Friday 19 July 2019

I just don't get this 'having to dress up' - Irish couturier Peter O'Brien

Your evening wardrobe should just be "a posh version of what you wear during the day", says straight-talking Irish couturier Peter O'Brien, who gave our Fashion Editor an exclusive preview of his latest capsule collection for Arnotts

Peter's red cape dress, €295, which also comes in black
Peter's red cape dress, €295, which also comes in black
Peter O'Brien's drawing for the cape dress
Belted black satin trench coat, €350
Peter O'Brien's drawing for the 'nothing' dress
Pleated ivory blouse with short sleeves, €215; wool crepe culottes, €195
Peter's 'nothing' dress, in black crepe with chiffon sleeves, €295
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

Sitting in Barry McCall's photographic studio near the Liberties I'm getting the low-down on Peter O'Brien's seventh capsule collection for Arnotts while Ireland's most famous couturier drinks strong tea ordered, ever so politely, with "a nuage of milk".

It's 12 years since Peter moved back from Paris where he worked at Christian Dior under Marc Bohan, at Givenchy, and as a senior designer at Chloé. Peter worked for 12 years at Rochas where he designed womenswear and accessories, and oversaw menswear, perfumes and licenses.

I can hear Peter laughing from behind the dressing room door after I refer to him as Ireland's "most senior couturier" in an interview with Xposé, who are filming our Weekend magazine exclusive on his latest collection.

Jokes about ageism aside, the silver-haired Dubliner is fully aware of the respect in which he is held in his hometown and why there is a frisson amongst fans to get invited to his launch in-store next week. Tickets are limited and diehard Peter O'Brien collectors who positively eat up his costumes at the Gate Theatre or collected his signed watercolour prints for their homes, are poised to pounce.

Peter O'Brien's drawing for the cape dress
Peter O'Brien's drawing for the cape dress

Traditionally, it was Peter's signature great winter coats with their Russian-like full skirts and dramatic, ground-sweeping hemlines that generated the retail zeal every September. However, add to that a new fan club over the last few seasons for his voluminous satin skirts, tuxedo stories with a twist, shirts and knits, and you get some idea of why three generations of fans are keenly watching what this 60-something designer will deliver next week.

This season, there are a total of 28 pieces in the collection, with some special coats which, he says, "a Parisian woman would love". He's not being smug, just honest. The tailoring is exquisite and there's a playful pleats story in dresses that can be thrown in the washing machine. Add to that a tough but glamorous tuxedo theme across suiting and two dresses, including an ultra feminine wrap version.

I spot our cover image the minute I arrive at the studio. Barry is busy capturing a high-waisted tweed skirt (€225) and fitted sleeveless top (€155) which comes with a matching velvet collared coat (€425) in the same cream, navy and khaki houndstooth.

It's a striking, modern look but it's undeniably classic too, a combination at which Peter O'Brien excels. The tweed reflects elements of the colour palette which runs from black and navy through to army khaki and a Bordeaux red.

In a new move, Peter worked with Fisherman Out Of Ireland and brought to life the charcoal ribbed knit sweater (€95) and matching oversized scarf (€95) for which he won an award at Showcase in the RDS back in January. Prices in the AW16 collection start at €120 for two-tone knits and go up to €425 for his wool coats.

By now, Peter has a very good idea of who his customer is, so does he offer them sartorial advice?

Belted black satin trench coat, €350
Belted black satin trench coat, €350

"I always think it is really pretentious of designers, particularly men, to tell women how they should wear their clothes," says Peter, with a no-nonsense nod of the head.

"I just think - and it's something that I feel really strongly about - I think your posh/good clothes should just be posher versions of what you wear every day.

"I don't get that whole 'having to dress up' for the races or for a wedding," he continues.

"Why do you have to put a sugar-spun ship on your head as though you are Widow Twankey? You don't need it. If your daytime clothes is a long-sleeved shirt-waister, have it made in double silk for evening. I just think it should be easy. Then again, women have great fun dressing up and it is really churlish of me telling women not to dress up if they want to dress up."

So, who are his customers?

"I think the woman who likes my clothes doesn't own very many strapless, fishtail dresses - not that there is anything wrong with strapless, fishtail dresses - but I don't know how to do them and I suspect that if I was a woman, I wouldn't know how to wear them."

Peter O'Brien's drawing for the 'nothing' dress
Peter O'Brien's drawing for the 'nothing' dress

Peter says the women he dresses probably share his aesthetic and step well away from loud embellishment and loud colours. "I think she is probably quite brave, because in some ways, to be the woman in the plainest dress is brave."

Explaining his point, Peter says, "successful costume designers have a trick and if you have a character at a party or ball, you put them in the plainest dress and then everyone else vanishes into a sea of frills and sequins. It's the same in real life and I never know why women don't get this.

"I remember going to the opera to see La Traviata and all of Paris was there, in their gowns and jewels. I saw this woman arrive in a plain black YSL dress. It wasn't fitted, the dress had sleeves and she had no jewellery, but that woman knocked everyone else out of the water and I think that takes a huge amount of confidence and courage. In a way, it's braver to go in that plain dress.

"Look at actresses who have all these stylists, they don't eat carbohydrates, they are pummelled, buffed, lifted and they still don't have the confidence to wear a dress that doesn't have a slit down to their waist and up to their thigh. For a woman to dress in a simple, non-revealing dress in this day and age where the aesthetic of porn is the reigning aesthetic, I think you have to be a brave woman."

I'm intrigued with his red caped dress (pictured p22) which also comes in black and had its origins in a 1939 movie.

"There is a fashion show in the George Cukor film, The Women, which is every costume designer and fashion designer's favourite film and if they said it's not, they're liars. There isn't a designer who hasn't watched it a thousand times, and not the horrible remake with Meg Ryan, the original 1939 one. In the middle of the black and white movie there is a fashion show in colour and there are about four jersey dresses which kind of grow into a cape or a panel or a train at the back. I've always wanted to do it and do it in a way that didn't look costumey, so I was just scribbling one day and thought, 'Oh, I've done a dress with a panel at the back like the Spanish Infanta getting married' and I liked it."

Briony, the model for our shoot, bears a strong resemblance to the famous model-turned-stylist, Grace Coddington, she of the Titian corkscrew curls. Photographer Steven Meisel famously did an homage to Grace using model Karen Elson back in 2008 and our Dublin model looks the part, especially with hairdresser Michael Leong doing her hair, armed with a hair dryer throughout the shoot, to blow out those tendrils.

Peter's AW16 pleats story includes a stunning cream and black dress (right) which is cut straight like a T-shirt, tight to the body, with a circle skirt in black and ivory. Devout POB fans share the designer's love for big skirts. When I enquire, Peter explains how he, "once did one in the Gate Theatre for Ingrid Cragie and I think there was 40 metres of tulle. But I did a skirt in Paris which had layers underneath and I think there was 65 metres of pleats. This dress is far more reasonable, it's about six or seven metres," said Peter, who has also used pleats in a khaki dress/tunic (€215) and a flared polo blouse (right) styled for our shoot with wool crepe culottes (€195).

"We've had huge success with our duchess satin skirts," explained Peter. "We do one every season and this time, it's a double layer hem (€180) which gives the illusion of a double hem. We use a wonderful heavy cotton and viscose duchess which holds its shape very well."

There is a compelling tuxedo story in the mix including a jacket with bow on the left lapel (€300) worn with wide trousers (€195). There's also a navy shift dress (€265) with tuxedo stripes, double-breasted on the back with bows on the shoulder. Hardcore POB fans will remember the drop-waisted tuxedo dress Peter did a few seasons ago, and this time, he has reprised it in a very flattering wrap shape (€265).

As Peter sees it, he has two types of coat ladies. "There's the lady who wants a non-fitted coat and then there's the lady who wants to buy the fit-and-flare and might wear it as a coat dress."

His six coat styles this season include a double-breasted coat (€425) with a wide collar, flared back and narrow at the top in his favourite khaki green. My favourite black coat reminds me of his famous grosgrain-trimmed coat back in his A|Wear designing days. This version has a shawl collar which opens to the side and features pleats on the waist and a generous full skirt. At €395, the luxe quality is evident in the wonderfully heavy, triple weight viscose crepe.

For sheer impact, it's hard to pass on the versatility of the duchess satin trench (pictured right). Tying up the model's belt, Peter admits, "I think it is pretty great."

O'Brien is not a man for self praise but at the shoot, he can't be under any doubt that this shape works. Everyone has found a favourite. Mine is the tweed coat to go with the two-piece on the cover. The publicist can't take her eyes off the navy wool coat (€395) with 16 panels and a rich band of velvet on the hemline.

Before I leave, Peter introduces his 'nothing' dress (pictured above) into the conversation.

"This is pretty fabulous," says Peter, his eyes dancing into a smile. "You put this dress on like a T-shirt or sweater, and you're dressed. The sleeves are silk chiffon and the dress is made from double crepe. It is the easiest dress in the world to wear."

Clothes: The Peter O'Brien collection for Arnotts will be exclusively available in store and online at from September 14

Patent ankle boots featured throughout are €139.90 by Buffalo @ The Shoe Garden, Arnotts

Photography: Barry McCall, assisted by Dylan Madden

Stylist: Catherine Condell Hair: Michael Leong Make-up: Zoe Clarke

Model: Briony Somers, Distinct Model Management

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