Saturday 20 July 2019

Interview: The second coming of Helen Cody

She made that dress for Stephanie Roche. Helen Cody talks to Barry Egan about the death of her baby, the break-up of her marriage, and how she found love in an unexpected place

Helen Cody, says of Stephanie Roche 'a star has been born'. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Helen Cody, says of Stephanie Roche 'a star has been born'. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Helen Cody and Rory Murphy. Photo: Anthony Woods
Love Actually: Helen Cody is happy to be back in Ireland, and in love. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Stephanie Roche turned heads at the Ballon D'Or in Zurich.
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Harry and Joe jump up on their owner's lap. Stroking the twin Shih Tzu, Jack Russell cross-breeds, Helen Cody shows me a picture of her father, Des, who passed away less than two weeks ago, aged 90. In fact, he died only 24 hours before the dress that his daughter created for Stephanie Roche made headline news all around the world.

"A star has been born in Ireland," Helen says of Stephanie, wiping her tears. "She lights up a room when she walks into it and she transforms when you dress her. I made the dress here." Her dad didn't live to see Helen's dress on every front page in Ireland. Picking up another framed photograph of her dad, Helen bursts into tears again. "He was a very handsome man, wasn't he?"

"It's like an anaesthetic. You just get anaesthetised to everything," she says of his passing.

Des was from Skerries; his future wife Mary was from Cork. She used to see him around west Cork on his bicycle, cycling past her. She saw him for about a year. They met at a dance in west Cork, says Helen (the youngest of the family after Brendan, Catherine, who lives in the West Indies, and Marion), taking up the story, "he saw my mum. They fell madly in love. They were married 63 years."

Eventually, they moved up to Dublin," adds Helen, now 49, who went to school in Mount Anville, went to NCAD, worked for Vogue in Paris and designed in New York, styled Mary McAleese for the 1997 presidential election before returning to win The Irish Designer Of The Future award on the Late Late Show in 2000.

Suddenly, Helen Cody had the world at her feet. "Peter Patterson of MA International rang me and asked to do a big range - he looked after John Rocha and lots of big names. Then we got to the fourth season and I was pregnant. I was 36." Her son Ethan was born on July 12, 2003.

It was also the day that Ethan died.

"I had lost my son - my first, beautiful baby boy. . ." she says haltingly.

How did she cope?

"I didn't. I fell apart. It was absolutely horrendous."

When I ask Helen does one ever get over something like that, she shakes her head. "No, you don't. Really honestly, no, you don't. It is eleven and a half years later, and it is a scar. It is a scar that you have that doesn't go away. But you learn to kind of accept it."

How does she accept it? "Time. Time is the only thing. " She talks about being "catastrophically sad. I was really, really heartbroken. I think I stayed here and I cried for about three months."

"Celine Cawley was incredible," she says referring to her friend and agent who was killed by her husband in December 2008 at the family home. "She was one of the first people to ring me. She said, 'Helen, look, whatever we can do, however we can help you, if you want to come back to the styling and the TV commercials, the door is open.'"

"I didn't want to talk to anybody. I was catastrophically upset. My little baby boy. He was beautiful. He looked like Simon," she says, referring to Simon Arnold, who was her partner for five years. "He is one of my close friends, still. The whole Arnold family are like another family to me."

There is a long pause. Even the dogs seem to know to be quiet as Helen contemplates the loss of little Ethan. "You know," she begins, "I can still see his little face. He had a mop of black curly hair. He was gorgeous. And he shouldn't have died."

I ask her is it difficult to be in the house that she grieved in when Ethan died all those years ago. "The weird thing was when I was extending the house at the back - I remember, Pat, my builder, saying to me: ' You make that kitchen nice and long because you'll have the run of him. He'll be running up and down.'"

"So I moved out. I didn't live here for three months. I couldn't come back here. I couldn't be here. But eventually you do have to get on with life. You have to function."

"Simon and I were very sad," she adds. "But I had incredible support from his family, from my family, from friends."

I say to her that I don't want to pry too much into her personal life but did she never try for a baby again after Ethan died?

"I did. I have had two spectacular miscarriages. I'm not meant to be a mom. And you think I'm protective over these two?" she says stroking Harry and Joe.

"It wasn't the plan," she says of motherhood. "It obviously wasn't the plan. It just wasn't the plan." Equally unplanned, Helen and Simon split up a year after Ethan. "We just couldn't. . ." says Helen, trying to explain the unexplainable perhaps. "We were just too sad in different ways. It wasn't any particular reason. We were also at different levels and stages in our lives."

As a consequence, Helen just buried herself in work. "There is no perfect way of dealing with grief."

"I'm not massively religious but you have to believe that when something that happens.. ." she says letting the sentence trail into nothing for the umpteenth time this afternoon in her home in Dublin 8. Helen says she remembers that the only thing that got her through Ethan's tragic death was that her sister Marion's friend Anne O'Callaghan (Miriam's sister), who died in February of 1995 of cancer, was, she believed, up in heaven, watching over him.

"It was the thought that Anne was minding him, Anne had him," she explains. "Probably some people would think I'm. . . but it kind of helped me that Anne was there and she was such an incredibly gorgeous mother. And she was minding him, minding my baby.

"And that was the only thing that didn't make me want to go under a truck, quite frankly, and follow him, because that's all I wanted to do, to be with him. But I couldn't get him back. And there was nothing I could do."

It was three years after Ethan's death that Helen decided she missed designing and wanted to go back. But she wanted to go back to doing it her way - "quietly, gently, my own private work for private clients."

An important part of Helen's healing process was that in April, 2006, she put on a show at a warehouse in Dublin owned by Treasury Holdings - "Johnny [Ronan] lent me the space" - dedicated to Ethan.

"It was about Ethan," she smiles.

"Everything was light and ethereal. There was fragility to every single piece of clothing in the collection. People actually started to cry when they saw the collection because it was," she remembers, "very emotional." Rather than seal over her emotions, Helen chose to face them. "The show was just full of love for my son."

It was powerfully cathartic to make the collection for Ethan. "It made me want it to be as beautiful as I could make it. There was light streaming through the warehouse. It was almost heavenly. My sister Catherine came home from Martinique. Her daughter was modelling."

"I had so much help at the time. People just wanted to help and wanted to see me get back on my feet again. Without them, I wouldn't have been able to do it. Celine Cawley again helped me," she says. "She organised loads of things . .. It was hugely emotional. This was the most personal statement I'd made through clothing."

"So," she continues, "I had this nutty life. I worked from home. Every single collection sold out. I never carried any stock. It would be gone in a week. This was 2006 and 2007 and 2008. It was an incredibly happy, peaceful time. I was surrounded by lovely friends and great clients coming back every season." (Ali Hewson, Amy Huberman and Sinead Cusack are among her regulars.)

Then in 2008 Helen met Matthew Anglin on a plane going to London. She ended up having this "great conversation with this big dynamic Englishman." He asked Helen for her number. She gave him her website address. He contacted her and was gently persistent. A whirlwind romance ensued.

They were engaged after five months: he got down on one knee and asked her to marry him in his house in Canterbury in Kent. In 2009, they married on May 29 in Our Lady of the Assumption St Gregory Catholic church in London with the reception at the RAC Club in Pall Mall. Matthew has two beautiful sons, who are, she says, "my step-sons, and who I love dearly, Lucas and Max. They are gorgeous boys."

Helen has pictures of them on the side cabinet. "I think I fell in love with the whole package of . . . he was a very strong man and he had these two beautiful sons. I really wanted to be a mother. I'm not going to lie. I really did. And I thought I could be this lovely [mother.]"

And at that stage had she had the miscarriages?

"No. It was during the marriage that I had the miscarriages," she answers.

"It was all that," she says meaning the ideal of marriage and children. "I was going to be a mum. It was like a fairytale. I was getting married to my knight on his charger who came over from England and whisked me off. He told me he would bring me back to very picturesque Kent which was extremely beautiful but not very interesting."

"But the bit that I loved most of all of it was minding the boys. Lucas came to live with us first and then Max came. Then we moved to London. I loved it. I loved the whole thing of being a rugby mum. I loved giving out to them. I loved cooking them dinners. I loved the whole thing. I bought into the whole thing. But I didn't know my husband well enough. I think I got carried away with the whole idea of the perfect marriage and the perfect romance."

I ask Helen was it the two miscarriages that broke up the marriage. "No. No. Absolutely not. I mean, I was getting older and I should probably . . . it's very hard for women to have children statistically if you are over 40, the likelihood of you losing a baby is very high. And the second miscarriage, because of my history, was so traumatic in a way because I was rushed to hospital in an ambulance. It was horrendous. Matthew thought I was going to die. We just said OK. Losing Ethan was the most traumatic thing that I've ever had to go through."

After the second miscarriage, Helen thought there was "something wrong," She says at the time she couldn't "fathom" why all this had happened to her.

It is a lot to carry, I say. "It is a lot to carry," she says. "I think because of what I went through with Ethan because I really went through it - I didn't stop myself crying. I didn't block it out. If I was sad, I felt sad. If I needed to talk to somebody, I would talk to somebody. It was a whole process. There was a massive hole. All my family have gorgeous children. My friends have children. I have this thing that the one thing I wanted more than anything else was to be a mum."

"You don't know what the plan is [in life], but I guess being a mother wasn't one of them. But I am a step-mum and I do love my stepsons very much, and I am very much in touch with them. But anyway, in the middle of all that, Matthew and myself [split]. He is just a very different type of character to me."

Helen relates that in the last summer while "I was basically leaving", she went to Matthew's crumbly old house in France on her own for three months. (She had stopped designing.) "I would walk into the mists in the morning. I was trying to be very philosophical but I had kind of come to the end of this marriage that really didn't work."

Why couldn't they work through it?

"It was not going to work. We were not compatible. It just wasn't right. We just weren't getting on. It wasn't right."

Was it that she was still grieving for Ethan?

"No. Absolutely not. I have met an absolutely magnificent human being now. I am very happy living in Ireland with a lovely man who is gentle and kind and romantic."

During that sad summer in France Helen quietly made a plan to come back to Ireland. In October, she couldn't afford to rent in Dublin, and her house in Dublin 8 was rented out. So two years ago she got a ferry from France to Rosslare and rented a pretty little house in Gorey. Helen did a little bit of healing on herself "in attempt to come back into myself." She got back into styling TV commercials. The first commercial she did she met the architect who designed the house they were shooting in - "a lovely man called Rory Murphy. I said I was planning on doing a little job on my shed when I got back into my house in Dublin. We have been very happy ever since."

When Helen said to Rory that she wanted her shed fixed, was that her way of asking him out? "I didn't realise I was asking him out, but one of the make-up artists said, 'Helen Cody is flirting with somebody downstairs!' I didn't even know I was, because, to be honest, the shutters were down. I thought I'd come back and be an artist, but I am not confident enough to be an artist then everybody started asking me when am going to starting making my dresses again."

She describes her romantic saviour Rory as "my best friend. We have proper, considered conversations about design and the whole process. And everybody loves him that's met him. The thing that I love most is that my father adored him. He was so happy to see me happy. It was such an incredible thing that my dad really got to know him over the last two years. They used to have great chats about industrial design because Rory's daughter Amy is studying industrial design in NCAD and my dad's background was industrial design. So the word is serendipity," she smiles.

"Honestly, the last thing on my mind when I came back to Dublin was meeting a fella. The plan was to get my life back together and launch my fashion and get my feet back on the ground again. But he is very handsome. He looks like George Clooney."

"I live and breathe artistic pursuits," she adds bringing me - and Harry and Joe - into the aforementioned 'shed ' at the back of his house and where she has been frenziedly working day and night on her new collection. (So frenzied, in fact, that Helen says she is urgently looking to hire a machinist.)

"I get so excited by what I'm doing. I don't even notice what happens during the day to be honest with you, because if we are making beautiful new work or collections or new things, I just can't get enough of it. I love it. I would make a new dress every day. I would make a new dress forever. I don't need to make collections. I don't need to make contained amounts of clothing and multiply them by 10. I just want to make the next thing."

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