Tonight, in an early Valentine’s celebration, we were welcomed into the sumptuous fashion theatre of designer Ian Stuart at his Caxton Street headquarters, the Blewcoat School. Outside the characterful 18th Century school house, Jens Jakobsen has created a market stall style floral and vegetal arrangement; swathes of roses, calla lilies and daffodils mingle behind the iron railings with fresh onions and kale. From the grand, regency facade of the school, imposing mannequins in Stuart’s bridal gowns keep watch in twinkling windows to see the evening’s guests arrive…
Inside the open plan school house, the atmosphere is warm, relaxed, and buzzy. I feel as though we are backstage in one of London’s grandest opera houses, and the regal interior of Stuart’s boutique – with its pillars, panelling and decorative alcoves – would not look out of place in the background of a budget-busting period drama. The glittering gowns are displayed almost unassumingly on warmly lit rails, as though waiting for the Prima Donna to come and run her hand along the luxury fabrics and intricate lacework and say “Tonight, I’ll have this one.”
Stuart’s designs are something really special. The craftsmanship one each gown is perfect, from the draping of the silk to the stitching of the pearls, no inch of any gown has been left to chance. The dresses suit these dramatic surroundings perfectly, and there is a definite air of costumier’s artistry in his creations. The collection – a range of bridal, evening gowns and occasion wear in a palette ranging from ivory to blush, deep red to coral pink, lilac to powder blue and elegant grey – evokes a flurry of feminine and romantic themes. In the black lace accents on some evening gowns I see Victoriana and gothic glamour; in the reams of delicate ivory ruffles there is Edwardian prettiness, and in the full skirts and boned corsetry there is an element of Marie Antoinette-esque grandeur.
Amid the relaxed and sociable hobnobbing, our friendly and stylish host Ian Stuart is everywhere – chatting to his guests, getting behind the counter and bar area to manage, floating near to the door to greet or say farewell to those coming and going. A great host creates a good feeling at an event, and the feeling at the Caxton Street boutique tonight was one of backstage exclusivity, but with the warm and informal air of an intimate party. A happy bride-to-be in our midst, soon to be married after 28 years with her beau, has chosen one of Stuart’s breathtaking dresses and an efficient assistant is carefully unlocking glass cabinets to offer a choice of pearl jewellery to go with the gown, as wedding industry insiders hover nearby cooing over the shimmering earrings, necklaces, hair pieces and tiaras which rest safely behind lock and key like the crown jewels.
About half way through the evening there are murmurs of “clear a space!” and we are joined by the beautiful Pumeza Matshikiza, a renowned opera singer from Cape Town, whose otherworldly vocals are usually reserved for patrons of the Stuttgart Opera.
In a floor length ruby gown (with a hint of some subversiveness showing in a tattoo, depicting the African continent, adorning her right shoulder) she commands the attention of everyone in the room, and as she breaks into O Mio Babbino Caro, a hush falls over us all. “When she was sound checking”, Ian Stuart confided earlier in the evening, “we all burst into tears!” – it’s not hard to see why. She sings three arias in a row and is rapturously applauded before being presented with a bouquet of roses, of course.
Pumeza’s appearance is a privilege for the guests and is all part of the fairytale ambience of Stuart’s boutique. Stepping through the doors at 23 Caxton Street is like stepping into the ballroom scene in your favourite storybook, and the feeling of the boutique is of another era – another world – in which you get to play at Cinderella dressing for the ball. An evening of pure magic.