Gary James' Interview With Beatles' Memorabilia Collector
Russ Lease has taken a rather unique approach in preserving the legacy and the contributions of The Beatles through the clothes they wore. For example, Russ has duplicated what he calls the Sullivan jacket, which is the suit jacket the group wore on their first Ed Sullivan appearance. He's also duplicated the Shea Stadium jackets The Beatles wore for their 1965 appearance at Shea Stadium. These made-to-order jackets can be found on Russ Lease's web site: Beatlesuits.com
We spoke with Russ Lease about his interest in The Beatles and his business of trying to re-create their stage clothes.
Q - Russ, prior to launching this company of yours, R.W. Lease Ltd. and BeatleSuits.com, you spent twenty-nine years in the men's clothing industry?
A - Yes, I owned a clothing store, a sportswear store in Washington D.C. from the '70s up to about 2001. I closed it up in 2001. Basically on the retail side, but we did some of our own private label stuff. So, I did dabble in the manufacturing end as well.
Q - So, you were a designer then?
A - In a small, limited way, yes. But I was also obviously also able to develop over that long a span of time, to develop a lot of contacts throughout the industry, both in retail and in the manufacturing end of things. So, it obviously benefited me greatly when I went into this. I did have a little bit of design experience and hands-on things of my own. I do a little bit of sewing on my own, although I wouldn't necessarily call myself a tailor. But I sort of know my way around a lot of equipment.
Q - You have a partner by the name of Ron Wine. Was he the big Beatle collector?
A - Well, no, actually I was the big Beatle collector. Although Ron and I did do some collecting together. Ron did provide a little bit of backing when I started the company, although Ron at this point is no longer part of R.W. Lease or of Beatlesuits necessarily, but he is an investor. So that's kind of the part he fulfills. But I've been collecting Beatles stuff from the mid to the late 70s, when the auction houses like Sothebys and Christys got involved in auctioning off things. I've been a Beatle fan my entire life. I am an original, first generation fan. When the auction houses got involved in auctioning personal items off, I became extremely fascinated by the fact that you could actually own something that belonged to them, whether it was clothing or anything. So, I avidly started following the auctions for the first year or two and then as I had sort of extra capitol, extra money to invest, I started buying things. Like I said, this is probably the late 70s and I have spent pretty close to thirty years now collecting one of a kind things, which the whole idea of replicating the stage suits really is a combination of my twenty-nine year background in the clothing industry as well as my passion for The Beatles and my collecting of the one of a kind pieces. And the clothing that I make stems from the fact that for the most part, I own the originals to them. So, in effect I own a pattern. All I have to do is decipher the pattern and create the replicas and I can do it perfectly 'cause none of the original patterns exist.
Q - Besides the Beatles clothing, what else do you own? Do you have autographs?
A - I do have autographs and hand written letters and correspondence and things like that. Some Gold albums. Obviously the clothing. I own the drum head with their logo that was used on the Ed Sullivan Show in '64. The collection does expand a little bit beyond The Beatles. It's primarily Beatles, but, different things like that...performance contracts, artwork from Stuart Sutcliffe and John Lennon. All different kinds of things actually.
Q - You spent big bucks on those things, in other words.
A - Probably not as big as people think, because of getting involved as early as I did. Back in the 70s and 80s, you could pick up a hand-written lyric sheet for a few thousand dollars...$3000 to $5000. I really haven't spent as much as some people. If I had to replace everything today over again, yeah, that would be extremely big bucks. But, fortunately a lot of the things I got, I got fairly early on. Basically I wouldn't be able to afford to replace them today.
Q - How much does Beatles memorabilia appreciated in value?
A - The drum head I've owned for about eleven years not and it's worth pretty easily ten times what I paid for it. I think value wise, we're certainly approaching half a million now...and that's not an exaggeration. That's not necessarily my opinion. That's the opinion of auction house specialists and curators. Some of the things have been the best investments I've ever made, to be honest with you.
Q - Why did you try to replicate the jacket Paul McCartney was wearing at the '65 Shea Stadium Show? Why that jacket?
A - Probably because of the clothing that I owned. I owned Paul's original jacket from that night. It's probably the most famous piece, at least in my opinion, of the clothing. Plus, I always thought it was a neat jacket myself and personally thought it would be nice to have a replica of it. For a while, maybe five or ten years, I kind of racked my brain to try to think of a way that I could make a living sort of combining my experience in my collecting in sort of the Beatle world, to do something. With the clothing background, it just seemed so natural. Plus, I was kind of pushed into it by some Trib (tribute) band people that I knew, who explained to me that nobody had ever done anything like this before, replicated exact stitch by stitch copies of The Beatles stage clothing. The bands who would replicate The Beatles' show really had a hard time coming up with the outfits. What they would do is go to the Salvation Army and consignment shops and buy older, used clothing suits and try to find things from the 60s and 70s. They would buy them and take them to tailors and have them change this lapel and lengthen this cuff and take it in here and try to make it look as English as possible. But, they really never had a place to go where they could buy something off the rack that was an exact copy of some of those early and mid 60s styles. I think that sort of pushed me into it. I made the Shea jacket first, only because I thought it would be the most popular one and that would be the barometer which I would gauge whether this whole thing was feasible. It turned out to be very popular and I did very well with it. So each suit or jacket that we come out with, basically ends up funding the cost of the development of the next one. It's been a little over four years now and things have gone really well so far.
Q - So you bought the McCartney jacket at one of those auctions?
A - Yeah. I picked that up in the early 90s from Sotheby's I believe.
Q - Of course you knew Beatles tribute acts would buy your suits and jackets. But did you think there would be as much interest from the general public?
A - Well, I did know what the ratio would be as Trib bands to Baby Boomer people. But, I really wanted one myself. I thought if I do, and I'm just a fan, I don't play in a Trib band, I would imagine there would be other people who have felt the same way, so I was kind of hedging my bet that if half my sales were to bands, I could probably make the other half to the general public. If it were only bands, I don't think the whole thing would fly. I don't think I would be able to make a living from it. It's probably a break-even prospect, by the time you do all the R&D (research and development), develop the patterns and all that. It's pretty time consuming and a pretty expensive process. If you're only going to be selling to Beatle copy bands, I don't know that there's probably quite enough interest there to make the whole thing work. But fortunately, it's probably only maybe 35% of my business is the Trib bands. The rest of it, 65% is just regular folks.
Q - I'd like to talk about what you call the "Sullivan Jacket", but most people would refer to as a Chesterfield jacket.
A - Right. The reason I differentiated is the term Chesterfield really refers to an English style suit with small lapels and upper velvet collar, of which the Sullivan suit certainly is. It is a Chesterfield, but the difference is The Beatles, probably early in their career, probably had about fifteen different suits, all fitting the same criteria. Sometimes there would be four buttons, sometimes five button fronts. The vents in the back would be a little bit different. Sometimes it would have front pockets, sometimes it wouldn't. But, they would all fall into the category of a Chesterfield suit. The Sullivan suit in particular had a very different collar. The upper velvet collar had a wing to it. It was a wing collar and fans out much larger than the rest of the Chesterfield suits they generally wore on stage. So, I really needed to differentiate that 'cause it was the suit they wore February 9th, 1964 on the debut Sullivan Show and also on the third week too. Both of those things were taped on the same day. I decided I would call it the Sullivan Suit.
Q - How did you come to the conclusion that The Beatles had fifteen different variations of the Chesterfield jacket?
A - Those were rough estimates from conversations I had with Dougie Millings. He made all The Beatles stage clothes. Unfortunately, he's passed away now. I think he passed away maybe five years ago. But, in some conversations I had with him in the early 90s, probably the mid to late 80s as well, I peppered him with a lot of questions 'cause I was always fascinated with the clothing end of it, especially since I had picked up a couple original pieces myself. He didn't know off the top of his head, but that was sort of his rough estimate, that they had about fifteen different Chesterfield outfits.
Q - So, which Beatle Chesterfield jacket did you acquire?
A - Well actually, I don't own one of the original Sullivan suits, although I do have a collector acquaintance that does have one of the originals. That's the only jacket I've made that I didn't own an original to it. For that one, I did have access to it. I was able to photograph it and measure it up and take all the necessary specifications that I needed off of to create the pattern for.
Q - Those jackets were made out of wool, not cotton?
A - Well, they're custom made, so they don't have a material label inside dictating what the blend is or whether it's pure wool or whatever the situation is. But, in looking and examining the fabric, it looks like 100% wool to me, so that's what we're making the Sullivan out of 'cause that would be my best guess.
Q - That Sullivan jacket is a nice look for men.
A - It is. It's actually a very sort of formal look too with the black velvet collar. It you had a black tie situation, the Sullivan suit would work.
Q - Why can't a man go into a store in the United States, the men's department, and find a jacket like that? Why are you the only person making such a jacket?
A - I can't answer that for you. I don't know. It really is sort of cutting edge style now. You would think that some of the major manufactures would have something sort of similar to it anyway. But, it doesn't appear to be the case. I don't know of anywhere you can go to get something exactly like that. I'm sure in England you can find the Chesterfield jacket. The four button fronts and the high lapel is sort of a stylish look now. So, I would imagine in England you can maybe find something similar, but I doubt you'd find it with the collar exactly the way it is on the Sullivan suit.
Q - Women can go into any department store and find the Chesterfield jacket in any color.
A - Women can find anything, because I think for the number of styles made for women versus men, it's gotta be five hundred to one. Women I guess are just considered more stylish and fashion conscious and more the buying public when it comes to things like that. So obviously there's a lot more styles made for them than there are for men. Most men just sort of follow the trend and whatever is out there, they get. Plus, I'm not sure what you would ask for. If you walked into a shop and asked for a Chesterfield jacket, I'm sure somebody in a boutique or haberdashery would know what you're talking about, but the chances of them having it are pretty slim.
Q - You sell these jackets on line and at Beatle conventions?
A - Yeah, I do. I normally have a booth at the Beatle fests, both in Chicago and in New York. There's a show in Louisville called Abby Road On The River, I'll have a booth our there this summer. I do occasional university lectures and slide show presentations, not necessarily to promote the clothing end of it. In those cases, I'm talking more about my collection and the art of collecting and what is out there and the history of things. So I do those kinds of appearances as well. But, as far as promoting the clothing, yeah, I do most of the Beatles conventions around the country and occasionally in Europe too.
Q - Do you own a store as well?
A - Not a brick and mortar store, no. Everything as far as Beatlesuits.com is bought via the internet. We're basically mail order.
Q - That brings up a very interesting question...how can anyone order a suit jacket through the mail? Don't you have to try on the jacket first?
A - It is a difficult prospect sometimes to order a fine tailored coat online or over the phone. For that reason, I don't employ a shopping cart on the website because I want to have a more personal communication with my customers. There are measurements I request from them, chest, waist, shoulder measurements. Knowing how the coats are cut, two of the coats are very European cut, the Shea and the Crosswalk. The Sullivan and the Collarless are cut more fully. So, generally I've been doing this long enough and know the cut of the clothing well enough that if somebody gives me a few key measurements, I can pretty much fit them and hit the nail on the head the first time. Occasionally, we'll have to do an exchange via the mail order, but most of the time we can nail it the first time.
Q - You've said The Beatles tribute acts buy from you. How about any TV or film people? Can you mention any names?
A - I definitely have sold some stuff to some fairly well known people, nobody that I would have the permission to mention. I've sold to some fairly large bands too. I know Doug Fieger of The Knack doesn't have a problem with me mentioning it. Elliot Easton of The Cars in a big fan of the clothing and has a couple of pieces from me. But, for the most part, I would rather keep my customer list private. I don't know that they would necessarily want me naming names.
Q - It would seem Russ, that you have designed most of the jackets The Beatles wore during their career, or is there something else you're working on for the future?
A - Well, there's a number of things we're kind of working on and a few things on the drawing board. The next piece that will be coming out of production is the "Hard Days Night" suit or Gilley's suit is the proper term for it. But, we're gonna refer to it as the "Hard Days Night" suit because I think people would be more familiar with it as the silver grey shark skin suit that they're wearing at the end of the film with the big black velvet collar. So, that will be available the early part of 2006. There's a couple of other suits we have some interest in probably making. The Magical Mystery Tour tops in the "I Am The Walrus" video, the colorful sort of psychedelic kind of stuff. Really after we've sort of exhausted all the well-known Beatle styles, I can certainly see moving out to other aspects of the music industry of the 60s. John Entwistles's Union Jack jacket from The Who in the mid 60s. The Kinks were a sort of a fashion forward, fashion conscious kind of band with the ruffled shirts. It's sort of an endless list of things we could make and that's sort of the big picture of where I see things going eventually.