The new horizons of Nina Divito
Nina Divito was poised to become the most important Irish designer of her generation before a rare illness stopped her in her tracks. She told Donal Lynch about what she went through and where she's going next
For Nina Divito it was a morning like no other. All of the years sequestered in her attic painting shoes, all of the knocking on doors, the long slog of college; it had all led up to this: she was in Italy to pick out the colours for her first shoe collection and her excitement was almost palpable. Extraordinarily for a young designer with no proven track record to speak of, Nina already had a major department store - Brown Thomas in Dublin - lined up to stock the shoes. She was also in Italy with Eddie Shanahan, the chairperson of the Irish Council of Fashion Designers. Both Eddie and BTs knew that Nina Divito's talent was rare: in her 'day job' she was one of the country's most prolific and sought-after young artists; her swirling, feminine imagery of shoes graced the walls of apartments and houses all across boom-era Dublin. For all her success as an artist, however, the paintings, she would later confess, were "a means to an end". They funded her dream - to make actual shoes - and now, on this bright Italian morning, she was about to experience a moment of pure triumph.
When she opened her eyes, however, it Kipling's other impostor - disaster - that was lying in wait. "I got up in the morning to go to the factory and my legs went from under me", she recalls, shaking her head at the memory. "My co-ordination was gone, nothing felt right. I was trying to dress myself. Panic was setting in, I genuinely wasn't sure what to do. I thought 'I have to get out of the room and I have to be outside before (Shanahan) gets out because I wasn't able to use the phone to call him.' So very slowly I held myself up along the walls and somehow got myself out of there." The enormity of the situation dawned on her: "I knew there was going to be no first collection if I didn't pick out the colours. Eddie carried me downstairs and we went for breakfast. I was trying to eat the cereal and I'd tell my hand to pick up the spoon to eat and it just didn't work. I tried again and the next thing I knew I had cornflakes and milk dripping down my face. That really scared me. I knew then that I couldn't put it down to being tired or stressed. I don't know how I got through that day."
When she returned to Dublin then-boyfriend, now-husband Brian O'Malley (also one of the two men who transformed Krystle nightclub on Harcourt Street into one of the capital's premier celebrity hangouts) picked her up at the airport. "When I got to the airport I literally couldn't walk from Eddie to Brian, it was very difficult to move." Over the next few months, Nina would first visit the Mater hospital in Dublin and then The Blackrock Clinic. "Early on in that whole process I had to go to see a psychiatrist. They said to me 'you've just started your own business, are you very stressed, have you ever had an eating disorder?' That really was tough, to be asked that. I was thinking 'Oh my God, I've worked all my life to get to this point, if you think this an eating disorder, you're absolutely mad.'"
She was eventually referred to Dr Donal Costigan, a neurologist in the Mater Hospital, who specialises in neuromuscular illnesses. "He said I want to do a few more tests, I have a suspicion but the thing I'm suspecting is very rare.'" Dr. Costigan would eventually diagnose her with opsoclonus-myoclonus syndrome, an extremely rare and debilitating condition that affects the nervous system. Only one in 10,000,000 people contracts the illness, making it one of the rarest neurological disorders. For Nina the diagnosis brought some measure of relief; at least now the thing she was dealing with had a name. "But there was so much I had to learn. My first question was 'how do I get rid of it?'" Nina recalls. "(Dr Costigan) told me that it's a long-term illness and he was using phrases that I found really alarming like 'managing your illness'. I didn't like the sound of that at all; in my head, we were getting rid of this thing. He said 'it's not as simple as getting rid of it, it's an auto immune condition, your body is attacking its own cells and that's very difficult to treat.'"
Over the following months, Nina, 29 at the time of diagnosis, was in and out of hospital as medics tried to fine tune the treatment to her particular symptoms. "When it got really bad I'd go in for infusions of gamma globulin (a substance made from human blood plasma). I'd get very thin. My balance, coordination and sight would go, one by one. When I look [back] I understand it all a lot better: I had this drive that sort of blinded me to what else was going on. I didn't pay enough attention to what was happening to myself physically. Through it all I learned that I had to look out more for my own physical welfare. For instance, I'd only agree to one commission rather than six commissions per month. A key thing for me was accepting that the illness would not go away and battling it. I kept going back to Dr. Costigan."
Nina valiantly tried to soldier on, and fitted the launches for the shoe collection in around her various hospital appointments. She smiles ruefully at some of the coincidences that happened around that time. "I remember my first pair of shoes arrived and my walking stick arrived at the same time. It was like a door opening and closing at the same time. And I just thought, feck it, this is what's happening now, I need to accept it, I'll just be one of those strange women who hobbles around in expensive shoes. I get a little bit sad now when I think of how so many of the successes that came with the shoes, which I'd dreamed of, I never got to enjoy because I was battling the illness. It was a huge amount for anyone to take on. A key thing for me was accepting that the illness would not go away and battling it. And probably the most important part of being able to do that was the support of Brian and my family, who were just incredible through everything."
Family has always been a bedrock of Nina's life. She was raised in Cabinteely in Dublin, the great-grandchild of Italian immigrants who had been in the ice-cream and amusements businesses. Growing up, she had a huge interest in art and as a teenager studied fine art in Dun Laoghaire before going to Bournemouth in England to do a course in model-making. She returned home to work on the models for the movie King Arthur in 2003. "Right around the time I came back it was being filmed here and I thought I'd chance my arm. I knew it was being filmed in Bray and so I stuck my head into one of the barns and said 'Can I have a job, I'll do anything.' I ended up staying for about five months. College let me work on the props because it was so closely tied in with what I was doing. Model-making is all to do with form and functionality, so it's all related."
Her dream was to become a shoe designer, and after King Arthur was completed she made the decision to go back to the UK to do a shoe-design course at the London College of Fashion. "For a long time I hadn't even known that a course like that existed. I'd done six years as a student at this stage and I felt like I'd be taking the piss a bit to go back to college yet again", she recalls. "But I felt like this was my calling, I didn't want to give up."
The dream necessitated a particular vow of poverty, reminiscent of Manolo Blahnik's other devotee - Carrie from Sex and the City, who once said that Vogue magazine nourished her more than food. "On my student budget all my money would go on a pair of shoes, I'd end up eating baked beans for the month, but to be honest I felt the shoes fed my spirit more anyway", she laughs.
She says the age-old female fascination with shoes is difficult to explain but has something to do with "the form, the fit, the mystery: where do the straps and seams disappear to? There are things that great shoes do to a woman's body; they force your hips out, elongate the neck and the legs and make you much more attractive to both men and women. They are wearable art and they make your body a part of that art. What else has the power to do that?"
The writer Caitlin Moran recently retired her stilettos forever and urged other women to do so too in the name of equality and health ('I'm tired of being scared of stairs. I no longer want to spend every party I go to worried I'll fall over and show my knickers'). But for Nina that would ruin the fun of shoes. "To me, the heel is absolutely essential. People used to say to me 'you have to make comfortable shoes' and as a woman, I agree in principle with that idea. But the physics and dynamics of putting an adult human on a six-inch needle mean that the reality is that it's only going to get so comfortable. You have to just accept that and suck it up!"
She had always painted shoes as a hobby but she only began selling the pictures when her aunt offered to buy one. "She said 'would you not try to sell them?' and I said 'nobody would buy them' and she said 'I'll buy them', and she bought one as a wedding present. That started this snowball thing: through word of mouth I was making stuff for people constantly. It was the boom, and people had money for art: older people were buying the paintings, some men too. I did a few Art Ireland shows and I'd love to watch people's reactions when they first saw the paintings. Some people would just sit there and smile. Other people would ask me if I did portraits or landscapes, but that just wasn't me."
The paintings, she says, were all "a means to an end" - funding her dream of being a shoe designer. But it was a chance encounter with one of her heroes, that really spurred her on. "I met Manolo Blahnik when he was launching his rooms in BTs and I got the opportunity to talk to him", she remembers. "Someone introduced me and said that this girl has made her living painting shoes, that's all she does. And I told him that my dream was to design shoes. He said, 'where do you want to make them?' And I said Italy. I told him I'd been emailing them and he said 'don't waste your time, you need to get on a plane and go to Italy and knock on doors and don't go away until they talk to you.'"
She took his advice, funding her flights to Italy with the proceeds from the paintings, tirelessly banging on doors. It wasn't long before her own shoes were alongside the Manolos in BTs. Her entire first collection sold out, as did her second, and even as she battled her health issues her brand continued to gain momentum. For her third collection she had buyers from Niemen Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman in New York and Brown's in London interested, with BTs also vying for exclusivity. By that point however her health was really worsening and eventually, after a lot of refection, she had to make the very difficult decision to pull back from her work and stop designing altogether.
"When I look back it all made sense: I had this crazy determination", she recalls. "I didn't listen to my body, and pushed it even when it wasn't able, so of course it was going to rebel in some way. Through it all I learned that I had to look out more for my own physical welfare." Dr. Costigan, she says, recommended against chemotherapy, but, she adds "the next thing was immuno-suppressants. I was told if we went that route though there was a good chance I could end up infertile. And I remember thinking 'oh, God, no' because a dream of mine was to do the shoes but another big dream was to have a child."
After years of struggling to get the illness under control Nina, now 34, is in great health: no walking stick, no shaking and she's off all medication. In person she glows with optimism. Three months ago, she also had a little boy, whom she named Tony in a nod to her Italian heritage. "I actually had a really easy pregnancy and was relieved about that because Dr. Costigan told me that sometimes people with autoimmune disorders can crash after (they give birth) so I was quite cautious toward the end", she says.
Of her son she tells me: "He's just the most incredible thing ever to happen to me, I look at him every day and just feel blessed. I didn't know whether I'd even have kids." She almost didn't call him Tony, she recalls, with a smile. "I said if he was a boy I wanted to call him Manolo, because of everything that happened. But that was vetoed. Brian quite rightly pointed out that you just can't call a child Manolo O'Malley. His initials would be MOM!"
So does this all presage a comeback? "Well in a way I feel I didn't go through everything we've just talked about to not try again", she says quietly. "I've always had a lot of determination. We'll see what the future holds but everything feels good right now, touch wood. I know so much more about myself, about my body and about the business. This time around, I'll definitely do things differently. But yeah I think I am ready for more."
Watch this space.
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