Wednesday 17 December 2014

cecily: The essence of excellence

'She loved making other people look beautiful' said Hilary Weston recalling her best friend Cecily MacMenamin who died last week. When Galen Weston bought Brown Thomas in the Seventies for £300,000, Hilary and Cecily began to tackle the staid old department store. A former model, Cecily set up Private Lives, a boutique-within-a-boutique, creating the first personal shopping service in the country, dressing glamour queens like Terry Keane and Miranda Iveagh. Emily Hourican remembers her

'Delicious and divine." Cecily MacMenamin uttered these words so often, they became her catchphrase, something recalled with smiles and tears last week by her daughter Sarah, and many of the people who worked with her over the years, from her time as a model, to the years in which she transformed Brown Thomas from an old-style, slow-paced department store into one that can hold its own with the best in Europe.

That transformation wasn't always easy or smooth, but the warmth of Cecily's personality, her genuine kindness and self-confidence, as well as her instinctive fashion sense and complete loyalty – to Brown Thomas, to her particular clients, and to the Weston family – meant that she helped to steer true.

Anyone who knew the old Brown Thomas and has been watching The Paradise on BBC One recently, adapted from Zola's novel, Au Bonheur des Dames, will have no trouble reconciling the two. The elegant furnishings, the decorum and rigidly enforced departmental divisions: coats, skirts, hats, underwear; all with their appointed places within the building, flowing one from another, but never mixing.

In the days when Brown Thomas was owned by Senator Edward Maguire and run by his son, John, this was their ethos. The board would take breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea upstairs, painter Norah McGuinness dressed the shop windows, and international designers, such as Christian Dior, had only begun to be discreetly displayed.

In those years, the young Cecily O'Brien was growing up in Killiney, where the family owned what were then empty fields, now sold and developed as the exclusive Killiney Heath estate, where Cecily and her older brother Peter – later to become a pianist of genius –would play. She went to school in Holy Child Killiney, and longed to be a ballerina, until she grew too tall. Instead, she studied PE, but the exertion was too much. "I was tired all the time," Cecily said in a interview in 1995, "I had bad congestion of the lungs as a child."

Eventually, her doctor suggested she would be wise to give up.

Cecily always described her father, a quantity surveyor and friend of Myles Na Gopaleen and John McCormack, as "the most stylish man I've ever met," and it was his suggestion that she try fashion. "When I finished school he thought – 'what are we going to do with Cecily?' He knew Irene Gilbert and, because I was tall and skinny, [she] gave me a go." Cecily became a house model for Irene, who dressed women such as Anne, Countess of Rosse, and even Grace Kelly, for whom Cecily once modelled a stunning dress of Carrickmacross lace. Grace O'Shaughnessy, who did shows with Cecily, recalls her then as "very friendly and warm. We had great giggles doing the shows."

However, everyone who knew her then agrees that modelling was never Cecily's real passion.

"Actually, she hated it, she much preferred being in the background," recalls Hilary Weston, who modelled with Cecily as Hilary Frayne, before she married Galen Weston, and was undoubtedly her greatest friend. "Cecily loved to design clothes and the skill behind making clothes. She loved making other people look beautiful."

Theirs was a friendship that began at school age – "Cecily was in Holy Child, I was in Loreto Abbey" –and stayed strong throughout the many slings and arrows of life.

Success can ruin friendships as easily as hardship, and once Hilary married into the Westons, and went on to create an empire with Galen worth some €3.5bn in 2010, the two women's worlds could so easily have drifted apart. But they didn't. Each stood godmother to the other's daughter – Hilary to Sarah, and Cecily to Alannah, who is now creative director of Selfridges in London – and the families holidayed constantly together.

"We spent every holiday together," Alannah tells me, on her way to the Sacred Heart Church in Donnybrook where she delivered the eulogy at her much-loved godmother's funeral. "Amazing Christmases in Roundwood, Easter in Toronto, summer holidays in Florida" – where the Westons have a private island off the Atlantic coast – "And the banter in our house was always great when Cecily was there, the craic."

Building on her love of clothes and design, Cecily began to sell for Irene Gilbert as well as model, and then moved to London, where she worked for Donald Davies, another Irish designer, running first the shop on Elizabeth Street, then, after six years, all eight of the English shops and one in Paris. Those were heady times, with the designs featured in Vogue, "and Jean Shrimpton in the shop on Saturday mornings with David Bailey," as Cecily later recalled. "I was demented in those days, quite wild. I wore white Biba boots, the shortest skirt and my eyebrows still haven't recovered from all the plucking."

"Private Lives was all about Cecily and her extraordinary gift to give people confidence," says Hilary Weston. "She used to say, 'don't worry about what other people think of you, they seldom do!' She would wardrobe all the leading people in Ireland for every season of the year. Dress them from head to toe, from the underwear out, from shoes to hat, and all the accessories. Cecily looked after them, and their families. She was involved in weddings, funerals, all the details of people's lives. She also watched over the generations, dressing first a mother, then her daughter."

Cecily herself was part of this glamorous, busy world, whether holding court in Brown's restaurant in BT's, taking holidays with the Westons or entertaining and being entertained at home. "Our babysitters always brought an overnight bag," Sarah tells me. "Even when mum told them she and dad would be home by 1 or 2am, because they never came home 'til seven or eight in the morning! They'd be out in Leeson Street, any divilment they could get up to, they did."

But it was a candle that was burned enthusiastically at both ends. Sarah also says that the earliest photos of herself as a baby were taken in Brown Thomas; "mum went back to work a few weeks after I was born. She wanted to, and no one ever stopped her doing what she wanted to do. But even though she always worked, and was away a lot, at shows and buying trips, we did loads of things together as a family. We were always having adventures." Despite – or perhaps because – she did not always get on with her own mother, Cecily put much of her energy and creativity into her own daughters, guiding but never smothering.

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