Peek inside the completely rebuilt home of fashion dynamo Kate Gleeson
Albert Einstein was probably the greatest brain of the 20th Century - and he also said a lot of wise things, not least that the human spirit must prevail over technology.
We in Ireland have had a lot of upheaval in the last 10 years, and many people went under; however, in the main, it was those who embraced technology who managed to get their heads above water again. Fashion dynamo Kate Gleeson is one such person.
Kate had Diffusion, one of the most successful boutiques in Dublin. She dressed former President Mary McAleese, she dressed TV stars, and she also dressed many of the Celtic Tiger women.
She's still dressing discerning women, but in a completely different way - this time, she's doing it from the comfort of her own gorgeous home, through her website.
That's not to say the transition was painless. After all, Kate, like many of her age, knew little about the online world. What Kate knew was the boutique fashion scene - she knew it inside out; she'd been steeped in retail ever since she left school. In fact, business is in her blood; it goes back generations.
One of eight children - three boys and five girls - Kate is one of the Gleesons of Booterstown Avenue. Nowadays, Gleesons is a gorgeous gastropub run by her brothers. It's frequented by the rugby crowd as well as lovers of good food, but even when Kate was a child, it was something of an institution in Dublin.
"We lived beside the pub, and we learned our work ethic there from our parents; we're all hard workers," the stylish Dubliner says.
After college, she went to work in an accountancy firm and she also got part-time work in a fashion shop. "That's when I got the love," she explains.
She married very young, and when she had her first baby, Shane (now 26) she opened her own shop, Diffusion, on the northside. It soon became a bit of a magnet for fashionistas on both sides of the river, as well as for well-heeled women throughout the rest of the country looking for stylish occasion wear. It became something of an institution, in the same way that Gleesons is.
Shane was followed by Jessica (now 22) and the boutique thrived for over 20 years, with Kate bringing many of the world's most glamorous labels to Ireland. She was the kind of retailer who knew her clients and bought with many of them specifically in mind - people who were too busy to shop themselves and trusted Kate's judgment implicitly.
"I had the shop for 21 years and I loved it," Kate says. "It was like my baby, and I had nourished it. It was more than a boutique - people used to come in to chat, to relax, to browse; they relied on me for advice. My clients could relate to my style, my age."
Sadly, with the downturn, she could see that things were changing. She struggled on for a while, but when she had to close in 2012, it was a shock. "My father passed away the week before the shop closed. So two huge things happened. He would have been devastated. He liked to come over with my mother; he was very proud of what I'd achieved with it. I was numb for a while, but you know what? I'm a Gleeson. I picked myself up, and looked at my options," she says firmly.
The first thing she decided was to take a break and do some things she'd always wanted to try. These included an acting course at the Gaiety School of Acting, as well as a TV-presenting course - she loved both and they helped to give her back her confidence. Though she no longer had the shop, she kept in touch with her clients and went on some short trips to Paris on their behalf. She also started to do a bit of work with fitness expert Karl Henry, going into companies to advise women on their personal style and style in the workplace.
"I kept my toe in the water within fashion. I had to, it's what I do," Kate says. "I realised again that I know it - women trust my opinion, my sense of style. I felt there must be a way I can put that to good use."
Online was the way forward, and she did some courses before having her website built, and taking on a superb assistant, Dara Duffy. She began to research new, more affordable, easy-dressing labels for people's new, more fluid lifestyles. "It's not big brands, it's not high street, it's lots of casual and smart-casual and lots of lovely shoes," she says, adding that the brilliant Barbara Gaffney assists with the buying.
It hit her that if she mastered the world of online, her own special talent for helping women to dress could still be relevant, and she developed her USP.
"As well as all the usual ways of selling online, we have an 'Ask Kate' button," she says. "It's a bit like the Ask Angela of the problem pages of the old days. It says, 'I'm there for you', and I advise people all the time. I have a brand and people still love it; my collections are on trend, but it's an important thing for me to look after the customer. It's been a challenge to get people from the cosy shop in Clontarf to move to online, but I love a challenge."
Kate still does some retail in the form of pop-up shops four times a year, but her main business is online. And she doesn't even have to leave her house. The stock is all housed in a lovely gallery-style space in the house she and her second husband, Peter Lennon, built together. She and Peter, a solicitor and a father of two, knew each other years ago and then met up again nine years ago.
"He had separated, I had separated. He was living in Howth, I was living in Howth, and we met up. I decided to have a party, he arrived and we danced and we haven't been apart since," she says happily, adding that they're married three years. "Peter has been a fantastic support through Dad's passing, and the closing of the business," she says. "He even helps me, if necessary, to fulfil orders. He'd be there until midnight, packing the boxes."
When they met, Kate lived in a lovely dormer bungalow, which was on nearly an acre. The bungalow needed updating, but they discovered it would cost more to renovate the existing house than knock it down and build a completely new two-storey house.
"It was 2012, it was a good time to build - no-one was building," she says. "The old house was all little rooms with doors. And we wanted an open-plan space, for family not to be on top of each other, and we wanted everyone to have their own space."
They had other requirements too: a big open fire in the living room, a study for Peter, stylish bathrooms, interesting lighting, a welcoming hall and, of course, lots of light. Most importantly, a kitchen/dining/living space - what Kate calls 'the hub'. "This is the focus of the house and in the summer it's even bigger, because when we open up the doors it's like another room," she says.
The kitchen, made by Rhatigan and Hick, has some very special features, including a U-shaped, extra-high island where family can sit. Behind that island is a Corian worktop at a slightly lower level, which means onlookers don't see the mess associated with food being prepared.
The kitchen, like the rest of the house, is decorated in subtle, muted shades, but it's never boring, as there are lots of lovely textures, including marble, Corian, Portuguese limestone, leather, tweed, and corduroy. "I didn't spend fortunes on anything. I went to factories, I went to exhibitions, I did my research," she says.
As well as the expansive kitchen, there's a study, an office, a roomy living room, two bathrooms and four bedrooms, two of which are en suite.
A key feature of the house is the lovely wide, extra-high hallway. It was very nearly double the height it is now, as Kate was planning to have the hall open to the roof. A practical friend stopped her. "I was taking open-plan to a new level," says Kate. "Then I discussed the design with a friend who works in interiors, and she told me it would be a waste of space."
Instead, she had the space floored and this is the centre of her business.
There's a cushion in one of the bedrooms with the legend 'And they all lived happily ever after'. There's no doubt that both personally and professionally, Kate is back in a good place. "I feel very lucky," she says. "Anyone who has a second chance is lucky. I feel blessed."
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine