Peter O'Brien: Love affair with simplicity
Couturier Peter O’Brien explains the inspiration for his keenly awaited new collection which launches next Wednesday and explores the art of compiling a capsule wardrobe
People often ask what inspires a designer and it's a question I find difficult to answer, not through ill-will or some extreme protective secrecy, but simply because I'm not sure I know the answer. I think everything and anything can inspire, so, without question, old movies, that French BC/BG (bon chic/bon genre) aesthetic and a teenage longing for Paris are now a part of my creative DNA and they surely inform my more mature tastes.
Despite a love/hate relationship with fashion, the magic of clothes still holds me in thrall almost 30 years after my first job in Paris. I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in clothes and, though I probably didn't understand it as a child, what fascinated me then, and still does today, were the secret messages, codes and mysteries woven into every beautiful or interesting garment.
Old black and white movies on television fascinated me, especially films with costumes by Travis Banton or Adrian, who dressed Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford respectively. I remember watching 'Swing Time' with the extraordinary Fred Astaire -- now there is a stylish man -- and the somewhat more vulgar, though amazingly competent, Ginger Rogers.
I was probably about 15 when I bought French 'Vogue' at Easons on O'Connell Street and knew that Karl Lagerfeld, Antonio Lopez and Donna Jordan hung out at Café de Flore in Paris. Paris represented cool, so one had to look French. I bought a riding mac in Clerys, some shrunken Shetland sweaters and took up smoking Gauloises -- I was 17 and probably looked ridiculous.
I think I have a slightly bi-polar aesthetic as I love the quietness of Jil Sander or Yohji Yamamoto while at the same time loving the Parma Violet ambience of a Cecil Beaton costume for 'Gigi'. So there you have it: 16th-arrondissement restraint and Hollywood glamour, side by side and still inspiring me today.
I have been asked the dreaded 'who is stylish?' question many, many times, so I gave it some thought, tried to figure out why I felt some people just had 'it'. I realised that the people I admired and thought stylish were almost invariably people who could walk into a room today and not look ridiculous.
Katherine Hepburn looked stylish in almost everything. Look at her in Philip Barry's 'Holiday' -- gorgeous, stylish and modern in plain black chiffon and a diamond rivière while everyone around her disappears in a haze of frills and sequins; Carole Lombard sitting on the steps of a small plane in a navy pea-coat and flannels; Martha Graham dancing in long-sleeved, high-necked, circular-skirted jersey; Tina Chow in a twin set and flannels with an armful of antique diamond bracelets, or Claire McCardell at the White House in a striped cotton ball dress -- all women who can be called 'stylish' and all, in my opinion, incredibly modern.
I suppose in designing that's what I try to be -- modern. Not edgy or cool or, please God, 'on trend'; just clothes that seem contemporary without being stamped with a sell-by date. When you have been designing as long as I have, one has hopefully a style or a handwriting that emerges, so instead of reinventing the wheel each season one tries to hone and perfect one's signature style.
The fickle finger of fashion has pointed us this season in the direction of a new classicism -- hip hip hooray! -- partly due to the revolving-door nature of fashion, partly the global recession and partly that mysterious zeitgeisty thing which suddenly makes a camel coat look like the hottest thing on the shop floor.
Which brings me to my new limited-edition collection for Arnotts. When doing a capsule collection, the question is always 'what pieces do we absolutely need' in order to offer the customer a complete capsule wardrobe? There are always too many drawings and paring them down to the final 20 or so is always the most difficult part for me, as one never wants to discard one's 'babies'.
Too commercial, not commercial enough, too fashiony, too difficult to wear, too young, too classic... the list goes on until you end up with what are hopefully the best components for the collection. I've always hoped that my clothes look equally good on a woman of 25, 45 or 65, so striking that balance is always upmost in my mind.
I favour coats in quality wool and wool/ cashmere mixes, classic enough to wear for more than one season but cut with an edge so that even the most fashion-forward customer will be happy.
A capsule wardrobe should include a tiny cropped jacket, a skinny tuxedo trouser and a wide-legged menswear-style trouser; for daytime, a pencil skirt and a really smashing fitted dress with its seaming details outlined in the grosgrain. Great under the straight black coat.
I like versatility, so a dress with a transparent neckline edged in scallop detail can be worn with killer heels for evening or with brogues or riding boots and ribbed opaques for day. In fact, someone brave with great pins could wear it with bare legs, flat brogues, a soft leather jacket and antique diamond studs -- optional -- and be the coolest girl at the party. Think Kate Hepburn in 'Holiday'.
I love the simplicity of beautiful chiffon blouses, great with a pencil skirt and heels for a classic look or worn with skinny pants and a dropped shoulder coat for a contemporary take on Carole Lombard's pea-coat look.
I know I have made suggestions on how the clothes should be worn, but what I truly hope is that women will love the clothes, buy them and wear them in their very own way -- that's what all those gals I adore did. Kate never looked like anybody else and, dear reader, neither should you.