Always a cut above the rest
With the death of Pat Crowley Ireland lost a trailblazing fashion icon, says Emily Hourican
'You just had to have a Pat Crowley in your wardrobe." So said Cecily McMenamin, legendary buyer for Brown Thomas, of the designer who, throughout the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, dressed the most stylish women in Ireland and abroad, including Miranda Iveagh, Terry Keane, Patricia Jorgensen and various socialite Kennedys and Whitneys, who were charmed by the combination of elegance and romance in her clothes.
Pat, who died on Monday, aged 80, created clothes that were witty, impeccably finished and always a sophisticated take on Irishness -- exquisite tweeds, knits and linen, worked into classic pieces that had a magic ability to find and flatter the character of the wearer. "Pat had an amazing imagination and she was very inventive, I think she was almost psychic," Iveagh once said of the woman who was a friend as well as designer. Miranda once wore a glorious white Pat Crowley for the cover of Town & Country magazine. "She dressed me regularly and I always felt frightfully happy in her clothes. She dressed you in such a witty way, to fit your character. And she herself was terribly stylish," Iveagh said.
But more even than her considerable talents as a designer, Pat Crowley was admired for her warmth, vivacity and enviable business sense. A redoubtable woman, she learned her trade young, studying fashion at the Grafton Academy, because, as she said "my mother said that a girl should always know how to make her own clothes".
The fact Pat was able to move from the cottage industry of running up dresses for herself to an international trade in sleek, even avant-garde clothes, demonstrates her considerable scope. Before that, she was an air hostess at a time when that was probably the most glamorous job in Ireland, and was on board the first-ever transatlantic flight out of Ireland. No doubt her good looks -- tall, slender, with high cheekbones and a mane of glorious copper hair -- helped, but it was Pat's keen intelligence and ambition that moved her through the next phase of her life.
She married Conor Crowley, an accountant, of Stokes, Kennedy Crowley, after they met at a rugby match (Conor's mother apparently pointed Pat out, her eye caught by the style and elegance Pat was famous for, and suggested he ask her out; in fact, Conor already had). But rather than settle down to a life of domesticity and children, unlike the vast majority of women at that time, Pat, according to her daughter Lisa, showed remarkable decisiveness and independence of mind, and went on the pill. "She hid the pill under the floor boards," Lisa said. "She was a thoroughly modern woman."
Instead, Pat went to work for Irene Gilbert, notoriously shy and an expert craftsman, who developed a close relationship with Grace Kelly, helping to create Princess Grace's signature look of cool elegance, including a Carrickmacross lace evening dress that featured in the Grace Kelly retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London some years ago. There, Pat learned the business of fashion design, including the all-important sales, marketing and management skills. At these, she proved naturally adept: "She had a way of charming husbands into spending a lot more than they thought they would spend on their wives," Iveagh would later say. That was a smart move at a time when very few women would have had an independent income.
Grace O'Shaughnessy, who modelled for Irene at thay time, and knew Pat well, remembers her as "one of those amazing, enviable people who can do anything they set their mind to. She was lively, engaging, and a wonderful entertainer. She was also decisive and straight-forward; she told it like it was. She had great confidence, the ability to be her own woman."
After eight years with Gilbert, Pat launched her own line, initially just knitwear and crochet, but soon branching out into complete collections of day and eveningwear, where she showed how capable she was of adapting her chosen materials to both the practicalities of day, and the glamour of night.
She understood her audience to perfection, and her first collection, in 1968, was an immediate success. From that point on, Pat Crowley became de rigueur for Irish women of a certain aspiration, and every age. Weddings, christenings and 21sts in the most beautiful houses around the country were a sea of Pat Crowley dresses as the milestones of life were celebrated and commemorated.
Eileen, the Countess Mountcharles, sculptor Linda Brunker and actress Rosaleen Linehan, were all to be found in the audience at Pat's shows -- which she staged and compered herself, with a clever understanding that her personality was as much a part of the irresistible mix as her fabric and cut. All the top models of their time took to the catwalk, including Laura Bermingham, Marie Staunton and Sonia Reynolds, who remembers those days with great affection.
"I was in my early 20s then, and modelling for Pat Crowley felt like entering another world, it was an honour to be part of it," Sonia says. "She was one of the most elegant women in fashion, and commanded huge respect. The shows in her salon, although very simple, had wonderful atmosphere, they were definitely 'society', and everything was treated with such perfection." Sonia also recalls that "Pat also had a slightly wicked sense of humour, so there was fun too".
Her grasp of the business side was excellent, and at one stage she employed 600 knitters, dotted around the country, while also stocking Valentino and Ungaro alongside her own creations. Those who worked with and for her recall the strong sense of loyalty that meant she maintained relationships, with employees and customers, year after year.
Pat may have delayed starting a family, but she and Conor went on to have three children -- Vernon, Lisa, and Fiona -- who grew up at Dolly's Grove in Dunboyne, Co Meath, a 62-acre stud farm, where Pat rode every day, dividing her time between the business that she ran so successfully for so long, and her beloved horses. She also cooked and created a beautiful house. Pat continued, full of the same energy and wit, almost immune to the passing of time it seemed, until she broke her hip in 1999.
Just a few months later, her husband Conor died very suddenly while Pat was in New York. That was a devastating blow, one from which Pat never quite recovered. She retired the following year, and sold Dolly's Grove and her horses shortly afterwards, for an estimated €4.25m. Sadly though, the onset of Alzheimer's, increasingly evident since Conor's death, could no longer be avoided, and Lisa, Pat's daughter, in an interview with Victoria Mary Clarke for this paper in 2004, spoke of how her mother was "regressing back to childhood ... But she's in good spirits. She's oblivious to the fact that she needs help".
Lisa also described the pattern of some few precious moments of lucidity, surrounded by many harsh and difficult times, as her mother steadily lost contact with her own memories
Later, Pat moved to a nursing home, where she died on Monday. For over three decades she was the glowing centre of Irish fashion, a pioneer of those modern designers whose clothes are an homage to traditional Irish crafts and fabrics. She understood style and elegance, and how these things will always trump trends.