Fashion: The main event

Leeds couture designer James Steward at his studio in Farsley. Picture by Tony Johnson
Leeds couture designer James Steward at his studio in Farsley. Picture by Tony Johnson
  • As he prepares to unveil his new collection, James Steward tells Stephanie Smith how it’s all about the Big Dress.
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As fashion jobs go, creating fantastical gowns and costumes for children’s television programmes is on the unusual side, but then, James Steward has become something of a “secret weapon” designer.

He’s been working on a CBBC show called Marrying Mum and Dad, a reality series in which children come up with a theme and arrange all aspects of their parent or parents’ wedding – including the dress and other Big Day outfits.

Hollie wears Bengalin pencil dress with silk optical pattern back, �295; Clare wears bias cut crepe maxi dress with floral cowl top, �325, and Tasha wears Bengalin pencil dress with silk floral pattern back, �295.

Hollie wears Bengalin pencil dress with silk optical pattern back, �295; Clare wears bias cut crepe maxi dress with floral cowl top, �325, and Tasha wears Bengalin pencil dress with silk floral pattern back, �295.

So far he’s created a frilly flamenco dress for a Spanish themed wedding – “I was very pleased with that one,” he says – and a superheroes one (“Everyone was in Lycra and bodysuits”).

He has just finished work on an Alice in Wonderland-inspired wedding, which can be seen when the series returns in the autumn. James Steward has made a name for himself as a “go-to designer”. He specialises in making gowns and dresses for women who want something that makes them feel really special, something out of the ordinary, and something that suits them (because it was created especially for them, usually). Most of all, they want something that makes them look and feel fabulous.

When it comes to special occasions, Steward understands what women want. “When you’re happy wearing something, and you feel comfortable wearing it, it radiates from you,” he says.

A bespoke designer now for 15 years, he has created pieces for Kylie Minogue and Victoria Beckham, as well as for many soap stars, in particular making dresses for Coronation Street weddings.

Isabelle wears 3-D structured cream vintage inspired midi dress in silk satin with hand-stitched floral applique, price on application.

Isabelle wears 3-D structured cream vintage inspired midi dress in silk satin with hand-stitched floral applique, price on application.

For a number of years now, he has created gowns for Mr Selfridge and former Coronation Street star Catherine Kelly, so if you spot her on the red carpet in a fabulous number, it’s usually a James Steward Couture. He dressed her for the Olivier Awards a few weeks ago.

Originally from Hull, Steward trained at the Kent Institute of Art and Design, after which he worked with couture houses in Italy and with Ben de Lisi in London. He launched his first collection at Aqua in Leeds, then began his own label working from his own small studio in Farsley, Leeds, later moving to a larger one close by, which he now shares with milliner Beth Hirst (they create outfits together).

Twice Yorkshire Brides Couture Designer of the year, Steward’s weekends are mostly taken up with wedding dress appointments. “Everybody seems to be going for nude dresses and pinks for the bridesmaids. Wedding dresses tend to be the sort of dress that I do, which is a lot more fitted than the traditional style with netting.”

Fabrics he’s using a lot of at the moment for weddings include soft tulle and chantilly lace. “Because I love what I do, it doesn’t feel like a job,” he says. “I’m quite happy coming in on a weekend. It doesn’t feel like a chore.”

Clare wears 3D snake-front evening dress made from sateen silk and georgette. Made to order, price on application

Clare wears 3D snake-front evening dress made from sateen silk and georgette. Made to order, price on application

Steward will be taking part in this year’s Great Yorkshire Show, his designs on the catwalk in the Fashion Pavilion for the first time in 10 years. “The collection I’ve done is based around the races, so it’s quite formal, cocktail style dresses and evening dresses as well,” he says, adding that, for the first time, he will also be showing a collection for men.

“I’ve been doing menswear for about eight months, basically because I do my own T-shirts and sweatshirts, and when I wear them, people are like, ‘oh, where can I get one?’” They feature applique detail and cost from £28 for the tees, while sweatshirts cost between £40-80.

There’s clearly a huge demand for Steward’s designs (he’s been in talks with a stylist who works with a number of A-list Hollywood stars) but he has no plans to leave Leeds. “I think in London I’d be a small fish in a big pond,” he says. “I’ve made a name for myself now and I’ve been here for 15 years. A lot of people in the North are looking for something bespoke but there isn’t really anywhere to go and get it, apart from down South. I don’t think I’d leave my customers.”

Back to that Big Dress, and those magical creations that he is constantly making for his lucky clients. Steward, after all, knows exactly what a beautiful bespoke gown can do. He says: “It gives someone a new character or a lease of confidence. I think, if I can achieve that, and if someone is happy, that’s my job done.”

Tees and sweats by James Steward, with prices starting at at �28 for the tees and �40 for the sweats.

Tees and sweats by James Steward, with prices starting at at �28 for the tees and �40 for the sweats.

• Twitter: @yorkshirefashQ

• James Steward’s collection can be seen at the Fashion Pavilion at the Great Yorkshire Show July 14-16. For details about James Steward Couture and about the full bridal party and special occasion service he runs in collaboration with milliner Beth Hirst, go to www.jamessteward.co.uk.

CREDITS

Photography: Doug Jackson Photography; Venue: Pickering Station courtesy of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway; Models & Fashion Show Co-ordination – Morton Gledhill, The Fashion Team; Hair & Make-up – Bradford College.

Catherine Kelly arrives for a ball in aid of the Elton John Aids Foundation in 2011 wearing a dress created for her by James Steward

Catherine Kelly arrives for a ball in aid of the Elton John Aids Foundation in 2011 wearing a dress created for her by James Steward

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