Don't look back... Irish designer Helen Cody
People tend to think that the life of a fashion designer is a glamorous one. Irish designer Helen Cody could put them straight. As a survivor and someone who has turned the fall of the Celtic Tiger into something positive for herself, she talks about creativity, losing everything, making a career comeback, and why it can be a good thing in life to just walk away. Photography by Peter Rowen
Fashion designer Helen Cody never looks back. It is the secret of her success and her sanity. Life has not come easy for Helen, but you would never think it if you met her.
There was the loss of her beloved baby son, Ethan, in 2003, the loss of her business in 2008, the loss of her marriage in 2013. Yet, today, I sit in front of a laughing, relaxed Helen Cody. Happier and more relaxed than I have ever seen her before.
I am in Helen's home to see her new autumn/winter collection and to enjoy a catch-up. The day-wear collection is stunning; oozing quality, subtle wealth and craftsmanship. There are sophisticated, two-tone, 1960s-styled dresses, and divine 1950s gowns in navy silk duchesse-satin. There are cool, black ensembles for urban life and there is an entire rail of delicate, antique-lace, feather-detailed, dreamy-looking, oh-so romantic bridal gowns. It's all very Helen Cody, very gorgeous and very refined.
But soon I can't help being less refined, telling her I was really surprised when she gave a very personal interview to Barry Egan in this newspaper in January of this year, in which she talked openly about her private life and its losses. For all the time I have known her, Helen has been rigorously private about what appears about her life in the press.
"You are right. I do fashion interviews, but I don't do me. I don't do life," Helen responds. "I have got really lovely emails since Barry's interview. They were all about my son. People wrote to me about their experiences.
"I did find solace in them. I definitely did. But more than anything, I found it humbling," she tells me. "Very humbling. People are very willing to share their stories. They weren't looking for anything back. Just to say, 'God this terrible thing happened to you, you're not alone'."
So, considering how private she was, was it a good thing to open up and reveal herself to the nation?
"Yes, it was, because it put Ethan's passing in context," Helen says. "It is something that has happened. It is a scar on my life. Other things have happened since then that are life-changing. But I suppose a mark like that on your life will do one of two things, and it made me stronger."
Helen's home is very simply decorated. White walls, some striking paintings - the most interesting ones being those by Helen, painted during the three months she lived in France in 2013, when she realised her marriage was over. In pride of place are some old-fashioned black-and-white photographs of her father and mother, on their wedding day, and shots of her dad looking very cool in that kind of Man From Uncle way, taken in Germany in the 1960s.
Helen is very grateful to be back in her home. But for the fact she couldn't sell it during the recession, now, she wouldn't have had the house in which to create a new studio, and from which to launch her latest collections.
This time seven years ago, in 2008, Helen Cody was flying high, with a big business premises, an atelier and staff, presenting the most lavish catwalk show of a non-commercial, high-cost collection that had ever been seen in Dublin.
Just two days later, all that was over. The recession hit Helen's customers hard. Her business disappeared overnight.
Whoever thinks fashion is glamorous and fun, should first have a conversation with Helen.
"I remember having a sale a month after the show and I could not give the stock away. They still didn't come," she says. "I think if I had reduced the clothes to 20 quid, people still wouldn't have come. People just stopped dead, and I was left with all these amazing, beautiful dresses when I just wanted to pay my suppliers."
A year later, in 2009, Helen married, quit the fashion industry and, with her entire life packed into 108 boxes, she moved to England. Having failed to sell her house, she rented it out.
In 2013, her marriage over, Helen returned to Ireland via France, with her two beloved dogs, Harry and Joe, and the few possessions that would fit into her car. With no career, home or money, she lived in a tiny cottage in Gorey, Co Wexford, while she reflected on what she could do.
Everyone fears change in his or her life. They worry that if they take a risk or things change, everything will fall apart. That their life as they know it will never be the same or as good again, even when that 'good' was, in fact, bad.
Analysis-paralysis is usually the result. Helen never seems to waste energy on such pointless angst.
"You can't anticipate all that stuff," she says flatly. "If things are huge and too big, you won't do anything. You won't step out of your living room. But if you just go, 'What can I do?' 'How small can I start?' then things are possible.
"I suppose my intro to this was that I went back to my place of comfort, which is making clothes. I have a great relationship with Havana; Nikki Creedon is an old friend and she has been incredibly supportive. She was willing to take a risk [Nikki asked Helen to make a collection]. I took a risk. It worked."
Helen's house in Dublin had become available again and she left Gorey for home.
"Then, I looked at the market and [bridal magazine] Bash had just come out and I really liked what they were doing. I really liked that they were embracing the whole alternative thing and it was niche, and what I do is alternative and niche. So I launched a bridal collection that was about that alternative wedding; for the girl who wanted a dress that was versatile, that she could wear again, with her denim jacket, or whatever. It worked as a concept. You did a story on it in LIFE, remember?" Helen recalls.
"Then Eddie Shanahan approached me about the beautiful Arc show he organised in the RDS, and I showed at that. And then I had a chance to do Create," she explains of her return to fashion. "For designers, Create is all about mentoring and support and learning from the customer. For customers, it is about meeting with the designers, learning about the process. It is an amazing opportunity. I knew Shelly [Corkery, fashion director at Brown Thomas] for years."
Helen Cody in Create 2014 was a runaway success. Her classy, yet niche, romantic look was a sell-out in one week.
Though the experience bolstered Helen's confidence hugely, producing hand-made goods to the kind of demand that the Brown Thomas Create experience was identifying was unsustainable for her.
"All my work goes into the design concept," she says. "That is where my energy goes. I don't multiply; I don't do as others do and make many multiples of a design. I love the new idea."
Today, Helen is back, working exclusively from her studio in Dublin, creating things in her own time, her own way, for her appreciative and loyal customers.
On the day we began this interview, a Saturday, Helen's phone didn't stop ringing, and the texts kept coming, with queries from customers - one literally had turned up at her door. She is also collaborating with Ceadogan Rugs, designing limited-edition, hand-made rugs, to be launched next month. She has come a huge way in two years.
She says, "I suppose the gap of five years not designing has tuned me up; it has made me more focused. The Year of Irish Design 2015 is doing phenomenal things for the industry, encouraging talent, encouraging entrepreneurship.
"In the beginning, when I was starting again and I said yes to everything and travelled everywhere, I didn't imagine all the amazing things that would happen. That Stephanie Roche would wear one of my dresses and it would go viral around the world. That I am Designer of the Year in Ireland [awarded at the Kerry Fashion Awards].
"I am going to Shanghai, for feck's sake, to give a talk on fashion at the 2015 Design Success Summit and to present awards at their ceremony. Me, go to Shanghai! Half a million people watched The Saturday Night Show the night I appeared on it and I have had customers, a lot of customers, since then. It has really been a chain of events," she concludes.
Though her life has been challenging, Helen enjoys loyalty. Throughout, friends, family, even former amours, are supportive and loving. Everyone is delighted that not only is fashion working for Helen again, but so, too, is love. She is in love and she is happy. Very happy. It is on her face and in her clothes, for they are joyful.
"These things that happen to us, really sad things, tragic, tragic things, show us that nothing is important," Helen says to me. "Only life is important. It made me stop. Stop worrying about fashion. Stop worrying about the mortgage. It made me realise nothing is important but life."
The trademark of Helen's life is that she rides the waves. She is in constant evolution. She has not only embraced change, she calls on it. And her life is not yet half done. God help us all.
All clothes by Helen Cody, tel: (086) 260-5374, or see helencody.com
Photography by Peter Rowen, see peterrowen.com
Assisted by Mark McGuinness
Hair by Michael Leong, see michaelleong.com
Make-up by Christine Lucignano using Bobbi Brown cosmetics
Design assistant: Anna Gyo
Styling assistants: Yichin Chen and Caoimhe Murphy
Set-design assistant: John Burrows
Models: Nadine Quinn, Katie Standen and Carrie-Anne Burton, at Morgan The Agency
With grateful thanks to Pat O'Brien, Dublin Whiskey Company, 33 Mill St, D8, see dublinwhiskeycompany.ie
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