Monday 23 April 2018

Bright & beautiful: Helen Steele is on a mission to promote colour

Artist and fashion designer Helen Steele is a woman with a mission - to get us to embrace colour, and wear lots more of it

Byblos print in 'Charlie' silk drop waist shirt dress, €765, matching cashmere scarf, €220.
Byblos print in 'Charlie' silk drop waist shirt dress, €765, matching cashmere scarf, €220.
Colour splash: Helen Steele believes colour can affect your mood. Photo: Peter Rowen.
Liffey print cotton silk crepe dress, €775, St Stephen’s Green print canvas bag, €250
'Sharjah' silk crepe colour-block dress, €550 and Oscar print scarf in cashmere and silk from Costume in Dublin. Photos Brendan McCarey
Saoirse Ronan in a Helen Steele design.
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

If Helen Steele's orange jumpsuit could only talk, it would have some hair-raising yarns to tell. The tangerine one-piece hangs like an objet d'art in the sitting room of Helen's Emyvale home.

A variation on a canvas, the splattered workwear is the bi-product of seven years of exploding paint and madcap artistic endeavours.

Petite, with standout hair and a front roll that could change colour every other week, Helen Steele is living proof that embracing colour can change your life.

By her own admission, the Kildare-born artist can be pessimistic by nature. However, after being part of the international art scene for 20 years - with clients spread from Ireland to Dubai, Australia, the US and South America, Helen is fast gaining reputation on the international fashion scene where trends are so often driven by the notion that there are only two colours worth noting: black and nearly black.

That's rubbish talk to Helen Steele whose colour-fuelled career is on the cusp of bigger things. Call her an overnight success but 20 years after graduating from college, she's just had the busiest Christmas ever. All her pre-spring/summer 2016 stock is sold out and customers are primed to pounce on her SS16 collection (pictured above), inspired by scenes of Dublin and slated to land into Costume, on Dublin's Castle Market, at the end of January.

Helen wrapped 2015 with three exciting new accounts in the UK and the US. She already has a network of fashion stores in the Middle East, but the cherry on the cake was when actress Saoirse Ronan wore a bespoke Helen Steele dress (pictured right) to the Irish premiere of Brooklyn last October. 2016 is shaping up to be an exciting year for the mum-of-three who lives on a duck farm in Co Monaghan.

"I've always been mad about colour and I'm very interested in colour therapy and how colour can totally affect your mood, and impact on you, physically, emotionally and spiritually," says Helen, whose explorations into the capabilities of colour included climbing into a giant cherry picker with a bungee jump belt packed with household paint. The objective was to see the impact of paint exploding onto a blank canvas below.

Mum to daughters Chloe (19) and Halle (14) and son, Ronnie (11), Helen's the adventurous artist who took to bursting condoms full of paint to see how the paint would behave. However, the most curious of all was sawing open a soft toy stuffed with tubes of paint. The idea didn't come from a horror movie, or sci-fi caper, but from a very pink, very girly movie!

"I was watching the Princess Diaries with my two daughters, and there is a scene where the mother is firing darts at a balloon filed with paint and I thought, 'Wow, it would be much more interesting if there was a chainsaw involved'.

"I went through a stage of working through a process of finding what was the best way for me to get paint to mix. It took years of experimenting. Putting paint inside a soft toy and chainsawing it open was inspired by the work of Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch.

"All I wanted was to get paint moving. The cherry picker experiment was awesome but it started to rain, which was a shame because the paint really looked stunning when it dropped."

Helen's interest in colour therapy triggered when she was studying fashion with the Barbara Bourke College in Dublin. Every print she develops, every clothing garment, scarf or bag she designs is stamped with a unique approach to bring colour into our lives.

Green is her favourite colour but she taps enthusiastically into the seven colours of the rainbow and makes a point of selecting colours she knows will put people in good form.

"The most positive response I've had from women is to the colours pink and yellow. They can be reluctant at first but even wearing little hints of those colours helps, and they can be grounded by browns or blues. Pink and yellow seem to have a good effect, both visually and mentally."

Merging art with fashion, every season Helen does a piece which looks like a blank white canvas with block colours added. This season, her 'Sharjah' silk crepe dress (pictured left) was created by razor blading blue, red and blush paint.

"Blue is incredibly good for communication and if you want to focus on something. It is also calming, but in a sleepy kind of way," said Helen.

Speaking of blues, her SS16 collection includes the 'Granuaile' print in a flattering drop-waisted 'Coco' dress which is based on a painting of the Dublin docks at the time of the Pirate Queen. Onto this, Helen layered on a print of the docks today.

The reaction to the collection has been very positive by new customers like the shop and website Young British Designers. Then there's The Retreat in LA which brings Americans to visit artists around the world and has its own webstore. Last but not least is which was started by a banker and lawyer, and helps working women find exciting wardrobe options and bespoke pieces.

"I'm very excited to be doing a 1916 scarf for Fashhood which was inspired by Countess Markievicz and it launches in March.

"All of my work is created to feel relaxed and comfortable yet to have a soft and defined tailoring around the shoulder so each piece softly drops from the shoulder. I feel that if you are going to invest in a piece, it must be silk and feel like a second skin or butter. With the cashmere it must feel like a warm hug in the winter and a soft breeze in the summer. I am anti fast-fashion and believe that when I create something, it should be passed down or onto others. This is what I was brought up to believe and my 'Coco' dress was actually designed with a view to making a dress that myself and my daughters, Chloe and Halle, could share."

Helen acknowledges the impact of ID2015, the Year of Irish Design initiative driven by the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland.

"It had a remarkable impact and not just on my own business, but on hundreds of other businesses in all aspects of design in Ireland. I'm so appreciative of the hard work by all the team. I've doubled my sales this year and I've been able to employ more staff so fingers crossed that the incoming Government will continue the initiative."

There's certainly been an international interest in Helen and her artful approach to fashion since Saoirse Ronan wore the green dress which was a creative collaboration between the two women.

"Saoirse has an amazing eye, she was telling me what colours she liked, how she was really interested in ostrich feathers and from that, I designed a print. I did some toiles (a test garment) of possible shapes and I created what is quintessentially a new shape that I'd never used before and which was totally designed around Saoirse's shape. She has a tiny waist and was a perfect model, a pleasure to work with," says Helen.

"When you push yourself outside your comfort zone, sometimes something really different happens and it was 'good' different which I am eternally grateful for. I was honoured to have had the opportunity to work with Saoirse. The reaction to the dress has been unbelievable and I've had to go back and re-print some of my more popular pieces from 2015 and I put it down to Saoirse who is massive Stateside and in the UK.

"The print in Saoirse's dress was a one-off for her. That shape will definitely be a goer and the print too but not in that shape, I want to keep it as an exclusive for Saoirse," explains Helen, who next month re-launches her online store with a new range of cashmere scarves and canvas bags. She also has plans to do painted table linen for Christmas 2016, with napkins, runners and table clothes.

Industrious and adventurous, Helen never forgot the wise words of a headmistress at Rathnew, Co Wicklow, whose mantra to students at Monday assembly still resonates with the artist/designer: "What you put into it is what you get out of it."

Just add colour, it seems.

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