Monday 21 May 2018

On course to create the wow factor

Our fashion editor, Bairbre Power, hosted a lunch at the Merrion Hotel in advance of the Longines Irish Champions Weekend and all the talk was of Irish racing style

Stylish: Orla Murtagh and Brendan McArdle
Stylish: Orla Murtagh and Brendan McArdle
Sophia Loren at Royal Ascot
Trainer Jessica Harrington with Moscow Flyer at Commonstown Stables, Co Kildare, in April 2005. Photo: Tony Gavin
Breathtaking in her signature style - the tailored coat - former US first lady, Jackie Kennedy, is guest of honour at the 1967 Irish Sweeps Derby at the Curragh. Pictured arriving with Taoiseach Jack Lynch
Fashions on the Field at the Melbourne Cup at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, in November 1965. British model, Jean Shrimpton, is second from the right.
Keen fan of Philip Treacy hats, Zara Philips pictured at Cheltenham
The late Princess Diana with Princess Anne, at the Epsom Derby in 1986

A roomful of key players in the Irish racing world gather together in the elegant Wellington Room at Dublin's Merrion Hotel for a lunch with a social element: a round table discussion to put the spotlight on Irish racing style.

The ladies, and gents, invited to the Weekend lunch, hosted in conjunction with Dorothy McCann, brand director at the Merrion Hotel, certainly know this horse racing industry inside out.

Eimear Mulhern, chairperson of Goffs, the Bloodstock Sales company, and owner of Abbeville Stud, travels to all the top racing and bloodstock events across the world. Tamso Doyle of Baroda Stud, and member of the Act D Wagg syndicate, has become something of a poster girl among young female horse syndicates - she owns one leg of the sensational Clondaw Warrior which could be off to the Melbourne Cup after its win in the Galway Plate in July.

Joining our conversation was top Irish fashion designer, Louise Kennedy, who dresses racing enthusiasts around the world from her salons in Dublin and London's super chic Belgravia. And when it comes to hats, milliner Carol Kennelly dispatches more hats abroad than any other milliner in the country. Her win in the Best Dressed stakes at the Galway races in Ballybrit eight years ago sealed her career and Carol's salon has the most perfect address - Racecourse Road, Tralee, Co Kerry.

Stylish: Orla Murtagh and Brendan McArdle
Stylish: Orla Murtagh and Brendan McArdle

This weekend, the Longines Irish Champions Weekend kicks off with races first in Leopardstown (where I'm assisting the celebrity judge, Rachel Wyse, judging the Most Elegant Lady), then tomorrow, the action moves to the Curragh.

The coveted Longines Prize for Elegance competition will be open to all styles, and racegoers and fashion enthusiasts will have the chance to showcase their style credentials in the hope of winning some of the €25,000 in prizes on offer, including the overall Longines Prize for Elegance and shopping experiences with Louise Kennedy, Louis Copeland and Kildare Village as well as a luxury stay at The Merrion hotel.

There are no tell-tale signs of jet leg as Louise, freshly returned from a holiday in the Hamptons, opens our discussion and responds to my quote from Carmel Snow, the Dubliner who famously edited the US edition of Harper's Bazaar for 24 years. Carmel wrote that, "elegance is good taste plus a dash of daring".

"I come with a very classical handwriting, which, I think, is very appropriate for horse racing and when we are talking about Best Dressed, I think a little bit of dash will certainly catch the eye of the judges on the day. Whether it's a very statement fabric on your dress or an outfit with a pared back hat, less is more," Louise advises. "You cannot throw the kitchen sink at it and over-accessorise but that little bit of personality is very important," she adds.

Designer Giorgio Armani maintains that, "elegance is not about being noticed, it is about being remembered." So, what's Louise's advice to being remembered on the racecourse?

"The Longines prize is for elegance so I would go back and start with that. You should never wear something just because it's in fashion and I think it's important to know your own style and to know what looks good in terms of scale and proportion. I think you should have a second outfit option because, in this country, you can have the four seasons in one day. Things like footwear are vital. I'd go for natural hair, low-key make-up and remember it's racing, it's not a night club," says Louise.

Sophia Loren at Royal Ascot
Sophia Loren at Royal Ascot

Milliner Carol Kennelly picks up the storytelling and chronicles the effort and attention to detail that the Best Dressed entrants put into their outfits. This Kerry mother-of-two is her own best advert, wearing her dramatic hats and making the finals at international race meetings in Britain, the Middle East and the US. Carol explains how her clients can start nine months in advance, "and they feel they haven't got sorted if they are not ready by March for the summer season and the Galway races."

Horse trainer, Jessica Harrington, doesn't subscribe to wearing hats when she's saddling up horses. "I only ever wears hats at Royal Ascot or at Cheltenham, if it's cold."

Philip Treacy once declared that, "hats are radical, only people that wear hats understand that." So what is the secret to understanding and wearing hats?

"I think we should appreciate that hats have a personality all of their own," says Carol, "and I think it works best when you wear a hat that has a little bit of your personality. The right hat can make you feel stronger, braver, taller, slimmer and a more fabulous version of yourself. It's fantasy and escapism, there's not an accessory like it that can change how you feel about yourself."

Carol explains how there are two different personality types when it comes to hats. "Traditionally, your trainer or trainer's wife and racing enthusiast tends to turn up with the full outfit and they just want a hat to finish it off. They tend to want something that is easy to transport, so size is an issue, and they want a hat that's going to go with different outfits.

"The approach of a racing girl who's out to win a Best Dressed is completely different," says Carol. "The girls tend to start with the hat and think there's nothing unusual about starting on a Ladies' Day outfit nine months out. They need uniqueness, they want a first edition hat that has not been seen before and they will put as much time into the rest of their outfit as they do their hat. There's grooming, posture, the right height of shoe - it's all about attention to detail, that's what shows and they will be on time to the racecourse. There's no point having the perfect outfit and turning up late," says Carol.

Breathtaking in her signature style - the tailored coat - former US first lady, Jackie Kennedy, is guest of honour at the 1967 Irish Sweeps Derby at the Curragh. Pictured arriving with Taoiseach Jack Lynch
Breathtaking in her signature style - the tailored coat - former US first lady, Jackie Kennedy, is guest of honour at the 1967 Irish Sweeps Derby at the Curragh. Pictured arriving with Taoiseach Jack Lynch

When it comes to racing style, the modus operandi of Tamso Doyle is "to collect as many beautiful key pieces as I can and add to them when I can. I always have a hat and a pashmina or a KDK scarf with me because you can't beat a beautiful cashmere to keep you warm, plus it changes up the outfit a bit. I love to see people having fun with style and not being too serious. The great thing about going racing is that no one has to actually invite you. You have to be invited to a wedding or out on a date but you don't have to be invited to the races," says Tamso.

When it comes to contrasting Irish racing style with what she sees travelling abroad, Eimear Mulhern says, "Ireland is right up there and Irish ladies are really fashionable. We travel to all the race meetings and whether it's Melbourne or Hong Kong or the Americas, you will find there is a racing style that is similar throughout the world. But I find that Ireland really shines because women dress very appropriately and they embrace great style. American racing is very casual and people can go in shorts, but for the premier days around the world, the ladies would dress up."

Eimear is a fan of beautiful accessories "and for those of us who go racing a lot, shoes are very important. Car-to-bar stilettos do not work at the races. Sometimes, it is good to have a very smart raincoat as a standby. It's good to have a few classic pieces that you can dress up with new accessories. To be honest, when we are racing so much, we don't buy something for every single race meeting so it's really nice to have some classic pieces," says Eimear, who admits that her Burberry raincoat "is the most useful piece in my wardrobe".

Trainer Jessica Harrington shies away from wearing white or cream "because horses have a great habit of slobbering". Jessica says she pulls out pieces which are 10 and 12 years old "and they get a recycle with a different scarf or handbag or shoes.

"I go for comfort because I am on my feet a lot. In winter, it's great because you can wear boots, and in summer, I definitely steer well away from open-toe sandals because horses have rather large feet."

Orla Murtagh, wife of jockey-turned-trainer, Johnny Murtagh (pictured above with Brendan McArdle) is a big fan of "the great coat for racing. It's just perfect. It carries you whether you are in Australia, Hong Kong, New York or LA. It's my essential item in the wardrobe."

Compared to Ireland, Orla says, racing style in Asia is "so different. They love the label, the label is everything to them. I would have to say that when you go back to racing in Europe, you have to give Irish women credit, they know their style, they know what suits them. I think when the WAG syndrome left the races, we went back to elegance and I loved it because you can still dress up or dress down. For me personally, I'm a handbag fanatic. I tell a funny story - going out to Hong Kong, I had whiplash because there were so many nice handbags, and they were all very real."

Dapper Brendan McArdle does racing commentary for RTÉ and also works at The Irish Field. He maintains, "there are not enough style prizes for men.

"I think the jockeys themselves could be style ambassadors and after racing, each and everyone of them will have a well-fitted suit, a good tie and proper shoes. The jockeys all take great pride in being well turned out and looking smart after a day's work.

"Some of the men going racing here make a really big effort, too. But maybe it's some of the finer things that they should focus in on, like a proper knot in their tie, a kerchief in their pocket or cufflinks, a belt and good shoes," says Brendan. He believes, "every racecourse should have a prize for best dressed men, even if it's only a bottle of Champagne."

Title sponsor Longines, will also gift the winners each day with an elegant timepiece from their latest collection. To pre-register simply log on to

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