Returning to the trenches
After a decade, Ireland's fashion trailblazer Michael Mortell returns to his first love, the trenchcoat, and reflects on the highs and lows of a love affair with clothes
Michael Mortell is talking about the "joyous apprehension" he felt in the 1980s, flying to New York to show buyers in Barney's and Bloomingdale's his latest collections. He's happily recalling the "buzzing naivety of youth", when a door suddenly opens in the room in Dunnes Stores HQ and in comes Paul Costelloe.
Mortell exclaims with delight at seeing his fellow designer and 1980s Irish-fashion trailblazer, whose name had only arisen in conversation a few minutes earlier. Mortell had commented that he and Costelloe were the first young buck designers to put their own names on the labels of their clothes, to really assume that Ireland should have a fashion identity.
It was a musing on the past, without either of us making the connection that both Mortell and Costelloe are now with Dunnes Stores until the latter burst through the door.
"Welcome aboard!" Costelloe says, as they warmly shake hands. Costelloe explains his arm in a sling - collarbone broken in a bicycling accident in Hyde Park - and he explains that he's busy in another room designing a forthcoming Dunnes collection. As he leaves Costelloe congratulates Mortell and then turns with a laugh, warning: "Don't get too good!"
Mortell laughs in return, though one suspects he has every intention of getting too good altogether. This collaboration with Dunnes Stores, a small collection of five coats and two sweaters, all priced under €200, is only the beginning, and as a second beginning, Mortell is really enjoying it.
"Mrs Heffernan (Margaret, Dunnes' chief executive) asked me if I would do it, and it felt right," Mortell says. "It has been about 10 years since I have designed, and it was brilliant timing, because if she had asked me five years earlier, I'm not sure I would have done it. I have changed and have got enough distance now from what went before to go back in to it again. Maybe I had just forgotten how difficult the clothing trade is, but I don't think it's that."
Certainly, as we look at the coat collection on a rail, it's obvious that Mortell's love of clothes and designing still burns bright. Anyone who remembers his coats of old, will be relieved to find their spirit lives on in leather collars on some of the trenchcoats, in the double-but-unbulky black-and-white collar of the swing coat, and in the classic belted and buckle-cuffed clean-cut coats. But there are new flourishes. The jumpers with their geometric pattern are based on a vase he designed a few years ago, and the pleated cuff of one trench is an all-new departure.
"The younger girls seem to favour this one," Mortell says, stroking the unusual cuff. "They like the slightly dropped shoulder, too, the unstructured shape."
I tell him that the leather detail reminds of me of the classic Michael Mortell coat my mother had, probably in the early 1980s. He looks at me and pauses. "It used to be that women said they used to have one of my coats," he says. "Now it's that their mothers had them. But, still, I say what I always say, 'Thank you.'"
It can be neither forgotten or underestimated what a force in fashion Mortell was in 1980s and 1990s Ireland. This was long before the international high-street chains arrived and the clothes we saw in magazines were suddenly attainable. Choice was limited and even if women had access to the current trends, they certainly weren't being designed or manufactured in Ireland. Mortell was among those who changed that with his separates and the iconic coats he replicates today for Dunnes.
"I remember a buyer in Switzer's saying to me, 'Michael, I've never seen anything like this come out of Ireland.'"
He won the Best Designer award on the prestigious The Late Late Show's fashion awards in 1981, 1982, 1983, "and then they said, 'Michael, would you just be a judge next year?'" he laughs. He sold his collections in the It-shop of the 1980s, Mirror Mirror, and in Brown Thomas, and, later, Harrods in London and Barney's and Bloomingdale's in New York.
When Mirror Mirror closed in the 1980s, Mortell even had the clout to open his own, stand-alone shop, next to the Westbury Hotel. He laughs indulgently at his younger self.
"The shop was a beautiful thing," Mortell says. "It was very cutting edge at the time. It had industrial synthetic flooring with little pyramid bumps in it. It was based on that whole Japanese movement, black and grey and metal and very uncluttered. The high-end shop interior in existence then was mostly the Italian marble-and-mirror opulence so this was totally different.
"Let's say it wasn't my finest hour financially," he adds, without any hint of regret. "There was very little display rail for such a big shop, because that would ruin the whole feel of it." Again, Mortell laughs at the recollection.
Later, Mortell tells me he really doesn't tend to go back and analyse the past or rake over his actions. He's doing it now, for the sake of this conversation, but he doesn't tend to. "Why open these doors?" he says. "Who knows what you might find behind them?" His long-term partner Oonagh Finn appreciates this quality in him, he says.
When we go back to his childhood in Mallow, growing up above the family fish shop, Mortell admits that it was remarkable that he, the youngest child of 10, grew up to go off to art college.
"The only imagery in the house was religious imagery," Mortell says, explaining how there was really nothing in his happy childhood that nudged him towards art and fashion. "We didn't even have President Kennedy on the wall. We didn't have artistic input as children. You weren't looking at van Gogh's Starry Night on the wall, or a Rembrandt print and that would have been true of most of Ireland, I think. If it hadn't been for the cinema, it would have been a culturally barren wasteland.
"We were a good Irish Catholic family and while my parents weren't eating the altar rails, as they would have said, for me to want to go to art school was like announcing to them that I was never going to work in my life. It was like telling them I planned to be a layabout."
And yet, they allowed it, where many other Irish parents of the time might have stymied that ambition in their child. He studied art, he went into fashion, and he made a success of it almost immediately. Mortell admits that, of course, the innocence of youth allowed him to think that his stellar rise was the natural arc.
"Yes, of course," Mortell says. "You're young and you think this is just how it should be, here I am and of course they'll listen to me. My first little workroom was in Ormond Quay, just me and one machinist and you're up there, cutting away, and it all seems very romantic."
And it was all very successful, too. Mortell says he never stopped working a mile a minute in the first decades of his career. He moved his workshop to North Great George's Street for a time and then Temple Bar, where he was until a decade ago.
His stand-alone shop only lasted a few years. "There were no dissenting voices before I opened it, but there were plenty after," he jokes. But he continued to fly high with Brown Thomas and the international department stores until the early 90s, when he explains that a "seismic shift" occurred. Coat rooms in these stores closed almost overnight when huge clothing labels began to incorporate coats into their ranges and coats were no longer the domain of designers who did nothing but coats. He recalls being dropped by all the department stores within a few months of each other. It was devastating, but he began a relationship with Arnotts, then, that was very long and happy.
What happened next was that it became impossible to manufacture in Ireland. You couldn't get machinists for love or money, he explains, and so he moved the manufacturing to Poland, which was never fully satisfactory.
"If you weren't a huge label producing huge quantities, you weren't a priority," Mortell says. Eventually, about 10 years ago, he stopped.
The past decade, Mortell has spent enjoying turning what was his hobby into a career. He had been long nurturing a passion for mid-century furniture, objets and interiors and eventually he realised he could make a job of it. These days, he has a successful shop on Dublin's Francis Street and he "buys silly amounts of books about interiors" the way he once bought fashion books.
"I'd almost recommend changing your discipline," Mortell says. "I have no interest of sports or anything, but interiors became my hobby and then suddenly they were my job. I feel I refreshed myself with this new interest and it all feeds in to the same well of creativity in the end. "And it's fascinating to go back into fashion now. When I first started designing," Mortell says of the late 1970s and early 1980s, "fashion was so removed from the world of the high street. But over the last six months with this collection, I have become so educated in how the world of fashion works now. It's so fast and so democratic and so available to all, but it's also a world where, in a company like this, you're very supported by teams of people who are experts in their area.
"That's why it's so right now, for me to come back to designing," he adds, "because I had lost my enthusiasm for it from all the slogging to keep it going. I never built up a structure behind me where the pressure was taken off me, where I could just think about the clothes. There was never a moment when you could just walk in to the room and shout, 'Today, I feel pleating!' It was all just head down and at it and now, with this collection, it feels very different."
There is a strong sense of Michael Mortell of a man making a new departure. And yet, at the same time, it's like he's gone full circle. He's older and wiser, but the essence of the young man's vision is there in the coats and there in his enthusiasm for art and fashion and putting his name to something beautiful. He's also back, he says, living in town and above the shop, after years in Sandymount, where, he says, "if I had to walk the seafront one more time, I was going to shoot myself."
Mortell, who now lives in Temple Bar, adds: "When I was a child in Mallow, you walked out of the house through the shop and straight on to the street. That's what I like. I have gone back to that feeling of having the street on my doorstep, and the bookshops and the shops and the cinema. Some things stay the same: every night is still Saturday night for me."
Michael Mortell's new collection is available now in Dunnes Stores shops in St Stephen's Green and Grafton St, D2; Cornelscourt, St Patrick St, Cork. dunnesstores.com
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