep against the wall in glorious disarray. From a battered cardboard box, a profusion of braids and ribbons tumble like wild flowers. A litter of photos, sketches and other paraphernalia are pinned around her desk. The casual atmosphere is typical of Thea Porter’s spontaneous approach to designing. There is, however, nothing at all naive about her ideas and plans for the future.
Until recently, Thea, was thinking on two planes, Britain and America. “The main difference between the two markets is that American women have such perfect figures and they like waisted clothes with plunging necklines.” Now she is working in yet another dimension — ready-to-wear. Not content with this, she is already planning new outlets. “I would like to do wedding clothes, children’s wear and lingerie. But there would always have to be lots of evening dresses. A woman feels different in the evening, more relaxed and prettier.”
Interview by Rosemary Simon.
Photographs by John Carter.
Scanned from Golden Hands Monthly, September 1972