Northern light... Jen Kelly, designer for princesses and presidents
Jen Kelly is dyslexic and from Troubles-era Bogside. He is, however, also creative and determined. Now he designs dresses for princesses and presidents at his period home. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
If a woman wants a showstopper of an outfit, Dublin-based Jen Kelly is the designer for the job; he's famous for his spectacular wedding dresses, ballgowns, and occasionwear.
Jen's dresses are the last word in glamour and drama, made as they are of luxury fabrics, be they shimmering sheaths of sequins, columns of crystals, or swathes of silk. And it's not just his designs; everything about Jen is theatrical, even his home.
Nowadays, Jen is mainly known for his couture designs, but he first made his name nationwide as the designer of the outfits for Riverdance - The Show, which broke the mould when it came to the world of Irish-dancing costumes. Jen's designs for Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, and the cohorts of dancers who filled the stage, were a far cry from traditional Irish-dancing outfits, which were stuffy and staid. Jen's flirty little dresses for the female cast were fun and fabulous and, along with edgy costumes for the male dancers, banished the frumpiness from Irish dancing and replaced it with pure sex - a quality that had been missing until then.
However Jen's theatrical background goes back even further, to his youth in Northern Ireland. "I always had a theatre background; I was in the 71 Players with Bishop Edward Daly in Derry back in the early 1970s," Jen recalls. Now in a nostalgic mood, he adds, "Then I came to Dublin in 1977 and I was one of the brothers in Noel Pearson's production of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in the Olympia."
However, while he adores the theatre, fashion was his first love and, even back in his days in the Bogside, he dreamed of becoming a designer. "I was on the march on Bloody Sunday; I was 12 years old with my little brother, who was nine; and my father and mother. Coming from an environment like that to end up in fashion is just amazing, you know, but my mother was always into fashion and I lived the movie life in my mind. Hollywood can take many forms," Jen says with a laugh.
After his stint on the stage, he decided to go to college and he spent seven years in all as a student. He spent two years at the then College of Marketing and Design - he was there at the same time as fellow designer Louise Kennedy - and then did a degree at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD). "I was dyslexic, I couldn't read very well, that's why it took me a long time to qualify, but I did get a 1.1 when I finished," Jen says with justifiable pride.
During his NCAD days, Jen spent a lot of time with renowned artists including Cecil King and Pat Scott, both now dead, and he feels they were an enormous influence on him. "With them, I was training my eye. I worked on three different Roscs [art exhibitions], and at the National Gallery. Pat Scott was a great mentor. Look at how simple yet brilliant his paintings are. He used to say to me, 'You endlessly create and recreate and adjust your proportions', and that's what I've done most of my life," Jen says, his northern accent breaking through in his enthusiasm. "It was always in the back of my mind, 'How could I make a living from fashion and design?' I knew I couldn't be like Pat Scott, but I could be an artist in my own way."
Jen's self-confidence was well founded. After college, he was given commissions by advertising companies and made costumes for commercials. He also created the costumes for three operas for television. Then, in 1994, he was commissioned to work on Eurovision and designed the outfits of the presenters - Cynthia Ni Mhurchu and the late Gerry Ryan. "After that, Moya [Doherty] came to me and asked me if I'd like to be involved in designing costumes for Riverdance - The Show and I said 'absolutely'," Jen recalls, "and I got straight to it, designing and redesigning and creating things for dance, and then the show evolved."
Jen did have a unique perspective on the costumes - he had, after all, been a top Irish dancer in his youth. "I was runner-up in the world championships three times when I was a teenager," Jen notes with a laugh. Sadly, his relationship with Riverdance ended acrimoniously, and he and the Riverdance people settled out of court.
Fortunately, in tandem with the TV work, he had set up as a couture designer and that went from strength to strength. His designs have been worn by most of the top Irish female politicians, and several international celebrities are big fans of his, including Her Royal Highness, Princess Nourah, sister of the king of Saudi Arabia. "She called me up and said, 'This is Princess Nourah of Saudi Arabia'. I said, 'Oh, fuck off'. I thought it was a friend of mine because the week before he was Naomi Campbell!" Jen laughs. He adds, "She has an Irish lady-in-waiting and she had seen my designs in the Sunday Independent. She's been a client for 10 years now; we see her in London and Paris. Because we're a republic, protocol doesn't allow her to come to Ireland, as she has to have armed protection."
Jen, who has regular dealings with her, recalls the first meeting. "It was funny meeting her in London. I was told not to take her hand or look her in the eye; of course, the minute I met her, I took both hands in mine and said, 'That's the softest hand I've ever felt'. She wasn't insulted, I think she likes my Irishness. She's adorable. I ring her up and say 'Princess, it's raining here, what's it like there?' 'It's about 40 degrees,' she says, 'your rain sounds lovely,'" Jen says, explaining his informal relationship with the Saudi royal.
Other clients include Mary Robinson, during her presidency, and according to Jen she was 'beautiful to dress, so tall and slim'. He is quick to add that he dresses women of all shapes and sizes. "It's not a prerequisite for me, for a woman to be tall and slim. Lots of women say that in a suit from me, they lose two sizes," Jen explains, "I cut so well, and when it's cut in proportion to the person, they look beautiful."
Celia Larkin, who is now London based, is both a client and a pal. He also dressed Jean Kennedy Smith; and Maureen Orth, who was contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and still does occasionally.
Jen's first salon, immediately after graduation, was in Grafton Street, then he moved to Molesworth Street. Twelve years ago, he moved to North Great George's Street on the Northside, where he bought the magnificent Georgian townhouse which is both his home and the base for his business. "This house is the true essence of a fashion house because I create here, we manufacture here, people come here to buy and be fitted, and I live here," Jen explains.
The house dates from 1756 and is one of the oldest in the street. "It was built by a Georgian bishop, and it took ten years to build," Jen says.
It was purely accidental that Jen ended up with this house; he had come to the street to see a different house, but the owner didn't turn up with the key and he heard one auctioneer say to the other, "Let's take him to see Nabil Said's house".
"I found out that Nabil is a manuscript expert who moved to London and so put his house in Dublin up for sale," Jen explains. He was immediately smitten, particularly by the hallway. "I went through the front door, into the hall and the minute I saw its design - so Moorish, and I love all things Moroccan - I said, 'I'm buying this house'," Jen recalls.
It's not always easy to get what you want, as Jen found out in his negotiations with the manuscript expert. "Every time I made an offer, Nabil would say, 'Perhaps a little more', until I was strung out." Yet, Jen was confident that he would eventually get the house - in Morocco, he bought a lamp for the hall before he even sealed the deal.
Nabil had, fortunately, done quite a lot of restoration work and anything he hadn't restored, he had labelled and stored in the basement, making it possible for Jen to continue the restoration process.
Over the last dozen or so years, he added a new roof and rewired and replumbed the house. Jen also says he relined 26 chimneys from the bottom to the top, and according to him, there is not one piece of original joinery in the house. "To be fair to Nabil, the shutters were all down in the basement, but the skirting and architraves had to be made. We even had to have the metal tools crafted to create the architraves and skirting exactly as they should be," Jen explains.
The 20-room house comprises five storeys, including a basement level, and adds up to 7,800 square feet in total. It's big, though it's hard to believe that, according to Jen, 26 families lived in the house until the 1960s.
Some of the rooms are pristine; some are left virtually as Jen found them, apart from essential repairs. Some of the fireplaces in the house are original, such as the one in the piano nobile, which Jen found buried in the basement; while the cut-stone fireplace in the front room dates from the same period as Jen's house. This mantlepiece was taken from the house in north Co Dublin of Captain Bligh, of 'mutiny on the Bounty' fame, who came to Dublin to survey the North Bull Wall.
The drawing room on the ground floor hasn't been tarted up, as parts of the walls boast extraordinary decoration, dating back many years, though possibly 100 years later than the actual house. It's not all in perfect condition, but it's still beautiful and depicts a series of Roman coins. "The plasterer of the time, he was almost like a travelling troubadour, going from town to town selling his wares. Well, the guy who was the plasterer on my house, he was French, his name was Pierre Laurent, and Ely House has very similar plasterwork. I've cleaned it, but it is what is - you wouldn't paint Pompeii," Jen notes.
Some of the rooms are furnished with antiques Jen has collected, and he has mixed these with contemporary pieces as well as artefacts picked up in Morocco, his favourite country and his second home.
Some of the house is given over to work rooms for his staff. "Everything is done here - the design work, the cutting, the embroidery, the applique work. I'm very proud that it's all done in-house, in Ireland," Jen notes.
Clients also come to the house for fittings and Jen goes out of his way to make sure it's welcoming as well as luxurious. Buying special occasionwear from Jen is a bit of an occasion in itself, and women regard the clothes he designs for them as luxuries they treat themselves to, when they feel they deserve them. "I had a client who had a cancer scare and she said this is what kept her going," Jen explains. "She said, 'If I beat this cancer, I'm going to sit on the tallest bar stool, and drink the longest drink, in the shortest Jen Kelly dress'," Jen says with a smile, adding, "I live by that ethos. As a gay man, I'm very proud that I can make women feel beautiful and shine, and if I can do that, I feel that I will always be in business."
Jen Kelly Design Studio
50 North Great George's St, D1,
tel: (01) 874-5983,
or see jenkellydesign.com
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