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Wednesday 17 September 2014

Costelloe, castration and chauvinism

Published 22/07/2001 | 00:11

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Though born and bred in Dublin, fashion designer Paul Costelloe admits he doesn't feel 'particularly Irish'. His designs may be safe but his comments are provoca...

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Though born and bred in Dublin, fashion designer Paul Costelloe admits he doesn't feel 'particularly Irish'. His designs may be safe but his comments are provocative and cheerfully un-PC . He also admits to being an adolescent 'retro-man'. And a chauvinist. Irish women whom he described so famously three years ago as 'ambitious mutton' would no doubt agree. How does he square this chauvinism with a healthy marriage? Joe Jackson meets the celebrated designer of suits, spoons, spectacles and, now, stage shows.

PAUL COSTELLOE is undoubtedly Ireland's greatest fashion success story. At least that's how he was described the last time he was interviewed by the Sunday Independent. And deservedly so. After all, he'd spent 20 years designing clothes for many of this country's most style-conscious, middle-class women. And the staffs of Aer Lingus, An Post and British Airways. Costelloe's profile in Britain also took a quantum leap when Princess Diana began to brandish his label. And he designed cutlery for Newbridge and eyewear for Cambridge opticians. Paul, at 52, was king of the crop, OK.

However, within three months of that August 1998 interview Costelloe undoubtedly became persona non grata among at least some Irish women he'd dressed. Why? He wrote an article for a British newspaper, The Sunday Times, suggesting that although certain Irish women "exude style" and are "the most charming, warm and beautiful in the world", others bring to mind "ambitious mutton" and "wouldn't know style if it tottered up to them on 10-inch heels".

Not surprisingly, Paul who has since relocated to London "for business reasons" and wasn't "chased out of the country by Mná na hEireann!" would prefer if I didn't raise this subject at all. When I do, he jokes: "It's yesterday's news, until you bring it up again, you bastard!" But given that Costelloe also said in his article that Irish women "for inspiration" should "think of Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man", because "Irish women are at their best when things get tough", I couldn't help but wonder if it is his ideal woman he's dressing in Ragus, a music show, for which he's designing the costumes,set in the Aran Islands and featuring women who may as well be Maureen O'Hara hauled into the 21st century.

"You took the words right out of my mouth!" he responds. "I think it's very much up-to-date Maureen O'Hara. As long as John Wayne is still around to drag her off to his nearest den!"

John Wayne Costelloe, perhaps. But that question and Paul's sometimes defiantly "retro" ideology we'll leave till later. Let him talk a little more about Ragus.

"Some of the happiest moments I've had in life, with my family or on my own, drawing were on the Aran Islands," he continues. "I've been going there for 14 years. And I saw Ragus originally on Inis Mór, then was asked to do the costumes so I said yes! Ragus is not the ugly, commercial side of Irish dance. It's not Flatley. It's young, talented people expressing themselves in an organic way, in a show that has its roots on the Aran Islands, in every sense."

That said, Paul doesn't feel "particularly Irish". Partly because he's the son of an Irish dad and an American mom.

"So even though I was brought up in Dublin, I don't have that Irish tendency to, say, crack jokes. I'm not very good at that," he explains. "And this is the influence of my mother and father. He saw the world in black and white, and she was rigid in her own way. But loving. Both were."

Yet more loving towards his older brother, Paul feels. Surely they had to be, given that Robert was born with a hole in his heart?

"Yes, but as a child you're not aware of that," Paul responds. "So when guests came and my mother would show Robert's paintings I'd say, 'Don't forget about mine!' I'd show them without even being asked!"

Now we know why Costelloe foists his designs and opinions on the world. His parents didn't pay him enough attention.

"You got that in one!" he says. "But if I was jealous of my brother it was because my parents seemed more concerned about him. I was never jealous of his art. And though I excelled at art in Blackrock College it was the only thing I excelled at I never thought of following Robert into the art world. It would have been wrong for us to compete, as brothers. Besides, I wasn't as good, academically, as Robert. When I painted it was purely an emotion I was painting. So my career choices were limited. That's why I became a designer. I was born a painter and became a designer."

Costelloe also agrees that a defining feature of many students who attend Blackrock College is that they ooze a self-confidence that isn't always matched by academic qualifications.

"But Blackrock College is the greatest place for creating survivors. Kids go through hell there, cope, then feel they can take on the world. I did. Yet I was well able for life when I moved to Paris and New York. In fact, I really only started living, and learning, when I went to Paris at 20, to study."

PAUL certainly learned that being "absolutely heterosexual" in the predominantly gay world of fashion meant he'd sometimes have to fight off sexual advances. From? Gay designers?

"They didn't even look at me in Paris, because I was a scrawny Dubliner," he explains. "And in New York it wasn't gay designers. You'd be at a party with Madison Avenue advertising guys with their lovely children and the father would make a play for you. And certain people in the industry in Ireland refer to me as gay. But, actually, there's a higher percentage of Irish male designers who are straight than you'll find anywhere else. Myself, Michael Mortell, John Rocha, to name but three."

Costelloe also reveals that hustling in New York, "trying to pay the rent", he became a "messenger-boy-cum-whatever" for a sex magazine.

"I saw the seedy side of the city," he reflects. "I wasn't present at photo shoots but I got to know the guy who was doing these outlandish illustrations of women. Not so much Vargas, from Playboy, more downmarket, like Screw magazine. But those illustrators can be pretty gifted, so I was learning, at that level."

And learning about sex?

"I didn't get married till I was 35, so I lived life to the full before that. Certainly in the Seventies things were freer. There was no Aids, so everybody had a ball. It was a life of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."

Asked what drugs he used, Paul says: "In the Seventies everybody was smoking grass, but I haven't done drugs for years." Then he draws back on the subject of drugs and sex though later Paul says he'd not risk losing his wife for any "extra-curricular sexual activities nowadays" explaining "such talk wouldn't be fair" to his family.

Returning to the subject of how he got his break, Paul realised in New York that he'd "never be accepted as another Yves Saint Laurent", then luckily landed a job with a company in Northern Ireland. So, apart from Saint Laurent, who were and are his heroes among designers?

"Ungaro. Courreges. Armani. Mostly French," he says. "And though Versace improved later in life I don't identify with the Neapolitan taste. It's un-chic, vulgar, cheap and nasty. Armani is still the king of class. Yet when I started out, all we had here was Sybil Connolly. There wasn't anybody designing ready-to-wear clothes for the middle market. That's what I went for."

Nevertheless, Costelloe describes his conservatism as a person and a designer as his one great disadvantage.

"I'm a classical designer and that doesn't go down well with the fashion world which, in general, is influenced by the fact that most designers are gay," he explains. "Their work is flamboyant, free. They feel they can design anything. Whereas I don't even fit in with that social scene. And I'm more influenced by good taste, what's correct, good style. Though I have developed a new courage since I moved to London. Let me show you."

At this point Paul has two models pose in his latest clothes.

One trouser suit is classic Costelloe, all fine lines and linen blends. Another is a more adventurous "bright red and white floral Fifties-style prom dress", directly influenced by what he sees on the streets of London. Which brings us back to Costelloe's critique of Irish women. One critic said he didn't understand the street fashion base of young Irish women who buy their clothes from Oxfam then mix 'n' match in a magnificently creative manner.

"I wasn't levelling criticism at young women like that," he asserts. "I was given the brief to write about a list, in Image, of the 90 women that the magazine said defined style in Ireland. A lot of these women I knew. From South County Dublin. Boutique owners and so on. And I thought, 'These aren't what Irish women are all about."'

Why, then, did Paul say that a lot of Irish women "wouldn't know style if it tottered up to them on 10-inch heels"?

"I wrote that article and the journalist from the Times rewrote it," he responds. "I was writing about one article, one set of women." Women who had probably bought Costelloe creations in the past? "Yes." And this, to some, made his attack seem even more mean-spirited.

"I had no agenda," Paul retorts. Then, after much verbal duelling, he reluctantly elaborates on what he sees as the pivotal quote from that article. Namely, his claim that "deep down Irish women are scared of fashion. They only feel confident if they are wearing a label".

"Some labels are high fashion, and there's a security in that," he says. "I'm not talking about Armani, Paul Costelloe or Calvin Klein. I'm talking about Dolce & Gabbana. But if it's not worn by an 18-year-old, or 28-year-old, it can be risky. You can wear Armani, Costelloe, till you're 70, but with other labels you have to be more discerning. Yet you don't have to spend huge money on top designer names."

In other words, Irish women had stopped buying Costelloe in 1998 and turned to the likes of Yamamoto, so Paul lashed back?

"This was before the Celtic Tiger!" he says, laughing. "Yet after that article came out I did go through a period of not being flavour-of-the-month. But if the female vote went down, the male vote went up. Because many men did agree with what I said. And some women."

One vote Costelloe definitely lost was that of the editor of Image, Jane McDonnell, who said his article particularly the "ambitious mutton" phrase was "gratuitously offensive, insulting, ageist and chauvinist". So is Paul, for example, a chauvinist?

"I don't know whether I, or that journalist, wrote that phrase but, yes, I am," he responds. "In a refreshing way. Men are being castrated in life so I sometimes exploit the chauvinistic side of my nature. In a humorous way. It's a pity people missed the humour in that article."

Well, Paul did warn you he wasn't good at cracking jokes. But he has a healthy sense of humour about himself, and laughs heartily when it's suggested he's "a retarded adolescent, retro-man" in many ways.

"I am! And I do have this image of Ireland where I'm saying, 'Bring back Maureen O'Hara!' That's why I love Ragus. The people in it are the true Ireland. So far removed from Image magazine."

LIKEWISE, as with his family trips to Aran, Costelloe draws a sharp dividing line between the world of fashion and the life he shares with his wife, Anne, and their seven children. Six boys, one girl.

"Fashion is not a pretty business. It is all about selling an image, dealing in dreams, trying to retain youth," he explains, agreeing that he himself is involved in the perpetuation of this tyranny, particularly when he tells women of any age what they can and can't wear.

"But I don't do it excessively. And I don't perpetuate those ideas at home."

Paul doesn't encourage his children to follow him into fashion. And he says his wife Anne 15 years younger than he is was "the exact opposite" of the acolytes, or groupies, that gather around designers.

"Anne is from the north side of Dublin and would give that kind of carry-on the two fingers!" he claims. "Though the first time I saw her she was wearing something of mine. And I thought, 'She hasn't bought that!' Because I had one little shop and knew every damn garment I sold. She'd 'borrowed' it from the girl working in my shop, a friend of hers. But then I got to know Anne. She's great. And still dresses in my clothes. We went to Ladies' Day in Ascot and she wore the 1950s full skirt with petticoats, and was the only one wearing that style and looked fantastic."

Even so, Paul's wife also has a pretty down-to-earth attitude towards his artistic creations.

"Anne doesn't give me any accolades, that's for sure!" he says. "This morning, for example, she threw a skirt of mine out the window, saying 'I've been asking you for ages to have it shortened.' And it landed in the wet, on the ground! That's the kind of 'respect' she has for the work I do! Though maybe I needed a woman like that, rather than someone more subservient. Anne certainly isn't subservient!"

Sounds like a healthy marriage. "It is comparatively healthy. And though I was afraid the move to London might prove difficult for us and it was it's also rejuvenating. Because I do, at least, go home every night after work, which I couldn't do when the family was in Ireland and I was over here working five days a week."

Indeed, Paul admits that if his marriage fell apart his world would too. "It'd be a huge tragedy," he says. "Because I am centred, emotionally, in my family. And no matter what kind of success any artist has, it can't compare with walking into your home, seeing seven gorgeous children in their beds. Being kissed by everybody. That is magical. And means so much more to me than how people respond to my article about lists in Image magazine, style, fashion, whatever. Or whether what I wrote makes people feel I don't love women. I do. But Anne is the one. And my children are part of that. Just think about it. Having eight people who love you! My God, who could ask for anything more?"

Joe Jackson 2001.

Ragus is in Vicar Street, Dublin, Mon-Fri during July and August

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