A couturier who took handmade glamour from Sheffield all the way to Hollywood and into the wardrobes of Middle Eastern princesses is back in business.
City designer Lesley Sandra, who from scratch created her own fashion empire back in the Seventies, is sashaying back to the catwalk with a new label and a new look.
By her side is 28-year-old son Brook. It couldn’t have been anyone else. He is the child for whom she gave up a label so huge she dressed stars, employed hundreds and ran two Sheffield factories and a string of six shops - one on London’s prestigious Bond Street.
Some 25 years on, mother and son are giving the fashion game a whirl again. Their label Urban Threads launched its first collection this spring and its edgy, contemporary take on glamour and femininity has already been snapped up by top people’s stores and boutiques across the country.
Highlights from the Urban Threads collection are being sold at Harrods and Harvey Nichols. The famed Cricket boutique in Liverpool, haunt of footballers’ wives, took a huge selection.
The only local stockist to date is the well-respected designer boutique Robinsons of Bawtry. Its whose customers buy labels including Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss. And Robinsons reports such huge interest, it has to keep a record of who buys which piece and for what occasion.
Urban Threads garments make such a strong style statement, Lesley doesn’t want customers turning up to the same event in the same label.
“I love being back in the game, I feel like I’ve come home,” says the still slender and uber-stylish Lesley, clad in her beloved designer black.
“I always adored letting my imagination run free and creating beautiful things. I did it right through to the mid-’80s, but then I wanted to put my family first.” She and Brook, a former Birkdale pupil and architectural student, make the perfect team, she says. He has taken over the role his father Peter Duncombe upheld - being the business brain behind the creative woman.
“Brook is passionate about the field of fashion, it was his idea to do this. We work really well together, though we both have different areas of the business to focus on,” says Lesley, who ventured into fashion as a teen, when she got sick of being a secretary.
Her autumn-winter collection is soon to hit the rails. Samples of it currently hang in her stunning caramel-coloured living room like works of art.
Full-on, red carpet dresses through to partywear and a smattering of casual pieces feature.
Each is a head-turner. Silhouettes are strong, bold and avant garde and colours range from ruby-red and peacock blue to her favoured neutrals - conker, parchment, winter white, dove grey and of course, black.
Texture is all-important. Fabric has always been Lesley’s greatest source of inspiration. There are flurries of fur, spikes and falling trails of ultra-fine, jagged-edged leather, riffs of stiffened tulle and swathes of beautifully draping silk jersey.
Prices range from £90 to dresses around the £300 mark and intricate jackets fashioned from stripped glove-soft leather can reach up to £1,000. Expect to see them adorning our modern-day equivalents of those ’70s divas anytime soon.
From rag trade to motherhood... and back again
She had the fashion world at her feet. Stars clamoured for her dazzling evening gowns.
Lucille Ball, the Three Degrees, Olivia Newton John, songbirds Cleo Lane and Shirley Bassey and Sheffield’s funny girl Marti Caine... All believed no one could turn them out for a Royal Variety Performance or their BBC Saturday night show the way Lesley Sandra could.
Many a Hollywood actress wore Lesley Sandra gowns for their red carpet events and regular orders came from Royal families throughout the Middle East.
But when she hit her 30s, all Sheffield’s most successful fashion designer longed to be was a mother.
The business she had started as a self-taught seamstress from a tiny, rented shop in Heeley back in the Sixties had developed into a couture range of dazzling eveningwear and achieved success beyond her wildest dreams.
By the ’70s, Lesley Sandra was displaying her creations on the catwalks of the most glamorous cities in the world - Paris, Milan and New York. But what she yearned to do was show off a very different kind of creation. She wanted to be a mother.
And finally, at the age of 34, Lesley became pregnant.
“My husband Peter ran the business with me. We knew we’d left it a bit late to have children. When I finally conceived, we were absolutely thrilled. I couldn’t wait to be a mum,” she recalls.
Everything in the couturier’s world seemed complete. But it wasn’t to be. Their baby boy Tyler was born with a rare syndrome and died at just a few days old.
There were many dark days. “It took me a long time to recover,” says Lesley. “In many ways, I still don’t think I have.”
It was three more years before she became pregnant again. She was anxious and scared- and still trying to run a globally successful fashion label. But this time, all went perfectly. She was 37 when healthy son Brook was born.
Elated with parenthood, Lesley decided to retire from the business. The fashion world, all that travel to glamorous places was taking r away from the person she loved most.
“The business had flown so much higher than we had ever hoped it would. It was a magical time, having your clothes worn by the world’s most famous and beautiful women - we heard Princess Diana was one of our Bond Street customers. But it was incredibly hard work.
“When you’re displaying collections at the international fashion shows, you’re effectively on the road for two and a half months, living out of suitcases. I tried it with Brook and a nanny in tow, but I realised I didn’t want it any more.
“Losing babies changes you as a person. You reassess your life. I was so very grateful to be a mother, all I wanted to do was be with my child. I wanted to cook Spaghetti Hoops for my little boy and have tomato sauce down my jumper,” she laughs.
She and Peter closed the business and paid everyone off. Their seamstresses got redundancy pay and a sewing machine a-piece. They sold the factories in Heeley and Pitsmoor and the shops in Sheffield, Nottingham and beyond.
The fashion world didn’t want to lose Lesley, though. She was inundated by offers to become an in-house designer from numerous labels. But she said no and settled into contentment at the family home in Fulwood.
The couple tried for another child. Two years later, daughter Clemmie was born but tragedy struck again; she died minutes after her birth.
There followed numerous attempts at IVF, a treatment in its infancy in those days.
Hopes got raised and dashed so many times, the couple decided they could bear no more, but after Brook turned seven, little sister Gabriella, now 21, arrived and the family was finally complete.
Lesley indulged her creative side by dabbling with interior design, but first and foremost, she was a stay-at-home mother.
But now, over two decades on from her exit from the crazy, hedonistic world of high fashion, she’s stepping straight back into the fray. This time, though, it’s different. By her side is son Brook, now 28.
“I don’t have to choose between fashion and family - I’m doing it all with Brook.”