Wednesday 26 July 2017

Still in fashion: Staying on the catwalk has been no cakewalk for Paul Costelloe

The Limerick-born designer has survived tough times in 2009 and 2011, but he hasn't cracked the US or the Chinese market yet. He spoke to John Reynolds

Paul Costelloe by Paul Young
Paul Costelloe by Paul Young

John Reynolds

When Limerick-born fashion designer Paul Costelloe launches his latest range on the catwalk of London Fashion Week next month, there will be lots of things competing for attention.

Arguably the media, the fashion industry and general followers will be as obsessed with who is sitting in the front row of the show and who's wearing one of his latest creations on the way in, as they'll be with the clothes themselves. While he's not saying who might be there on the day, among his most famous clients are Kate Middleton's mother Carole and the Queen's granddaughter Zara Tindall.

His triumphant return to the catwalk in February after a number of years' absence was notable for former Made In Chelsea star Millie Mackintosh, model Yasmin Le Bon, actress Donna Air (girlfriend of Kate's brother James Middleton) and our own Miriam O'Callaghan all being photographed in attendance.

The late Princess Diana was also famously a client.

"Being associated with her really boosted my career. I perhaps didn't realise by how much at the time - but I didn't seek to exploit it. I went to Kensington Palace with some designs and we did some fittings. It was amazing and I became quite friendly with her," he recalls.

The 70-year-old father of seven likens catwalk shows to a game of poker.

"It's similar in that you don't show your hand until the last minute, and you're keeping people in suspense about your next move, what you're going to do, and it'll tell them whether you're in the game any more. It's very humbling and it keeps you on your toes.

"It's the most important thing I do twice a year. I'm very hands-on. I do all the designing and select the fabrics. It's very important for my profile. If you don't show, you can be forgotten very quickly," he explains.

"That catwalk experience has to have a certain magic. It's becoming like cinema or theatre, although I think at some stage it might result in a greater tendency to showcase designs solely to shock the audience."

We meet in his modest and slightly untidy studio in a Georgian office building (where Charles Dickens lived for a number of months in 1864), in London's Marylebone district. Sketches for the forthcoming show are pinned to one wall, while a long rail along another is full of winter coats and jackets from the previous show. In another corner are the stencils and toiles (prototypes for the latest designs). He shows me a Swiss-made light purple neoprene-like man-made fabric, from which one of his catwalk creations will be made.

"I'm quite controlled and I look at fashion from a marketing, design and business point of view, rather than the creative side. I'm specific about quality, colour and design. I'm not afraid of colour. I was always good at expressing colour on paper.

"I was a natural painter, but I don't think painting would have earned me a living. That's a gift I was given; I didn't train and luckily I've been able to exploit it."

And exploit it he certainly has. His range of products currently notch up annual sales of €21m. His biggest client - Dunnes Stores - sells his homewares, furniture, jewellery, ladieswear, menswear and accessories. A menswear range is also sold in House of Fraser and John Lewis stores and online. All this from what is essentially a two-man operation - just him and a multi-skilled business manager, with occasional help from two of his children.

The relationship with Dunnes has existed for almost a decade. It began in homeware before expanding into items such as menswear over the past few years. Gradually there's more competition from other designers within the stores - such as Carolyn Donnelly, or Sonya Lennon and Brendan Courtney, who have just announced plans to sell a range there - and the rivalry helps to keeps him focused, he says. He meets regularly with CEO Margaret Heffernan and works closely with the buying and design teams at her head office in Dublin, often travelling with them to visit the factories that make the products.

"We're looking increasingly to Europe for manufacturing all of my range. The homeware is made in Portugal. My ladieswear and fabrics are made in Italy, near Ancona, in an amazing family-run factory," he explains. Handbags he designs for English firm Lloyd Baker are currently made in India.

"It's a very nice way of learning about countries, by working with the people," he adds.

Who are the typical customers for his products?

"Dunnes have customers who come in solely for my products. In homeware especially, people are very astute when it comes to judging quality. They're looking for authenticity and at a product's history. They are cautious in their spending too. They love the fashion drawings on my ceramics.

"Women buy most of my products, including menswear, I think. We seem to be attracting people in their 20s and 30s too."

Painting helps to inspire him with ideas, as does travelling. He's an avid people-watcher, with an eye out as he cycles into his studio from his home in south-west London, or as likely, his fellow passengers on a plane to Milan or while exploring Marseille's Arab quarter, which he visited recently.

He believes he inherited his feel for fabrics from his father, a self-made Limerick man who went from sweeping the floor at the Switzers department store to owning a factory that made raincoats in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines.

"He had these wonderful hands and a feel for them, like me. Everything I touch and make clothes from has a specific softness to it," he says, handing me a heavy soft woollen coat to feel.

His American mother was "tall, glamorous and opinionated. I was brought up in Dublin, but I always felt I was really brought up in the middle of the Atlantic somewhere, and that influenced me."

As well as inheriting her height - he's six foot four - he can also be quite opinionated. Among those he has criticised over the years are rival designers (he dismissed one rival's design for airline uniforms as "slapper stuff"); Enda Kenny (for not wearing a tailored suit); and in 2001 he slammed all Irish women - who he said were "only a couple of generations out of the bog… and wouldn't know style if it tottered up to them in 10-inch heels."

Ahem.

"I believe in saying what I want in a humorous way, if possible. People shouldn't take fashion too seriously. If perhaps it's turned me into a bit of a celebrity, then I find it entertaining," he says.

His main rivals are Paul Smith in menswear, Max Mara in ladieswear, Jo Malone and The White company in homeware. Others include fellow Irish designers Orla Kiely and Louise Kennedy. He particularly admires Dolce & Gabbana. "I love how they market their image - it's Italian living, family and food, eating and entertaining. They have it really right. I respect that a lot."

The larger high street clothes retailers are "not exciting, they're fighting in a battlefield, and becoming ever more conservative, because they're led by accountants," he claims.

Kiely used to work for him, in his first store in Dublin's Drury Street in the early 1980s. Having left school without qualifications ("I was a bit of a dreamer"), he found work with a French designer in Paris, then an Italian department store, before gaining further crucial experience in the US - but he chose to return to Dublin to try to make a name for himself.

"I developed a very loyal following in Drury Street, because I was slightly ahead of my time, and the clothes were beautifully made. It was a trendy little place. Orla was the best girl for opening the shop on time," he recalls.

In London in the 1990s he had shops in Knightsbridge and Covent Garden, but "retail has always been a bit of a challenge, even just one shop," and he no longer has any. It wasn't the only challenge he's weathered over the years. He admitted in a previous interview to complacency about the business during the early and mid 2000s when sales reached £18m.

But an Irish distributor of his jewellery going into receivership in 2009 took its toll. Then there were further difficulties in 2011, when the British firm that made and sold his ladieswear under licence, went into administration. There was a legal battle to disentangle himself from the latter's difficulties, and it affected his confidence and his creativity, he recalls.

"Financially I was under a lot of stress. My confidence was very low, and my designing reflected that. I now have the final say in any contract I sign regarding my name and products.

"A number of UK investors took an interest in backing me, and there were two years of negotiations - but it would've been like handing over my baby. None of the offers were attractive enough, so I took the harder route, but the one I was more comfortable with," he recalls.

He believes diversification is crucial to his survival, and while taking on small commissions (such as packaging design) is one way he does this, he still hopes to crack the US and Asian markets.

"With the huge Irish-American population, it should work, but maybe I haven't tried hard enough, or am not hungry enough, despite understanding American style and their attitude to materials."

He will be in China though, through his House of Fraser menswear line, in three stores in cities with a combined population of 45 million.

"I'm looking at a few projects there, but there's a lot of talking. As a very small company, I can't afford to commit a lot of time if my efforts there don't bring results. But the future is Asia. Young people in this industry should be out there."

His belief that young Irish designers still need to leave Ireland to make it today is informed by his own experience.

"I wouldn't have survived as a designer without leaving Ireland. Living in London has enabled me to survive and stay actively aware of everything that's relevant in fashion. The very best products in the world are here."

He doesn't regard himself as hugely successful, saying it's been more about survival. Any money he's made has been spent on his homes, his family - and in particular on private education for his children (which is quite a sum, as there are seven of them).

As to what will happen to the business in the future, he's in no hurry for any of his children to take the reins.

"I'm considering it, but I've certainly got another decade left. I'd be reluctant to hand over the design side, because it's so instinctive. I wouldn't mind one of them following in my footsteps, but I'd want to stay in control."

He's not going out of fashion just yet, it seems.

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