Lessons in French
We tend, as a race, to divide people into types - the dreamy type and the practical one; creative versus business types; sophisticated town types and country types. But of course, some people have traits of all the types, and Helen Lambert Kennedy is one of that lucky genre; she's creative, she has a business brain, and she's a country girl who loves the city life.
Nowadays, she's managing director of a big international company based in Paris, Lambert + Associates, and, as such, she deals with the sophisticated worlds of high fashion, luxury accessories and opulent interiors, but she started life as a country girl on a farm in Tipperary. She still loves that rustic world, too, ensuring that she gets to the French countryside as often as possible, even if her hectic, peripatetic lifestyle allows for few trips home to enjoy the Irish landscape.
And when she decided to look for a family home for herself and her two children - Julian (now 25), and Olivia (now 16) - she opted for an apartment next to the Bois de Boulogne, the nearest thing to countryside in Paris.
It has to be said that her childhood home wasn't purely a bucolic paradise - yes, it was a large dairy farm, and her parents kept horses, too, but it was a fine old period house, and it was here that Helen developed her taste for style. "Growing up, I always loved beautiful things," Helen recalls, adding, "We lived in Tullamore Park in Nenagh, a lovely old home, so we had nature's beauty around us - beautiful old chestnut trees, oak trees; there were nice walks; we all rode horses; and we all hunted. Also, in the house, there were paintings and furniture that were old and beautiful and had family history, so I was brought up in that kind of environment."
Helen went to school in Dublin, and it was here she fell in love with the French language and all things French. After finishing school, she got the opportunity to go to France. "Growing up, I always wanted to go to Paris, and when I got here, it was a dream come true," Helen notes. "I got work in the advertising department of the International Herald Tribune, which was great, as there were English and American people working there too, so from a language point of view, it wasn't a hard landing."
However, her idyllic life nearly ended abruptly. "After about a year-and-a-half, my parents said, 'You must come home now'."
The dutiful daughter did as she was told, but only for a weekend. "I flew in on a Friday and I came back on Monday. I told them I had to finish my discoveries, and they accepted that." Helen continued to get work in the field of advertising in Paris, and she realised she had a flair for it. "It was a fluke or good luck; that's what I landed in and I quite enjoyed it," she says.
After some years, she got a dream job with Elle magazine. When it first launched in 1945, it was a purely French publication, but before and during Helen's time with the company, new editions were continually launched in different countries, including the UK, Germany, Spain and the US. Helen, who rose to the position of director of the international advertising team, ran the advertising out of Paris for all the editions; during her years with the company, it increased the output to 36 fashion monthlies and 22 separate editions of Elle Decoration, which is a monthly interiors magazine.
"That's what brought me to where I am today, because I worked with all the big houses of fashion and beauty - and, indeed, interiors, because we oversaw Elle Decoration, too," she notes, going on to say, "I would meet with Chanel, Dior, Vuitton, and sell them advertising campaigns. So that gave me a real opening into the business side of that world; meeting the number one and the number two of those companies was super interesting. Working for a big brand like Elle was a door-opener."
After seven years with Elle, Helen was headhunted by the company she now owns, and moved out of advertising. "I was contacted by them to come on board and run the business," the elegant entrpreneur explains, "And I did for a year-and-a-half, but I had told them I wouldn't run it forever. I was interested in buying it, and I actually did buy it 18 months later."
It was a relatively small company then, and was purely a buying office for high-end goods. It still is a buying office, but it's much much more than that - the company is expert in international retail, specialising in luxury goods. "We work with top-end retailers around the world," Helen explains. "So for example, in America, we work with the Neiman Marcus group, and within that group, you've got Bergdorf Goodman, so we would source all their European product. They come to Paris, they come to Italy; we source and edit the market for them in advance; we match them with the products that will sell really well to their clients. So it's about timing; it's about the actual product; it's about pricing; it's a lot of elements. We have special edits for them, and exclusivities. Exclusivity is very important today."
Lambert + Associates has offices in Paris, Milan, Florence and London and employs a total of 60 staff, divided into teams which specialise in different areas, be it the American market, or the Chinese market; be it fashion or perfume or homewares. And they have a different level of involvement depending on the client. For example, the Chinese market has really opened up, and Helen's company was brought on board by one of Beijing's top department stores to oversee the development of their new homewares section. "We decided everything - we sourced their products; we did the merchandising," Helen says. "They have just opened another store in Xian and we are working with them on that as well."
To get the right products, Helen's teams don't just source, they also commission designers, especially on the home and interiors side of things - they commission tableware for clients, lamps and tables; indeed, anything for the home.
Helen is passionate about art, design and craftsmanship, and has just finished a book showing the work of talented artists and artisans worldwide, including that of Irish women Sara Flynn and Sasha Sykes. Titled Uncovering Unique Pieces, it will be launched in mid December.
Helen, who was awarded the French National Order of Merit in 2013 for services to the French economy, has many unique art pieces in her delightful home and her innate sense of style pervades every room. Located in the Neuilly area of Paris, right next to the Bois de Boulogne, the apartment - which is unusually large for a French apartment, with its three bedrooms, three bathrooms, two living rooms and a spacious kitchen - is in a block dating from 1928. "It's art deco," Helen says. "I liked the volume - high ceilings, high windows and lots of light."
It's obvious from the stunning decor that Helen has fantastic taste. It's a combination of a bold use of colour, interesting textures and shapes, and an eclectic mix of styles and periods; antiques are mingled successfully with ultra modern pieces, and there's a great sense of fun throughout.
One theme pervades the whole interior: the wild. Four panels depict a family of elephants; there is a pacing cat; a pair of bronze horses are captured in an embrace; zebras' heads adorn cushions in the study. It all goes to show you can take the girl out of the wild, but not the wild out of the girl. Lambert + Associates, see lambert.associates
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine