Brent Pope: 'Christmas is a happy time for most people, but it's lonely and sad for me'
“Nobody talks anymore,” Brent Pope tells me.
We’re sitting in The Westbury Hotel during Christmas week, surrounded by poinsettias and 10-foot tall Nutcrackers and women catching up over afternoon tea: it's hard to escape what time of year it is.
We’re here to talk about his shoe range POPE Shoes, but we get side-tracked early on with a shared opinion that Christmas is rarely all it’s cracked up to be. For some people, it’s a reminder of their loneliness – which is Brent’s real passion project: educating people on the importance of socialising with the elderly.
“Those days of going out and being able to talk to the bank manager or butcher, who can ask, ‘How’s the dog, how’s your kid?’ and chat for those few minutes, they’re gone,” he says. “It’s important and we’re losing that."
Brent’s parents, who are based in his native Christchurch, New Zealand, are both in their late eighties and he’s flying back home to meet them this week. But it’s clear the impending visit is playing on his mind.
“Loneliness for older people is a killer in this country,” he explains.”They talk about people with rural backgrounds being stuck out in isolation, but then when they get on a bus, they’re being faced with people all wearing headphones or on their iPhones, all rushing to somewhere. It’s a real rant of mine; I want to bring it people’s attention to look after the elderly.”
As for Christmas, he recalls a handful of stories at the top of his head – the newly separated father who doesn’t know if he will see his daughter on Christmas Day or the widowed father-of-two - to illustrate the importance of loving thy neighbour, or at least knowing their name.
“I think there are people that are sad at Christmas time. Even for just 10 minutes, call down to your elderly neighbour and see how they are. It’s just a chat is what they really want,” he says.
“I was on the bus into town and out of 30 people; I counted 26 people who were on some sort of device. I sat next to a guy and he started telling me that his two sons had emigrated and they’re married, living in Australia. Then I saw him welling up a bit and I said, ‘Are you okay?’
“He said, ‘No, actually. I’m very much alone. I lost the love of my life a year ago with cancer and now I feel very alone’.
"I said, ‘Would you not live with your sons?’
"He said, ‘I feel a burden to them, they’ve got their own lives’.
“When I got off the bus, he grabbed my hand and said, ‘Thank you for talking to me. Nobody talks to me anymore’.
“I was really quite emotionally taken by that.”
There’s no virtue signalling in his appeal, there are no pictures on social media of his do-gooding or preaching atop a high horse. He is simply, as he says, “employing everyday people like me to make more of an effort.”
While he makes a purpose of visiting New Zealand once a year, he made a difficult decision last Christmas to try something new and chose to volunteer at a homeless hostel over his normal routine of spending the day with close friends.
“I don’t have my own family, I’m not married – Christmas is a happy time for most people and I want people to be happy, but for some, it’s actually lonely and it’s a sad time,” he tells me.
“Last year, I decided on Christmas Day - because I often feel that people are very good to me and very generous about spending Christmas with them, but I always feel it’s a family day for them - I went to one of the homeless hostels and helped cook a meal; more again, all they really wanted was just to talk.
“I had a lovely day of meeting people and listening to their stories, some of them sad and some of them full of hope. That night, I thought, ‘What a lovely day’.
“This is going to sound stupid, when I see movies or ads around Christmas that involve barking dogs and big trees, it’s a sadness for me. Yes, people’s argument would be that I had a choice; it doesn’t have to be that way for me and I do have a choice, I could go out and be with my friends, but it’s just my way of thinking about Christmas because I’m away from my family. That’s where the sadness comes from. They’ll be there for Christmas Day and I’ll be over here.”
In recent years, he has become more sentient because of his parents' advancing age and and fears receiving "one of those calls that everyone dreads" while living on the other side of the world.
“My father is 87, my mother is 82 – they had a tough year last year, mum has bad osteoporosis and she had a couple of bad falls last year,” he says, adding that his mother suffered a broken shoulder, elbow, hip and pelvis.
“Now she has to have injections every day. She was always so active with horse breeding and such an active person; dad has had health problems for the last year or so and I’ve seen him age a lot. My brother has been great but I need to go home once a year and spend a bit of time with them. I’ve been here 26 years – they’ve grown up without me and I’ve grown up without them.
“It was very emotional last year for me, I was thinking, ‘I’m going to get one of those calls that everyone dreads’. If I can’t get home to say goodbye, it’s a two day trip, suddenly if mum were admitted to hospital with something life-threatening, I wouldn’t get to say how I feel about them. It’s quality time.”
Brent speaks fondly of his parents and it’s clear he misses the connectivity of having family in the same hemisphere and is enjoying the wisdom that comes with age.
“When I left New Zealand, they were about the age I am now. So I would have sat around the dinner table while they were in their mid-50s and I would have taken off for my adventures around the world and I looked at them and thought they were a bit old,” he said. “Now I look back and think, god I’m that age. It’s scary sometimes. “
"They haven’t been able to see my life and I haven’t been able to see theirs. Last time mum was over was maybe 20 years ago and then dad came over about 10, 11 years ago and helped me build and renovate my house. It was a great time for us together; we had a lovely time, but that was the last time he was over and they weren’t able to travel again. I make a point of getting back once a year.
He is full of praise for his brother Mark, who is his parents' primary caregiver and whose workload he tries to ease during his visits home.
“He’s been really great and I’m really grateful for him because he’s been the one to pick up the pieces and sometimes I feel slightly selfish,” he adds. ”Yes, I’ve made my life over here and I’ve tried to do the best I can, but sometimes I go back and that’s why it’s important for me to go home and allow him maybe a bit of time. He’s looked after them and he’s been there and I can’t be there for them anymore from the other side of the planet.
“I would have loved to come from a big family, that’s not saying that…unfortunately I wasn’t an easy birth and I don’t think my mother could have other children after me. I would have loved a sister.”
When I ask about his personal relationships, he explains that he prefers to keep “that part of my life private out of respect for partners”.
“I’m not married I can go as far as to say that. Over the years, I found relationships can be difficult for me. A lot of my life isn’t private and I like to keep…that’s not to say if I was getting married I wouldn’t shout it from the rooftops…at this stage, out of respect for people I might be seeing. It’s one of those things I just don’t talk about,” he says.
But back to shoes, which is why we’re here. His love of fashion goes deeper than a well-tailored blazer and jazzy pocket square, as a young man, it was his battle armour, his choice of weapon to boost his low self-esteem.
“My love of clothes which I’ve had all my life, comes from having low self-confidence and low self-esteem,” he explains. “It’s unusual for people to start with that. I think it’s important for people to know that growing up, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in the way that I looked and I thought if I could dress smartly then I would feel better about myself. That’s where I got my love of clothes. I used to buy clothes from the UK and Australia from seeing them in magazines, now I never looked like the models, but I always on trend.
“I didn’t follow the trends, I was always being criticised at rugby training – that was a macho world where guys all dressed the same and I would arrive in different gear whether it was rolled up trousers or looking like Dexie’s Midnight Runners on week. I’d always liked clothes.”
The lightbulb moment to set up his own brand in 2013 came from the attention his unique dress sense was bringing him. But setting up a small business is never easy and this was before influencer culture permeated our business culture and putting your name on a product was a big risk - one, as it happens, that has paid off for him.
“I always wore other people’s brands on the tv over 30 years and people would come up to me, especially wives or partners, after rugby matches asking where they could get a certain tie, shirt or shoes and I was always having to point them to other brands. About four years ago, why don’t I try my own brand,” he said.
“I was told by so many people that it can’t and won’t work; retail is so ruthless. My whole life has been about stepping out of my comfort zone in a lot of ways, even in coming to Ireland, not following the trends and being an advocate of mental health, all of these things have been difficult. I wanted to be hands on with everything – working with the design, fabrics, the buttons, to such an extent that I get the shirts delivered, I unpack and repack them, I go down to each of the stores and check sales, I do debt collecting, I do everything.
“I want to build up a little POPE brand. I always loved shoes. I want men to get into nice brogues and boots that are comfortable. I was sick of having to take your shoes off to hit the dance floor at a wedding.
“Anything I’ve done in life has never been about financial gain. I keep saying to people, I’ve never chased the golden egg, I do it because I’m passionate about it. I don’t wake up during a sleepless night and thinking about who’s paying for the shirts and I can’t cope with the sales or the pressure; I do it because I want it to succeed. The buzz I get from people saying I love your shoes. It’s because I love saying, I did that.”