- Russ Lease, with some of his Beatles memorabilia. (Photo courtesy of Lease)
Abbey Road on the River, the massive Beatles festival at National Harbor over Labor Day weekend, brings in tribute bands from all over the world: The Repeatles, a band from Sweden, and Puerto Rico's Jukebox, to name a couple.
Russ Lease knows pretty much everyone on this weekend's bill through his Jessup, Md.-based company, R.W. Lease, Ltd., which manufactures high-quality replicas of Beatles stage suits. Lease sells the designs through his website, Beatlesuits.com.
“We outfit virtually every Beatles tribute band on the planet,” Lease says. “We’re about the only ones who do what we do. It’s a small niche, but if you’re the only ones on the planet doing it, it works out pretty good.
“I probably know most of the bands [at Abbey Road on the River]," Lease continues. "I haven’t met every one in person, but I’ve certainly communicated with them, via email or telephone. Not every Beatles band dresses up—some are sound-alikes that wear their own clothes—so obviously we don’t deal with them as much. But even in a lot of those bands, at least one guy will maybe have on a jacket of ours."
Before becoming a full-time Beatles clothier in 2002, Lease and his brother owned a clothing store in the now-closed Landover Mall in P.G. County.
"I’ve been in the clothing industry my whole life—I’m 55," Lease says. "We were sort of forced out of [Landover Mall], which closed up about 10,12 years ago. Then, we were within a hair of signing a lease at Columbia Mall and, at the last minute, decided we'd had enough of retail hours—30 years of Sundays and weekends! So we thought, Let's reconsider this.
"At the same time, I’ve been a collector of Beatles artifacts my whole life—I collected a number of original stage suits," Lease continues. He owns the jacket that Paul McCartney wore at the famous August 15th, 1965 concert at Shea Stadium in New York—making a replica of that jacket was the first step toward opening the business that he runs today.
"I always thought, well, jeez, if I want a Shea jacket, other people must," he says.
Lease was also encouraged, not surprisingly, by the tribute bands themselves. He's good friends with the members of 1964 the Tribute, who he says "nudged me in this direction."
"None of the bands had anywhere to go to get original clothing," Lease says. "They’d go to consignment shops or thrift stores and buy old suits, then take them to a tailor to ‘English’ them up, but it was never really perfect.
"So, I took the leap," he continues. "I worked up a pattern, did a few prototypes of the Shea jacket, and went into production with it. Every suit jacket I’ve done has been able to fund the next one, and the line just keeps growing and growing. It beats working for a living."
The "Shea" jacket, Lease's first item, is still his best-seller; the runner-up is the "Sullivan" suit, a replica of the style of black suit the Fab Four wore during their first Ed Sullivan Show appearance. Helpfully, Lease offers $25 off of each suit or jacket when customers purchase a set of four.
In addition to outfitting his friends in 1964 the Tribute, he also makes custom clothes for other big, touring Beatles productions, including Rain.
"I do all of Rain’s outfits—I even do custom for Rain," he says. "I do 1964 the Tribute, and the Fab Four, out of Southern California, and Rain—those are the three biggest [Beatles tribute acts] in the country."
Lease estimates that about half of his sales are domestic, and the other half are international. “England, Japan, Australia, all over South America, Africa," he says. "It’s pretty amazing. We just shipped our first suits to an Israeli Beatles band—that was a new one for us.
“It’s crazy sometimes, you never really know where you’re gonna get an order from," he continues. "Since we’re the only ones doing it, if someone wants a Beatles jacket in Uganda, they contact us.”
Lease will have a vendor booth at Abbey Road on the River, which runs through Monday, in case you want to check out his craftsmanship up close. And he's also speaking Saturday at noon in the Chesapeake ballroom about the drumhead from the Beatles' first Ed Sullivan Show appearance—the item is part of his personal Beatles collection.