Another String to the Bowe
After a successful foray in to fashion, Tommy Bowe talks business, style and recovering from injury with Vicki Notaro
While rugby players are a pretty dapper bunch in this day and age, it's still pretty rare that the worlds of the sport and fashion collide. Many of our top players have side businesses in the food and drink industry, investing in bars and restaurants; the Kearneys Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien own The Bridge 1859 in Ballsbridge, while Heaslip's other place Bear is a popular restaurant on South William Street in Dublin. But for Ulster and Ireland winger Tommy Bowe, it's clothing that came a-calling - and it's an industry he's grown very fond of.
With a men's fashion label and a shoe line to his name, Bowe is making clothes for the average Irish man with a reasonable price tag, and doing well at it too - his XV Kings apparel range has grown from 13 pieces per season to more than 65 in a couple of years.
"It all came about by chance, really," he tells me from his base in Belfast. "I first got in to shoes about four or five years ago. I was approached by two guys from Monaghan, where I'm from, whose family had been in the shoe business for three generations. They wanted to launch a new collection of men's shoes and wanted me to get on board. I didn't know a whole pile about men's shoes at the time, but I certainly do now!" he laughs. "I liked that it was something different, that I wasn't doing the tried and tested thing. That's how Lloyd and Pryce happened."
Two years later and after expanding in to women's and children's footwear, the trio decided to broaden their horizons and go in to men's fashion together. "I was quite keen to get in to clothing, and explore that new area. We toyed around with lots of different names; all three of us liked the Kings part, and the XV relates to 15 rugby players on a team. We thought we'd give it a shot, because it's hard to know what people will like."
And of course, Bowe is also the face (and feet) of his side projects. Is he comfortable in front of the camera, I wonder. "I'm not sure I'll ever be comfortable to be honest, but it's something I've been doing for 11 years, since I started playing rugby professionally, so I guess I'm just a bit more used to it these days."
For Bowe, business has been an eye opener - and the lines aren't just something he lends his name to, he's involved with both throughout the entire process. "I try to get as involved as I can - I chat to the guys and throw around some ideas, look at samples, see how sales and deliveries and manufacture are coordinated. I really enjoy the whole business side of it; coming from rugby, that's something I've done for so long and you're very much in a bubble. Everything is about the game, so it's great to step outside that sometimes and see how the real world works."
Bowe was out of action and off the rugby pitch since a knee injury took him out during last year's Rugby World Cup, but has just returned to the Ulster squad. Was it frustrating not being able to work? "Oh yeah, it's a killer, it's really frustrating. I was fortunate to be part of the World Cup and I really enjoyed it, but being injured and missing the Six Nation was tough. Once you get back on the pitch though, you see light at the end of the tunnel, and feel like part of the team again. To be honest, I don't really enjoy watching the matches when I can't play. It's difficult because you want to be out there, but injury means you can't be selected so I just had to keep myself busy and not think about it the whole time."
A newlywed, Bowe married former Miss Wales Lucy Whitehouse, a nurse that he met through friends when living in Wales and playing for the Ospreys. The couples now live together in Belfast where Tommy is back training and playing with his club.
Bowe admits that life after rugby is on his mind. "I'm always thinking about it, oh yeah. I just turned 32 and when you get to this age, it's a bit of a reality check. I'm very fortunate to be playing as long as I have - so many friends had to hang up their boots early, with their career ending in injury. It's something I'm very aware of, and even within IRUPA, they're very keen to try and get players to study or do some work experience, and get an idea of what they might like to get in to afterwards."
Although he deems it a "juggling act", Bowe is pleased with the side path he's taken thus far. "We got started with the shoes in a difficult period economically. Five years ago the recession was in full swing. So we've made a constant effort to try and put the clothing in at a price point that's very reasonable. We wanted to create a brand that people are happy with, but that's not breaking the bank. We're competing with huge brands though, like G-Star and Superdry."
Tommy's also adamant that they're not trend-driven. "We try to base the line around the average Irish man, and cater to as many different people as we can. We have some shirts with a bit of a funky pattern that some guys would never be seen dead putting on and other more plain and casual stuff. It's a nice mix. We're not trying to follow the trends of London or Milan!"
However despite his love for the fashion industry, Bowe's heart belongs to the beautiful game. "Rugby has always been my number one love, it still is and I'm so lucky to be paid to play the sport I love. But whenever I do finally hang up my boots, a new challenge could be to get in to the business world and try something different. I wouldn't say I have a business brain per se, but my parents had their own businesses growing up so it was a big part of my childhood; our parents worked really hard to be successful."
During his time off due to injury, Tommy did a bit of commentary for some Ireland games. Is punditry something that interests him, and might he follow in the footsteps of Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Horgan?
"It's something that I enjoy doing, whenever I was out injured it's nice to be still part of the game and get to go to matches. But it's not something I'm interested in at the moment."
I tell him that on his recent trip to Ireland, former All Black Dan Carter complained that he hadn't got a pair of Lloyd and Pryce shoes. "Ah, they're not on sale in Paris yet," he grins. "I must send him some over - and Ronan O'Gara too, his must be worn down to the soles at this point."