The Irish queens of Gotham City
Bairbre Power meets three dynamic Irish women for whom New York has offered huge career potential
Published 10/11/2007 | 00:00
Dashing across Second Avenue, I'm late for breakfast with New York's uncrowned queen of shoes, Eileen Shields. She's poised on the brink of a very major hit, so I've lots to catch up on since Eileen was last home for Dublin Fashion Week to showcase her latest footwear collection, with a colour palette inspired by 1920s vintage lingerie.
Down in the East Village where Eileen lives with her husband, artist Mark Orange, and their two young sons, we order coffee and I cut to the quick -- so what's this about you and shoes for Sarah Jessica Parker?
Uptown on the ritzy Upper East side, the paparazzi have been hungrily zoning in on locations for the Sex and the City film, the keenly awaited movie follow-up to the popular HBO series. Public interest in character Carrie Bradshaw and her three friends is huge, especially in what the girls are wearing on set.
New York born but Dublin raised, Eileen Shields submitted a number of sexy shoe styles for possible inclusion in the film and the feedback is that she will rival the stranglehold that Manola Blahnik and Jimmy Choo have had on Carrie's dainty size 37 feet.
Over coffee in Cafe Orlin, where half the Irish in New York seem to have worked at some stage, Eileen reveals: "I submitted shoes for both Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall's characters in size 37 and 39 and they will be filming until January."
Cradling the "Bette"-style shoe (named after Bette Davis), it is a concoction of sexy silver, metallic leather, chic bow and long stiletto heel. Waiting around to see who wears what must be killing her, but Eileen smiles with confidence. Time will tell if her shoes end up on the cutting-room floor. Doubt it. These shoes are so totally Carrie and Eileen Shields knows it.
Arriving in New York when she was 18, the NCAD graduate says, "I spent a year working for Donna Karan, launching and building the DKNY footwear line, and have since done consultancy work with Michael Kors and Zac Posen."
The 9/11 terrorist attack on New York had a huge impact on Eileen and Mark. The towers went down a mile and a half from their home but, instead of the tragedy fogging up their emotions, it had the opposite effect and drove Eileen to act decisively on the desire to start her own label.
She quit DKNY and with a passionate zeal decided, "I was going to do everything I ever wanted to do like start my own shoe label."
Mark, in turn, gave up his job as a graphic artist to follow his dream of working full-time as an artist. The couple got married in Kilcolgan Castle in Co Galway with a chef brought over from OG, their favourite restaurant in the Village to create an Asian-Irish banquet. A year later, their first son, Sam, was born, followed by Jamie three years later.
Six years after 9/11 and Eileen's shoe range, with its distinctive red ribboned pink boxes, is now three years old and all the leading fashion editors took limos downtown for the gallery launch. "We served cocktails and everyone had a great time," she recalls three years later.
"I love working on catwalk shoes. I never targeted stores and every single store came to me to stock my shoes." Now on the cusp of a major commerical success with the SATC exposure, Eileen already has a celebrity fanbase, including Halle Berry, Rachel Weisz, Samantha Morton and Kate Moss. Styles from the line have featured in the hit show Desperate Housewives and will also feature in upcoming episodes of Grey's Anatomy. Exciting times for this dynamic 37 year old, whose global brand is sold at over 500 high-end boutiques across the US, Europe, and Asia. She smiles broadly as she reveals plans to open her first New York shop in Mott Street next February.
"We love living in New York, but I also love coming home during the year to Ireland. I have a shop in Dublin -- 5 Scarlett Row -- in the old city district of Temple Bar,"
Wrapping up our lengthy breakfast so Eileen can get home to her boys, the designer reveals she is exploring other creat- ive avenues, including clothing "but they will be stand alones, not add-ons for my shoe range," she insists.
"I love designing shoes. I want my shoes to wear the woman and not the other way around. If you can feel shoes on your feet, there is something wrong," adds Eileen.
Up in Brooklyn, Nicola Parish, from Clondalkin, is working on her latest PR campaign and achieving an enviable work-family balance.
Emerging as a star performer in the competitive film/fashion pr sector, Nicola originally travelled to New York when she was just 18. "I never went to college in Dublin -- New York was my college," she says as we sip skinny lattes off Fifth Avenue.
"I always knew I would come to live here, but it all happened so suddenly. I was in this job on work experience when they offered me a permanent job. I went out for lunch and my life just flashed in front me. I'd be married with kids and a mortgage and I would never go anywhere. I was terrified.
"I had no money but I applied to an agency as an au pair and two months later, there I was in Brooklyn with a family who have since become like a family to me. Their daughter, Julia, who I minded then, is now one of my best friends, godmother to one of my daughters and helps me out if I have a big film premiere where I need someone who can actually get a celebrity onto the red carpet, over to the media. "When I came to New York, I faked an American accent because I never liked being a silly Irish novelty, with people joking, 'Oh, say, there's a leprechaun in the field,'" says Nicola, whose surname was O'Connor before she married her actor husband, Scot Parish.
"I think I was always destined to own my own business here because I am very driven and very independent. Ultimately I would like to grow the business and make it a global company. I am very picky about what clients I take on. My office is located close to my home in Brooklyn and I work with fashion companies and top lingerie companies like Belabumbum, Sexy Panties and Naughty Knickers.
"I do film premieres and fashion accounts and I can earn much more than I did before plus I have time with my family. I have a fabulous personal life and working for myself, I can make time for my daughters, Keeley (4) and Teagan (17 months), or bring my staff out for lunch or even get our nails done."
Discreet about discussing the VIPs she dresses for premieres (her cell phone is groaning with mobile numbers that most PRs would kill to get their hands on) Nicola recounts the circumstances of meeting actress Jennifer Connelly at her gym in Brooklyn.
"I was nursing my daughter when this woman came over with her child and said, 'Can I join you.' I looked up and said to myself, 'Of course you can you gorgeous Oscar-winning actress.' Since then we have become friends and she is a total sweetheart. I think the main difference between New York and Ireland is that people here work to live rather than live to work like so many people do at home. I am a people person and I love what I do and find it easy to make friends here, which is important for anyone coming here to work, " said Nicola.
Lap of lux
New girl on the block, model Alison Canavan from Castleknock, has been in New York for four years, but has packed a huge amount into her life, which sees her criss-crossing the globe on major international assignments.
"This is one of my favourite restaurants in New York," she declares, as she tucks enthusiastically into brunch at the Central Park Boathouse, across the park from her apartment. "My boyfriend [former rugby player Victor Costelloe] calls me an alien because I eat so much," she laughs.
On the cusp of her 30's, Alison is in an enviable position. Signed to Morgan in Dublin and Click in New York, Alison achieved world status when she was chosen as the face of Lux soap five yars ago. As a result, her face appeared on millions of bars of soap around the world. Was she paid a fortune, I ask nosily? "Yes, I got a lot of money, " she says with a smile, too well mannered to discuss vulgar greenbacks.
Now TV work is beckoning with a pilot in the offing. Cautious about discussing things before she is actually sitting in the presenter's chair, Alison admits the new career plan will involve a lifestyle TV show.
With a large circle of friends now, Alison says that getting involved in the Irish Network NYC organisation, which caters for young Irish professionals in town, was a major factor in helping her get to know people .
"There is a huge Irish network but nothing for the young Irish professionals who came here in the last few years. It has been brilliant and very helpful for me. We have speakers over like David McWilliams and John O'Shea, who I got to know when I went out to Calcutta to work with Goal a few years ago.
"Moving to New York can be extraordinarily scary. I come from a very close family. I have four sisters and I could have been very lonely here but I'm always travelling and meeting new people."
Work is certainly exciting. "I ended up in the movie The Devil Wears Prada (on a magazine cover at a crucial moment in the plot for Anne Hathaway's character) and recently I did a modelling job so you could see me on Ugly Betty soon."
Our eyes will be peeled!