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."
When back at home, she careered around the twisty roads of Killiney in her tiny Mini, going to parties and dances, visiting her many friends. Joe MacMenamin was a neighbour, and friend of Cecily's brother Peter. "They knew each other since he was nine and she was 11," recalls daughter Sarah. "They went out together, then broke up, got back together, broke up again. Dad moved to South Africa, mum went to London, but it was meant to be." And it was. The couple got married, settled in Sandymount and had two daughters.
In the Seventies, Galen Weston, by then married to Hilary Frayne, bought Brown Thomas, for just under £300,000, and Hilary and Cecily together began to tackle the staid old department store, determined to realise their vision of a Brave New World of shopping. Cecily set up Private Lives, a boutique within a boutique, where she put all her flair and excellent taste to work, creating the first personal shopping service in the country, and in the process forging bonds of friendship and affection with women such as Ann Reihill, Terry Keane, and Miranda Iveagh, whom Cecily helped to "turn into a actress", as she put it, so that she could face the endless social evenings demanded of her as the wife of Lord Iveagh. In fact, Miranda became a very close friend and remained so, even after she returned to live in England. She died in 2010. "Mum was devastated when Miranda died," Sarah says.
"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.
Cecily's dedication to Ireland was considerable, to the notion that Dublin could and should have a world-class department store, somewhere that international designers would be proud to show, where the rich and stylish would be proud to shop. It wasn't an easy vision to push through, because many designers, initially at least, were not interested in a small, relatively impoverished country, and because the prices in Brown Thomas began to be a source of outrage in some quarters.
"She bought Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermes," says Hilary. "Others said, 'it won't sell, it's too expensive', but Cecily wanted Brown Thomas to be up there with the best in the world." And so she persuaded the really luxe brands – by dint of personality and charm – that Ireland was of interest.
Cecily's goddaughter, Alannah Weston, remembers "working in Burberry, in London, when I started in the fashion world. Cecily came in and charmed everyone, then sat down and negotiated really hard for the best margin. She was a really good businesswoman. She was very confident, and had no problem walking into the showrooms in Paris or Milan, which could be very intimidating. She knew she had very beautiful, stylish women to dress, and she was so proud of Brown Thomas, she was determined to bring those labels to Ireland."
Throughout, she championed Irish labels abroad too, taking this on as part of her personal remit. Philip Treacy, Lainey Keogh, Paul Costelloe were all loyally endorsed by Cecily. Her position – as best friend of Hilary, who was not just owner of Brown Thomas, with Galen, but also very involved in the running and positioning of the department store – can't always have been easy. For all the privilege of access and intimacy, there must also, over the years, have been occasional undercurrents of jealousy in her day-to-day working environment. Such is human nature, after all. However, the implacable loyalty Cecily displayed, towards Brown Thomas and her friends the Westons, as well as her own discretion and sense of personal privacy, and a certain steely quality that ran through her warm, outgoing personality, meant she managed a potentially difficult situation with great delicacy.
Paul Kelly, formerly managing director of Brown Thomas, now chief executive of Selfridges, who worked with Cecily since 1984, puts it succinctly, "Cecily was Cecily, regardless of her friendship with whoever, in this case the Westons, who owned the store. That never came into it. She was her own person, she forged her way independently of whom she knew, and needed help from no one to do that. She was a good friend, we spoke regularly and met up for coffee and drinks. When I moved to London, she kept me up to date, because she always knew what was going on."
Never was Cecily's loyalty and expertise more evident, or in greater need, than during the transition years, when Brown Thomas began a policy of courting a younger, more streetwise customer, as well as moving across Grafton Street to the old Switzers store. Change is always difficult, and when that change involves the overthrow of old ways, old forms, it is harder again.
"The important thing back then," says Paul Kelly, "was to bring our friends and customers with us. Cecily was very much involved in making that happen. She always wanted the best for the business."
Ian Galvin worked with Cecily for 10 years in Brown Thomas. "In the late Eighties, fashion in Brown Thomas was in a difficult place. Cecily had Private Lives, then I opened up the International Designer Rooms, we were opposite each other, separated by an entire floor of fashion. I was in my early 20s then; Bolshie, loud, probably all the things she hated, and I was kind of thrust on her, with a brief to bring in new customers. In the end, we had very strong mutual respect for each other. I admired her. Her taste was even more than her style. Her approach to fashion was excellent. She never approached a collection by looking at what she would wear herself, as so many buyers might, she approached it thinking of how she would dress other people."
For a fashion buyer, there can be no greater compliment.
When Brown Thomas moved into the new premises, both Private Lives and the International Designer Rooms were merged, subsumed into the general fashion extravaganza. It could have been a blood-on-the-carpet moment; "We both lost our designer rooms," says Ian. "It must have been hugely difficult for her. She had to come completely out of her comfort zone, and I admired how she processed that. The new Brown Thomas could not have happened as it did unless Cecily was able to do that. She saw the bigger picture."
In the years after Cecily left her role as fashion director, she continued to be active on the board of Brown Thomas.
"You get to a point in life where you feel you should step aside, let other people get on," says Hilary Weston. "But Cecily was always there as a director, in and out of the stores, always concerned if things weren't going well or could be better. She was totally without vanity. That's the way I think of her. She didn't think about herself enough."
And indeed, when Cecily first began to feel unwell, she refused to see a doctor for a long time. "She wasn't her usual vivacious and energetic self, but wouldn't go to hospital," says Sarah. "She finally went in October and was diagnosed with lung cancer." The family were told Cecily would have until after Christmas, but time proved not to be on their side, and within just a few weeks, she died, on November 17.
Cecily MacMenamin was clearly loved by those around her. By her family, Joe, Anna and Sarah; her close friends, Hilary, Galen and Alannah Weston; and by the many, such as Maureen Cairnduff, Louise Kennedy, Ann Reihill, Brenda Rohan, Supreme Court Justice John MacMenamin, a cousin of Cecily's husband Joe, Hugh and Kay O'Flaherty, Vincent Koziell and Rory Iveagh, who attended her funeral on Wednesday. Her sense of humour, kindness, personal warmth, wit, glamour and charm were recalled by so many. Her love of cats, Jack Russells, art, antiques, grand houses, Jo Malone perfume, anything well-crafted regardless of brand. Her "love, energy and sense of fun," as her daughter Sarah put it. All these things, the sum of a life well lived, will not be forgotten.
As Hilary Weston put it: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love. You don't stop loving someone because they are dead, and as long as you love them, the connection is still there."
Sunday Indo Living