Tuesday 21 November 2017

Can't live without colour - designer Helen Steele


Helen Steele and Saoirse Ronan at the Irish Premiere of Brooklyn in 2015
Helen Steele and Saoirse Ronan at the Irish Premiere of Brooklyn in 2015
Saoirse Ronan pictured at The Irish premiere screening of the film Brooklyn at The Savoy Cinema Dublin, Pic Brian McEvoy
Helen Steele.
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

Artist and fashion designer Helen Steele is a creative force who believes firmly in the power of explosive colour, writes our fashion editor, who visited her at her studio in Co Monaghan.

Helen Steele was shouting support on the sidelines of her son Ronnie's GAA match in Emyvale, Co Monaghan, in 2013 when her mobile phone went into meltdown. The mum-of-three parked her curiosity and stayed in the sporting moment. But when she powered her phone on at the end of the game, she discovered a flood of excited texts and urgent voicemails. Her email inbox was similarly bursting.

The reason for all this Saturday afternoon hysteria lay across the water, in Glastonbury, on the back of one Cara Delevingne. The top model triggered Helen Steele-mania worldwide when she wore the Irish designer's graffiti-print bomber to the trend-setting music festival.

It-girl Cara's Hudson jeans, Sandro backpack and Timberland boots were duly noted on social media - but it was the €695 silk satin reversible bomber, with duck down padding, that triggered global lust.

"I couldn't believe it. It was crazy and I had orders coming in from Asia, especially from Seoul. It was crazy stuff," says Helen (43).

This was the power of celebrity marketing calling to the Kildare-born designer's door, something she had already had a taste of when Korean girlband F(x) wore her printed leggings in one of their videos - with no less than 16million views.

All of this could have been a little overwhelming for Helen, who studied fashion at NCAD and at Barbara Bourke College but then found an expressive niche in the art world. At the height of her art career Helen was stocked in eight prestigious galleries worldwide but, when the recession hit, that nosedived to just one - and as bad luck would have it, that gallerist then retired.

A career dip like that can take its toll on an artistic soul and prompt a confidence deficit, but Helen responded by pulling on her orange jail-issue jumpsuit and exploring all the creative avenues she could find - even logging her dreams in a notebook beside her bed so she could analyse them next day to possibly feature in her work.

There are not many fashion enterprises in Ireland now that could say they have the recession to thank, but Helen can. The turn of the financial tap brought her back to her original career path in fashion. A decade after leaving fashion school, however, she returned to it with a highly individual approach to colour and method for achieving unusual prints.

This is the woman who throws darts at condoms filled with paint to watch the colours fly and land on white canvas. She has been known to take a chainsaw to a paint-filled teddy bear to observe how the paint behaves. And she's used wind machines to achieve a movement where the paint "takes on an energy of its own".

Each season for her "wearable art" clothing, Helen goes to new lengths to create unusual patterns and for these she finds inspiration in all sorts of places (this season, she looked at road markings). Her 15-year-old daughter Halle (pictured above right) - middle child between Chloe (20) and Ronnie (12) - recently wore a dress to the VIP Style Awards with a print inspired by fallopian tubes, no less.

The starting price to enter the world of Helen Steele fashion is around €200 for a scarf, €300 for a top, and her 100pc silk dresses this season cost from €550 to €765. Fans know to find them at the Dublin boutique Costume, located on Castle Market. The owners, the Tucker sisters, have been incredibly loyal supporters and stockists of Helen's work since 2010. They immediately recognised the reaction to Helen's colourful duck-down-filled puffa jackets - stuffed with feathers from the Steele family duck farm, Silver Hill, in Emyvale. It's here that I meet Helen in her studio - a converted duck hatchery. This season, her collection of easy-wear dresses with flattering, collarless necklines and dropped waists with external pleating includes Helen's nod to a daytime kaftan in her dramatic blue stripe print (€550), which she models for us (above).

"We don't realise just how important colour is," Helen says. "I studied colour theory, and how I place my colours and use them is an integral part of creating my print. Because of where we live, in Northern Europe, we are kind of deprived of a lot of bright shades and that is why I work with so much colour - but you don't have to dress head-to-toe full of colour. It can be something simple.

"For example, the reason men wear so many blue shirts and neck ties is because it is such a good communicative colour; it is really good for helping you talk. Pink is a very nurturing colour and purple is a spiritual colour. I would use a lot of blue, pink and red, which is very exhilarating. And red is also a good thinking colour. I personally don't think red is a danger colour."

Helen Steele's girl fans are many. Oscar-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan collaborated with Helen on a custom-made peacock print dress for the Irish premiere of the movie Brooklyn (left) in October 2015. As I chat with Helen at her studio, she admits there are times she is surprised about where her dresses turn up - like when Ali Hewson was photographed last summer wearing one of Helen's dresses walking with Bono and Bill Gates in St Tropez. And in a nice touch of synchronicity, it turns out that today's cover star, supermodel Helena Christensen, is also a Helen Steele fan.

For those who look to Helen's fashions as wearable art, the hot news is that she has developed a new interiors line - comprising tablecloths and napkins - in Harri, a repetitive print inspired by her artistic brushstrokes and then "tidied up on Photoshop".

At present, the range is called Untitled, and I can personally vouch for its vibrancy. When we arrived, Helen cut off the first table-length cloth to "dress the table" for us to enjoy lunch on. It is joyously colourful and will be available to buy from Helen's website, helensteele.com

Photography by Frank McGrath

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