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Costelloe sewing seeds of survival after setback


Paul Costelloe pictured with Rosanna Davison. Photo: Reuters

Paul Costelloe pictured with Rosanna Davison. Photo: Reuters

Paul Costelloe pictured with Rosanna Davison. Photo: Reuters

Paul Costelloe made his name giving women high fashion they could actually wear -- elegant, understated and classy.

But you don't survive in the cut-throat world of high fashion for four decades without a ruthless streak and Costelloe has had to come out like a streetfighter to save his womenswear business.

Costelloe's tailoring may be sharp but so is his tongue when it comes to analysing the recent setback to his business.

The Costelloe look was a favourite with the late Princess Diana and is, even now, a wardrobe staple among the young royals. A few weeks ago, Prince William's fiancee Kate Middleton was seen buying Paul Costelloe clothes in Peter Jones, the Chelsea branch of the John Lewis chain.

But the Costelloe look is also cherished by women of all ages and sizes, selling in John Lewis stores in the UK as well as Brown Thomas and House of Fraser in Dublin and in a number of stand-alone outlets throughout Europe.

All was well until Signature Brands, the British company which has produced and sold the Paul Costelloe womenswear collections on his behalf for the past 10 years, quietly went into administration nearly two weeks ago in the face of mounting debts. Ernst & Young were appointed administrators.

Signature has specialised in the management of top fashion brands and held licences to produce and sell 10 designer labels. Paul Costelloe was the highest-profile label but the company also had Dannimac in its stable.

Most top designers like Paul Costelloe have a backing company behind them which funds, produces and sells the clothes.

Signature wholesaled the Costelloe collections for women and also ran Costelloe concessions in major stores.

"The licence I had with Signature was running quite well until a couple of years ago. At that time they invested a lot of money in another brand but that investment went astray. There were big overheads, a swanky headquarters in a large Georgian building in the heart of London and lots of staff. Eventually the bank said enough was enough," says Costelloe with typical bluntness.

It meant that Costelloe had to move quickly to disentangle himself from the problems at Signature. Lawyers are still involved.

At the same time he personally visited all the stores where his clothes are sold in Britain and Ireland.

"They were all incredibly supportive. It was a great opportunity for them to say 'Okay, sorry Paul, but we don't really want your brand anymore', but they really wanted it. They have really stood by me. The product is on the shop floor. It is selling and we are now hoping in the next 10 days to get all the spring stock in. Once the lawyers have cleared everything away and the fog has lifted I'll still be opening London Fashion Week on February 18."

Costelloe's appearance at the fashion showcase later this month will be a personal statement of survival. He has been showing at London Fashion Week for the past 15 years, opening on five occasions.

He is hoping that out of the ashes of Signature will emerge a new, more aggressive, more dynamic and more ruthless company to sell and market his collections.

Paul Costelloe is now working directly with Calvelex, the Portuguese manufacturers and he is confident that it will bring improvements.

"What I am trying to do is make the transition as seamlessly as possible into the new company that will emerge. The stock belongs to Calvelex, the name belongs to me and I own the intellectual property rights. All that remains is the transfer of the concession and that is what has to be sorted out legally.

"It's been a dramatic few weeks. But I can handle stress reasonably well. It was something that I perceived might happen for some time so it didn't come as a total surprise to me. I feel most sorry for the innocent shop people who were laid off," he said.

He believes women have become much more selective.

"She is not buying on impulse but she is looking for quality and longevity in what she is buying. Our sales in Brown Thomas on ladieswear are up on last year."

"I believe that for Irish women, price is not the number one priority. Retailers who concentrate on price are going down a slippery slope. What is important is not price but value. There is a difference," he says.

Separate from his designer label for women, Costelloe designs a men's label in association with Berwin. More recently he has produced designer glasses for Dunelm Optical and jewellery for Emarno Jewellers. He also created corporate wear for Aer Lingus, British Airways, Qatar Airways and Delta Airlines, as well as homeware for Dunnes Stores.

The Irish Olympic Team and the European Ryder Cup teams also wore his designs and the European Solheim Cup golfers will be dressed by the Dublin-born father of seven.

He doesn't believe that the recession has spawned any great desire among Irish women for austerity wear.

"I think they want to escape. They want optimism. For the winter collection we are showing a lot more colour. And what is also interesting is that this year I am showcasing Irish tweed. There is a company called Hanley's of Nenagh which is producing beautifully fine cloth in sumptuous colours."

On February 18, at 9.30 in the morning, Costelloe will show his latest collection filled with colour. He's hoping to go back to where he first started -- to Paris in the late Sixties.

"I've gone back to the couture look, Ungaro, very chic, very sexy with a lot of tailoring. I am showing suits but they are not plain suits. That's where the Irish tweed comes in. Very modern, quite fine and a lot of plaids. Think of the Champs Elysees, Avenue Matignon and ladies with money going to Longchamps."

And in honour of his return to Irish tweed for inspiration, every model on the catwalk will have red hair.

Sunday Independent