Sunday 26 January 2020

It's fit for a style queen

Fashion has always been Annmarie Flood's first love, says Mary O'Sullivan, a fact evident from various clues in the fashionista's stylish home. Photography by Tony Gavin

Annmarie in the
living area of her
extension, which
is furnished with
leather armchairs
from Brown
Annmarie in the living area of her extension, which is furnished with leather armchairs from Brown Thomas.

Mary O'Sullivan

That Annmarie Flood, brand CEO of Alwear, is in the fashion world would not surprise anyone visiting her house -- the clues are loud and clear. There are the tailor's mannequins in the hall -- one of which wears a leopard-print jacket, the other a morning coat -- while the walls of most living spaces, including the bathrooms, are covered in fashion-shoot photos and sketches. Even the cake plates in the dining room bear the legend "a dress from Paris can make life so exciting".

It's nice that after more than 20 years in the business, Annmarie confirms she still finds dresses from Paris -- or from anywhere else for that matter -- very exciting. In fact, she is so passionate about fashion that it's hard to believe that she ever did anything else, yet the fashion business didn't enter her head until she was well into her 20s. Although as a teenager she had loved decorating the windows of her father's hardware store in Athy when asked to give them a feminine touch, initially she didn't opt for any kind of business, fashion or otherwise. Straight after school she trained as a nurse for three years, and she spent five years working in hospitals once she had qualified: four of them in New York, and one in Australia. "I had a plan: do nursing and travel, which I did," she says. "And it was great for that time. Then I came back to Dublin in 1988, 1990, and I got my first job in Alwear. I remember they were hiring Christmas staff and I was working with a lawyer, a teacher and two nurses."

Though times were as bad then as they are now and working on a shop floor was the only work a lot of professionals could find, Annmarie didn't want work as a nurse at that stage, even if she could have got it; she wanted change, and suddenly the fashion world seemed the right place for her. "I always loved clothes and, as a child, if I didn't like what mum picked, I'd throw it out the window," she says. "My godmother worked in Dublin; she was very stylish and very clued-in, so I was the first to have hot pants and miniskirts in my town. Mum was into fashion too. I wanted to work from the bottom: I wanted to get to know the customer, what she likes."

Given the organisational skills Annmarie had picked up during her nursing days and the innate flair for fashion she's had since her childhood, she was soon promoted. After eight months she was given a floor to manage and, less than a year later, she was given a shop. Alwear was opening in Croydon, near London, and Annmarie was asked by her bosses, Paul Kelly and Deirdre Kelly, to run it. But Annmarie's sights were set on a different aspect of the business. "When Deirdre and the other buyers came to London to do the buying, I used to take my day off and go with them to the appointments. I really wanted to get into buying, and a year after I went to London, I was asked to be part of the buying team for a new concept, A man," she says.

After two years with A man she was on the move, this time to Penneys where she spent eight years, also in menswear; then she was off again, this time to Dunnes. "I worked my way up to buying controller in Penneys, but it was all menswear, and womenswear was my real love. Then I got the opportunity to go to Dunnes; I was there six months when I got a call from Paul Kelly to come back," she recalls. "At that stage I had been all over India, Korea, Bangladesh: learning, learning, learning. Alwear had been my love; fashion, my love. I said yes." That was 12 years ago, and after that she was Alwear's fashion director for five years, then its managing director for four.

Two years ago, five of the management team including Annmarie got together with private-equity firm Alchemy and effected a management buyout, after which Annmarie became brand CEO.

So, for 12 years, Annmarie has been at the forefront of dressing young Irish women and it hasn't all been low-cost cutting-edge high street gear; she has also pioneered collections by good Irish designers, most notably Peter O'Brien, whose designs before then had never been available to Irish women unless they could afford to pay French-couture prices for his collections for the House of Rochas in Paris. "I've been a fan of Peter's ever since I first saw him on The Late Late Show many years ago, and I loved every minute of working with him -- it was a dream come true," she says.

Annmarie's joy at the collections Peter designed for Alwear is demonstrated by his sketches on the walls in her hall and bathroom. There's also the spectacular black-and-white photo shoot of Jean Butler wearing Peter O'Brien's first Alwear collection, which hangs in the dining area at the back of the house Annmarie and her husband, Andrew Birthistle, bought five years ago.

"We met through friends 16 years ago and only got around to getting married three years ago. It's my second house, Andrew's first. I'd come from my own house where I had everything as I wanted it. When you buy a house together you have to take into account what the partner wants -- there are lots of compromises," she concedes. "We took six months to work out what we wanted and a year to do it up."

One thing both of them wanted in the redbrick-fronted, detached house in Dublin 6 was lots of light; the back of the house is south-facing and the triangular extension -- which comprises most of the kitchen-cum-dining-cum-living area -- is designed to maximise the available light. The renovation of the house, which was originally three bedroomed, involved extending both floors and was designed by Art McGann, an architect friend of Andrew's. "Most of the people who worked on the house were friends; the builder, the painter, the electrician: all are friends," Annmarie explains. "We wanted it to be an enjoyable project and we thought the best way would be to work with friends. The plumber was my husband. He mostly left the interior to me. My sister, Geralyn Flood, helped me, she and her good friend Natasha Labey."

The layout upstairs was reconfigured and, instead of three bedrooms, there are two, of which the master bedroom is double sized and has an en suite and a dressing room. The second bedroom is furnished for guests, and there's a second bathroom, which guests use.

Andrew, as well as being a plumber, has dozens of hobbies including golf, tae kwon do, scuba diving, swimming and cycling. He also numbers cooking among his interests, so Annmarie left the layout and design of the kitchen to him and he opted for plain cream high-gloss units, topped with black granite. The "boys' room" as Annmarie calls the room where he displays the trophies and rewards of his hobbies as well as the projector for watching videos -- the couple don't have a TV -- is also fairly neutral in decor. Otherwise, while the house is not cluttered, there are select feminine, fashiony touches everywhere. The dining chairs are covered in leopard print, there are animal-print towels in the bathrooms, there's lots of pretty china in the dining area and lots of extra-large mirrors everywhere.

Yet, for all her sincere declarations of undying love for fashion, Annmarie reveals she may not be committed to it forever. "I think it's really strange that people wouldn't have a few careers. I think in 20 years' time, I could be doing something else like trichology, the science of hair; I'm really interested in that," she jokes.

How would that translate into interiors and the decor of a house? Photos of beautiful heads of hair, lots of wigs? On second thoughts, best stay with the fashion, Annmarie.

Sunday Independent

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