Gisele Scanlon meets the artists who labour lovingly on Mary Gregory's ethereal dresses...
The art of Gregory's girls
Gisele Scanlon meets the artists who labour lovingly on Mary Gregory's ethereal dresses
SITTING IN a kitchen in Dalkey, Mary Gregory cuts a delightful figure. She has a Bohemian air, long hair sweeping down her back, white clothes from her own collection and pink beaded flip-flops for shoes. Beside her, at a long wooden table piled high with palette knives, paints, potions, feathers and old bones, sits the regally pretty Joan Dalton. The atmosphere, like the patterns they paint, is ethereal. But the tranquil air is pregnant with anticipation and a feeling that at any moment this artistic haven could be shattered.
A mild-mannered man pops his head around the door to ask if it's his turn to collect the kids from school. It's Mary's husband, Aidan McCarthy. The kitchen is neither Mary's nor Joan's but the home of Kathy Giles, a third member of what can only be called the Dalkey Collective four women who gather to handpaint fabric while their children run free within earshot and vision. The fabric is for Mary Gregory's spring collection and has been responsible for its runaway success, and it's the reason I'm here.
However, the surprise success of the handpainted garments ("We did these handpainted linen skirts as an addition to the collection, and were absolutely staggered when they became the must-haves," says Mary) is the least of the rewards of the collaboration. Friendship between the women, their husbands, and most of all their children is now its raison d'etre.
In fact, it all began with the children. "Our boys had become great friends," Joan recalls. "They played football together. I would always see Mary and her boys, Joshua and Tobias, at matches wearing the brightest of colours. They were very well-brought-up young boys and I was chuffed my boys chose to hang out with them."
Joan has three children; Alexander, 12, and Nicholas, 9, are from her marriage to actor John Hurt. She's now married to a Dublin businessman and they've a beautiful three-and-a-half-year-old boy. Amazingly, first impressions of Joan Dalton have almost nothing to do with the strawberry blonde hair or the startling slenderness. No, it's the sheer politeness as she offers tea that hits you with an almost visceral force.
As with all great artistic collaborations, improvisation was the key that and a shared visual language. Mary was looking for people to do embellishment and embroidery. One day, Joan and Kathy, along with Melanie Lindstrom (a costume designer, and the fourth member of the team), visited Mary's collection in Brown Thomas. Going down in the lift, Mary suddenly thought: "Joan would be perfect."
Between the thought and the act, however, lies the creative impulse. Fortunately Joan Dalton is articulate as well as artistic. "Mary went away on holidays and left me with six hangers with dresses on them and said, 'Can you put paint on these?' She talked about birds, and she talked about a picture of a woman. I froze here I am with these perfect dresses all made up and I was supposed to throw paint at them. I started with one with a plain figure on it, rejected it, and started on another. But I kept coming came back to the first one, layering on more paint, rubbing it off. It now had layer upon layer of paint on it and from the woman through the bird it had become an angel."
She based the palette of that particular dress on the sea and cloud colours she and Mary both love and which feature throughout Mary's work. The angel was inspired by the paintings of Frank Auerbach. Joan later discovered Mary had based silk-screen images in a previous collection on Auerbach's work. One could talk forever about textures and tonalities, but not surprisingly the theme of this collaboration is angels.
We are interrupted by what seems like a herd of baby elephants dragging schoolbags through the front door and thumping up the stairs of Kathy's house. It's the kids, home from school.
The children eat, complete their homework and play while the mums work diligently on the painting. Kathy apart from being a gifted quilter (she does the artistic stitching on Mary's designs) is also responsible for a steady supply of queen cakes, cooking, toilet and study facilities, and a huge back garden for the kids. Her 12-year-old Patrick is friends with Mary's and Joan's kids. He introduces me to my first Twinkie. Husbands, it's plain to see, are crucial to this enterprise. They take responsibility for picking up the kids and bringing them round for their dinner. Joan's husband, she says, "was so encouraging he'd tiptoe his way round my paintings and make the odd comment like, 'I love seeing your work,' or, 'Those colours look great.' I can just ask his opinion, he's so supportive." Mary's husband Aidan is also her production manager.
Joan says: "If I collect the kids from school, they'll look at me in hope and ask, 'Ya paintin' today?' They're so disappointed if we're not.
"Last summer, we hired out Castle Park School in Dalkey and set up our 'Crazy Art Zone'. We arrived early every morning with the kids they played all day while we painted indoors."
"I remember I would go off to get the food," says Mary. "I'd take a little walk by the seashore. I'd find such peace room to create, room to think, room to design. I didn't have to think about paperwork, just my designs. I'd arrive back with the food for the kids, and a whole new idea would have come into my mind. It was the most creative period of my whole career. I still think of those days last summer, when I could look out the windows and watch the boys playing. It seemed I had everything at last.
"We stayed up well into the wee small hours making sure it was good. Then we'd retire to one of our houses to the back yard, after the kids had gone to bed, and we'd join our husbands for dinner and a bottle of wine. All of us together, we get on really well. Our husbands get on so well, they spend hours fantasising about flying a plane across America. They're into the flying, we're into the fashion. It works like a dream and we get all the time in the world to see our kids grow up around us." Mary feels that "working with Joan is a great inspiration it's all about creating something fashionable yet artistic and an amazing amount of both of our lives has gone into it". She describes Joan as "friend, adviser, wonderful mother and talented artist".
What exactly do they enjoy about working together?
"The best thing," says Mary, "is that I get space to create. Now I just design it's a dream come true."
For Joan, meanwhile, "Working and having your kids' voices in the background it's a privilege. I'm privileged that life has allowed me to do this."
Mary adds, "I love working with Joan. We become great friends in the space of a year and the business is thriving."