Bohemia, whilst a recurring trend on the runway still today, was first introduced to the London fashion landscape in the late 1960s, when Syrian-born Thea Porter brought her eclectic eye and free-spirited design sensibility to the streets of Soho. Here, we celebrate the life of the late designer and take a look at the history of the label that has shaped how we perceive bohemian dressing today.
With a background living in both Syria and Beirut as well as a passport that boasted some of the globe’s most exciting destinations, it’s no real surprise that artist and fashion designer, Thea Porter reflected a sense of Middle Eastern opulence within her work. Perhaps not always in style and a little less commercial than the clothing designed by the likes of Mary Quant and Biba, Porter stayed true to her hippie-chic aesthetic and ultimately set the tone for the peak of the bohemian fashion movement in the mid 1970s.
At the launch of her career, Porter was primarily an artist and she hosted her first solo painting exhibition in 1961 at the Alecco Saab Gallery in her then-home town of Beirut. After the demise of her marriage in 1964, she moved to London where she worked at Elizabeth Eaton as an interior designer before opening her first clothing boutique on Greek Street in Soho. Arguably the city’s first introduction to the richness of Middle Eastern dressing, her boutique housed the now-iconic kaftans and abayas, high-necked blouses and gypsy dresses that made hippie-chic, well, chic. Tactile brocades, intricate embroidery and a rich colour palette embodied the designs, while delicate sheer silk fabrications hinted at something sultry despite the all-encompassing silhouettes to which they were cut. The result was an exploration of textures, fabrics and colour that ignited the senses in a way that fashion hadn’t been known to do in the U.K until this point.
Porter’s success continued to escalate and she opened her first New York store in 1968 as well as another boutique in Paris, which put her on the map as an international designer; a term less widely used than it is now and one that not only allowed her to appeal to a wider market but that secured her aesthetic as a success. She was awarded the Clothing Institute’s Designer of the Year in 1972.
Much like many-a famous London designer, Porter’s portfolio not only spans stores but also boasts a wealth of stylish women as fans of the brand. From the Empress Farah of Iran to Faye Dunaway and Elizabeth Taylor, Porter dressed some of the most fashion conscious women of her generation and her collections proved to garner a loyal following. Sadly, the designer was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994 and she died in 2000. The Fashion and Textile Museum paid homage to her legacy in 2015 with an exhibition that not just acknowledged but truly celebrated the designer and her works.