She may share a surname with the Irish fashion chain, but Helen Penney isn't related, says Mary O'Sullivan, who visits the PR guru's delightful picture-postcard cottage, situated in an equally charming Cotswolds village. Photography by Tony Gavin
England is full of picture-postcard villages bearing quaint names such as Chipping Campden, Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow-on-the-Wold, names which immediately conjure up the world of Miss Marple, and images of mature women wearing sensible tweeds and good lace-up shoes. And, yes, there are plenty of such types running those villages and making sure that the team is wearing sparkling white for the cricket on the green. More recently, though, these charming villages have become popular with stars of the fashion world, and so they are awash with the likes of Liz Hurley and Kate Moss.
PR guru Helen Penney, who lives in one of the most picturesque villages in England -- Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds -- shares characteristics with the two types. With Miss Marple, she shares wisdom and mature years; forget, however, the Marple tweeds -- this elegant woman favours classics by Sonia Rykiel and likes trying new, edgy designers such as Tory Burch.
Like fashionistas Liz and Kate, she has spent her life entrenched in the fashion world, and much of this time was spent in Dublin helping to launch Irish fashion greats, including John Rocha and Louise Kennedy. She has also, for over 35 years, handled the PR for Penneys and, more recently, its British sister brand, Primark. So, far from obsessing about the annual fete, Helen has spent her working day writing press releases and organising fashion shoots. She's also been making sure that fashion journalists on both sides of the Irish Sea are aware of the latest lust-have from the high-street chain, though most had no clue that her emails originated in the leafy surrounds of Barrington Cottage, as her home is called. Technology means that Helen can do her job from anywhere in the world.
Initially, she did the job from her base in Dublin, but a trip to the Cotswolds resulted in a love affair with the area and a move to Moreton-in-Marsh. "What happened was we came on holiday in '95, and loved the village. We had no intention at all of buying a house, but out of curiosity we took out a subscription to an estate-agency magazine and an issue happened to arrive as we were coming over the following year for a visit. This house was in the magazine, we came to see it, made an offer on the spot, flew home and then thought -- 'what the hell have we done?' The next morning we heard we had it," Helen recalls with a laugh, adding that they sold their home in Foxrock within three weeks. Those were the days in the property world.
Country life had never before been a feature of Helen's life. Raised in London, Helen Baillie Noble, as she was called then, used to walk through Harrods daily by way of a shortcut to the small private school she attended. "I grew up in Knightsbridge. If I went to Hampstead, I thought I'd fallen off the planet," she notes. After finishing school she did the London season -- the annual round of parties, culminating in Queen Charlotte's Ball, for girls of good families to meet suitable suitors.
She didn't meet anyone she wanted to spend her life with at the parties, but she did meet her husband, Richard Penney, very soon after, when she went to work in an advertising agency. They married when she was 19, and children quickly followed, so she gave up work to look after them. But her stint as a full-time mother didn't last long; when her third child was eight months, Helen was 23, and she took a job in Courtaulds fabric company. Within a year, she was asked to have a go as their PR. "I thought 'nothing ventured, nothing gained', never having done PR in my life," she recalls, but she was an instant success.
Richard was sent to Dublin to work, by his company, in the early Seventies, and Helen and the children, Caroline, Bridget and David, joined him, and she soon found work in PR. In 1974, she was approached by Penneys. She continued, despite the arrival of her fourth child, Adam, in 1975. She also did the PR for Brown Thomas for a number of years as well as the Design Centre and individual fashion designers.
"The early days were most interesting because there was only a bit of fashion in the newspapers -- just the odd picture. For the Penneys account, I worked with a marvellous fashion photographer called Ursula Steiger and we came up with such wonderful pictures the papers couldn't resist using them," she recalls.
She worked for Penneys -- no relation! -- consistently and they weren't remotely fazed when she decided to move her operation to Britain -- at that stage, Richard, who had become managing director of Irish Marketing Surveys, had retired. And, despite her passing the normal age of retirement herself five years ago, the high-street chain were so pleased with her performance they actually asked her to take on further work. "Primark had been here in Britain since the early Seventies; they asked me to have a go at the PR. I thought, 'I have nothing to lose. If I'm a failure, no one will be any the wiser. If I'm a success, then it will be nice to go out as a success.'"
She says it took perseverance. "I got nowhere for about a year, but I suddenly managed to break into Vogue -- they were impressed by a particular jacket and, once I got their stamp of approval, the floodgates opened," she remarks happily. She's just announced her retirement, and it would be fair to say she is going out as a success -- sure proof is in the framed letters from the likes of Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman on the downstairs-bathroom walls of Helen's Cotswolds home.
The 200-year-old house is not big -- two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, a further bedroom downstairs as well as compact kitchen, living room and sun room -- but it is big enough for Helen and Richard, who edits the village magazine, and their dachshund, Rosie. It's also full of character with the original wooden beams. Helen has a great eye, and by combining cream carpet with cream furnishings and adding lots of paintings -- mostly work of Irish artists, including Brett McEntaggart -- she has created a cosy, elegant home. It's terribly English, and why wouldn't it be -- wasn't the English Civil War fought on the hills, which are part of the wonderful view from her garden?
Now that she's retired, she plans to spend time in her garden, but she has another project. Though Helen used the surname Baillie Noble before her marriage, it wasn't her father's name; her father, a boxing promoter who died when Helen was 14, went by the name George Dingly. She has no idea why she wasn't called Helen Dingly. "Children then didn't ask those sorts of awkward questions. My mother's first husband was WP Noble and Baillie was an old family name that my mother took. Now that I've retired I'm going to delve into it and fathom it all out," she explains.
A mystery to be solved? It looks as if there's more of Miss Marple in Helen Penney than first appears.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine