Paul Costelloe : Children cut from same cloth
Designer Paul Costelloe ensured he fostered the creativity gene in his offspring -- six sons and one daughter -- and it has paid off; all of them artists, all of them high achievers. But now all grown-up, will they be pushed by the icon to be part of his label, asks Julia Molony
Ever the provocateur, Paul Costelloe has been speaking his mind in public again. Last Friday week, he caused a minor furore by having a row with comedian Neil Delamere live on The Late Late Show. Both had been invited on to a panel discussion about the Royal wedding. As Neil riffed -- crassly, in Paul's view -- about Prince Harry and the new Duchess, Paul's finer sensibilities were inflamed. Cross words were exchanged, and the pair goaded each other and encouraged the audience to take sides.
It was a compelling moment. The patriarchal Paul pouring disapproval over Neil's bad manners. Paul is a man, it seems, for whom grace and style are supreme virtues. "I quite enjoyed it," Paul tells me about the ruckus. "Everybody has their opinion and he was just going to rise me and I rose to the bait."
His objection was on grounds of taste. "I'm certainly no priss, but I suppose under those circumstances it was out of order. I'm all for vulgarity in the right place at the right time, but it was just a comment out of order that did rile me. He succeeded and well done. I'm no royalist. But at that particular moment on that particular day, it should be something that people should have enjoyed and treasured, and it's not to be condemned to the gutter."
Paul has reason to feel protective. In the Nineties, he met Prince William when he was still tiny. At that time, he used to regularly dress Princess Diana, who brought her son along to meet him. He remains a darling of the British establishment and designed the outfit Zara Phillips wore to last month's wedding.
Paul has a wicked side. Over lunch, I mention that, by coincidence, my mother used to work with him in the Seventies, when he was living in New York and just starting out with his label. "I didn't have an affair with her, did I?" he says, with an impish smile.
In those days, he was a young, single designer, making his mark as part of the extravagant creative and commercial expansion of the city. "All these black ladies in hot pants," he says later, evoking a memory of the time. "You know how black women can have such enormous bottoms, walking up East 53rd Street."
Youthful and rangy still, even in his mid-60s, Paul cuts a dash strolling around the streets of Mayfair. Since those carefree days in New York, he has built up a brand that has placed him at the heart of the British and Irish fashion industries. He's also a consummate family man; the father to seven grown-up children.
Today, he's accompanied by his son Gavin, who is 26, a barrister, and just about to go off travelling to Kenya with his girlfriend. There is always one of the Costelloe kids to be found around their dad's place of work. As long as they were old enough, they have been integrated into the business in a light-handed, ad-hoc sort of way; each of them pursuing other careers, but with an eye to the health of the brand that bears their family name.
Today, Gavin jokes he is acting as press agent, keeping an eye on his dad during the interview and making sure he doesn't say anything that might get him into trouble. His older brother Justin, he says, who works in finance, has a genius for marketing and is often approaching his dad with ideas. Eventually, both Gavin and Paul agree, one or more of the children will probably get involved in the label more formally.
"I can see it," says Paul. "It's a natural thing. It'll happen if it should happen. I don't believe in pushing your children into something that they may not want to do. There has to be an interest, a passion." The alternative, to be too prescriptive, is not his style. "I'll lose their friendship," he says. "But if at a different time it works, then great. There's no doubt about it. There's no shortage of creativity in our family."
They are, in fact, almost more a tribe than a family. Gavin has five brothers and one sister. Both Paul and his wife Anne came from big families themselves, with six siblings apiece.
There is something very well-adjusted about the way that father and son interact -- all jokes and gentle ribbing, and it's clear that the family are close, often meeting in London for trips to the cinema and post-screening discussions. "We've got three artists, one opera singer and we have a barrister," says Paul. "Robert has his own business. They all draw. It's amazing."
Though he didn't push them towards designing, it wasn't the same for drawing, which is a sideline passion for all the family. Holidays to Inishmore were measured out in family art classes. "I'd leave them on the beach, rain pouring," Paul says.
"It was terrible," Gavin says. "We would be aged about five and six, and we'd be hiding underneath the currachs for shelter. And [my parents] were up doing whatever and we were freezing, with our little pads, forced to go and draw something."
But Paul is pleased with how fostering the creativity gene has paid off. Gavin, who has lived in the UK for most of the time since being sent to boarding school there at 12, will bring his sketch pad along with him on his trip to Kenya. "Robert is drawing the whole of Beijing at the moment; William is in Wimbledon College of Art. Paul-Emmet is painting every bridge in London. Nicholas is doing his A-levels, art and film studies. He's prolific. He's the meanest. If you are lying on the beach looking absolutely f***ing dreadful with your red chest, your bald hair, your wrinkles, he gets out that pen and you don't even know he's doing it. Pretty cruel." High achievers, all. Jessica, who has three older brothers, is just back from a stint at Juilliard, where she has studied to be an opera singer.
"It was always a great honour to have one of your paintings framed and up on the wall," says Gavin of the competitive spirit that Paul encouraged. "I think, being six boys, it's going to be like that -- fairly competitive. But there's no envy or jealousy."
"We're constantly mixing fashion, painting life, hassle," says Paul, warming philosophically to the subject. "The house is pretty stricken, but all the money has been spent on giving them a decent education. Giving them some experiences. My wife has made a lot of sacrifices. She irons their underpants. The only thing she doesn't iron is their socks."
Irons their underpants? Seriously? "I don't live at home," Gavin protests. "It's out of choice. We don't stand behind our mother cracking the whip. 'Iron my socks and boxers, please.'"
Was he a strict dad, I ask Gavin. "When the time called for it. Obviously, he allowed us to try to express ourselves as much as possible. Hence, why we've all gone into different careers.
"The constant would have been my mother. Obviously, when we were young, my dad would be away all the time. So we would see Papa at weekends."
It was Paul who was the authoritarian voice in the household, according to Gavin. That won't come as a surprise to anyone who saw him on The Late Late Show.
"I'm like a volcano," he says, joking about his temper. "I go slow and then when I go -- wham bam."
"It's pretty terrifying," says Gavin with a laugh.
His children didn't give him all that much cause for ire, though. "We are very lucky," says Paul. "We've had no drugs or alcohol problems, not yet anyway. That's pretty good."
"The most severe," Gavin chimes in, "was being caught at the age of 15 with a little cup of cider."
Paul admits he was much wilder when he was their age. "I was the youngest of a very large family and you are sort of let loose."
Paul's fighting spirit was forged in the halls and rugby grounds of Blackrock College.
"It was a taste of life because it was such a big school," he says. "It could only get better. Sometimes, if you are too good in school, you might be disappointed in life afterwards. So, thankfully, I was the opposite -- I didn't excel in anything really."
He has recently been commissioned to design the outfits for the female golfers taking part in the Solheim Cup, to be held in Ireland later this year. His designs for the event will take them from golf course to Gala dinner and for Paul marks a departure into a new territory. He's thinking of adding a golf-wear line to the many different facets of his brand.
He'll also broaden his media profile as a judge on a new RTE programme, Mastercrafter, which seeks to discover new craft talent in Ireland. It's a project which chimes neatly with Paul's own take on the massive flourishing of creativity and talent that exists in Ireland.
"The word crafts always scares me -- the idea of a little thatched cottage and people selling a pile of Aran sweaters made in God knows where. But craft, I believe, in many cases, is an art form, and should be respected and there are a lot of wonderful things going on in Ireland.
"I believe that the small businesses in Ireland should be encouraged to grow and develop. It can be a niche market for more sophisticated European customers, not only for those traditional, stage-Irish shops which you find throughout the States."
Paul met Anne in Dublin and they married in 1979. Both from families of seven children, she has been the lodestar of his emotional life, providing a base of stalwart support from which he has been able to go out and build his creative empire.
He doesn't hold back in voicing his gratitude, crediting her for much of his success. "By being there to carry out what some people consider a very mundane job, I've always given her a lot of respect," he says. "It's the most underrated thing to bring up children well, to the best of their ability. Nothing to do with money, just to do with the basics of what that person is. And it has taken a lot of sacrifice, and allowed me to go on and go out, and hunt and gather and come home whenever I can."
The secret to the success of their marriage, Paul reckons, is the 15-year age gap between them. "She's a lot younger than me. That was a good move. I think that's a healthy way to keep a marriage.
"She looks great. She's a size eight to 10. I'm sure some people think she's a girlfriend or something, because she has kept her figure, and she can put on my clothes and look great. And she walks into a restaurant -- she's always smiling. She looks amazing.
"She's pretty amazing. She really is. You know what they say about Irish families, the mother is the centre -- and she really is."
Almost 10 years ago, the family moved en masse to London. It has been a good move for Paul. He cycles to work every day and enjoys being anonymous here.
"You are pretty irrelevant in the city," he explains. "There's so much going on. But that's quite nice. I could go anywhere and no one is going to whisper, 'That's Paul Costelloe on a bike.' It makes it very easy for my wife, too. It takes a lot of pressure off. So I don't sort of feel anyway threatened like that.
"It keeps you very competitive. I'm constantly looking. There's a very high standard. You are constantly looking at the very best in the world. And nobody knows who I am. I can walk in, like somebody on holidays from Australia, or some bikie who has just stepped off the boat."
It's not quite true, of course. Because London and even the most blue-blooded circles therein have very much taken him to its heart. Not bad for someone who came from nowhere, who is "very unqualified, no Leaving Certificate, no college degree".
"You've got an honorary degree from Belfast," Gavin reminds him. But for Paul, this counts less than the resources he has always fallen back on -- "A bit of bulls*** and a bit of being nice to people." Not forgetting, of course, the simple beauty of the clothes.
Irish fashion designer Paul Costelloe has been announced as the official designer of the 2011 European Solheim Cup Team for the Opening Ceremony and the Gala Dinner. The Solheim Cup comes to Killeen Castle, Meath, on September 23 to 25
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