BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY In the 1970s, Thea Porter’s exotic aesthetic gained a fervent following. Louise Fennell remembers the designer’s glamorous creations and famous clientele.
Thea Porter was the designer who invented the hippie aesthetic of the late 1960s. Her rich, exotic clothes were worn by the famous and the infamous; and her dark atelier, tucked away between a pub and a pornography shop in Soho, became a hub for stars on their way through London.
My uncle met Thea at the Colony Room in Soho – the drinking club beloved of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud – in 1973, when I was 17. Thea needed a shop assistant, and my uncle said he had just the girl. It was my first job, and one I will never forget. Thea was tiny – just five-foot tall – and incredibly bright. She had a halo of henna-ed curls and enormous eyes, and was both shy and sharp, charming and alarming.
She’d been brought up in Syria, and her work reflected the influences of her childhood. This was particularly true of her Soho shop, which opened in 1966 and sold imported furniture, embroidered cushions, and lavish wall hangings. Soon she realised that customers loved her eye and so she started designing herself. Singers and actors would trip from purring limos down a rickety staircase and into a room of decadent wonder. Chiffons and velvets crowded the rails and the smell of Gauloises cigarettes hung in the air. Before long, Thea was making clothes for rockstars: Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, and the Beatles loved her creations, and Pink Floyd wore her jackets on the cover of their debut album.
But it wasn’t all rockers. She worked closely with magazines, including Harper’s BAZAAR, to create photoshoots that captured her signature style. The doomed society beauty Talitha Getty was a fan, as were Elizabeth Taylor, Faye Dunaway, and writer Edna O’Brien. Her dresses have become highly collectable and almost impossible to acquire; Kate Moss is often seen wearing them, as are the Olsen Twins. I was lucky enough to have my wedding dress made by Thea: an exquisite concoction of embroidered white-and-silver lace. It seemed a terrible pity to only wear it once, so I adapted it into a party dress that served me well for years.
Working for Thea taught me about fashion, fame, and fabulousness. But the lasting impression is of a woman who created works of art, and this is how she will be remembered. ‘Thea Porter: 70s Bohemian Chic’ is at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London until May 3. www.ftmlondon.org
The writer Hanan al- Shaykh modelling Thea Porter in 1981
In her Autumn/ Winter 1982 collection, Thea Porter contrasted the sirwal skirt in silk with a brocade jacket and turban
A model in the window
of the shop in 1976 wearing a dress with a print by Sandra Munro
Jane Holzer wearing Thea Porter in 1968
Thea Porter at her Greek Street shop in 1969
A 1971 illustration by Thea Porter