Monday 19 February 2018

'The world of fashion is really difficult - but that's the fun of it'

Paul Costelloe is the designer whose sights are on his menswear collection but has a view on how the Irish man dresses

Designer Paul Costelloe
Designer Paul Costelloe
Paul Costelloe and Maggie Armstrong have lunch
Lunch meeting: Maggie Armstrong and Paul Costelloe had lunch at The Old Stand on Exchequer Street.

Maggie Armstrong

What the hell do you wear to lunch with Paul Costelloe? He sweeps into the pub in a gorgeous herringbone tweed coat and blue jeans, greeting the air around him.

And the answer is, it wouldn't matter if you wore a flecky tracksuit. He's a twinkle-eyed gent; a great big tower of tactile, continental warmth, with no evidence of the cranky chauvinist you've read about in the papers.

One Paul Costelloe myth is smashed and another is born.

We're meeting in what he calls "my pub", The Old Stand on Exchequer Street, where he is very much the urbane Sir up from London. He often comes here for lunch, though he doesn't, the barman says, have a drink.

Today he's stolen an hour between working on his winter menswear for Dunnes Stores. The 68-year-old breathing shop mannequin once said that "Irish women wouldn't know style if it tottered up to them in 10-inch heels". He's very famous for it, and it made him the enemy of Irish women for a while. He also criticised our waistlines recently. He was probably right on both counts, but that's old news. Today I need to know what he thinks about Irish men. Have they finally started wearing clothes that fit them?

He casts a withering look around the pub (with all respect, it's not quite Savile Row) and avoids more trouble with a backhanded compliment.

"Their quality is they're very charismatic. Irish men have got this self-confidence that's quite incredible; it doesn't matter whether they're overweight. In London they can charm the girls off the trees." But, he adds, there are structural problems.

"Irish men are not built like Italians. They're more like a block, with two legs. The younger generation, from 15 to 35, they're becoming more fashion conscious, and they like to wear colour now."

Costelloe is rocking his own label today down to the debonair navy cardigan, crisp white shirt and striped lilac tie. He is six foot four with a straight back. He's at home with himself. He likes to wear trainers with jeans. How about paunches, I ask, getting back to Irish men.

What do we do about paunches? He advocates cycling and a decent diet, and offers this tip: "Leave your shirt hanging out; it's not a bad idea." He doesn't seem to be exactly a paragon of health. He orders steak burgers and chips with vegetables and hops up to get packets of tartare sauce for my fish and chips when the goods arrive.

Not all Irish men are into fashion. Going back a few years, what kind of young Irish ladeen started designing couture in the sixties?

He says he didn't "particularly" like clothes, though his father owned a rainwear factory. "He gave me this natural gift with materials. I can touch that cloth and I know it's cotton," he says, checking my sleeve, then telling me about my skirt. "I'm very much a touch person." He is that.

His mother was a tall, handsome New Yorker and when he talks about her, you can see where he got his swashbuckling side. "She had that inherent style, she wasn't afraid to flaunt. I always remember her getting dressed in front of her mirror, putting her lipstick on. She even put it on in the car, which in those days nobody did. She was quite adventurous."

They lived in Booterstown, Co Dublin, and he had six older siblings. They had horses, croquet lawns and tennis courts and he spent a lot of time on his own in the garden being creative. He did so badly at school in Blackrock College he dropped out at 16, and never sat his Leaving Cert.

He wanted to be a cowboy, to travel the American mid-west on a horse, but instead he did a dull commercial course in Rathmines and worked on a pig farm in Co Waterford, grading bacon for a year.

It sounds a bit like he was drifting. Did his father push him into fashion? No, Costelloe went to Paris on his own bat. He learned his trade as a tailleur during an impoverished few years then worked in Milan and New York before settling back in Dublin in 1979 to start his label.

Costelloe gets all uxorious over his wife Anne, who's "lively, bossy, slim", and effortless in style. He met her walking down Pearse Street. She was 19 and he was 35.

"She was walking ahead of us [he and his friend] in the rain and I noticed she was wearing a skirt of mine. She was wearing it with high heels and ankle socks, it looked really cute. So we walked up to her and got talking. We went for a cup of coffee in Bewley's, there and then."

But that was then. Not many Irish girls are wearing Paul Costelloe these days. Costelloe knows he needs to get down with the young kids and make those lavish, strictly tailored garments of his desirable. "I now have to look at that younger age, I have to reproduce for the new generation."

It has been a tricky time in business. Dunnes Stores have taken on the brand, but Brown Thomas no longer carries it.

Having splintered into a labyrinth of clothing, homeware, footwear, eyewear, jewellery lines, has the line lost its way? Costelloe has absolute certainty his name will prosper.

He is looking into children's wear and the Chinese market, with the help of his son Robert.

When he designs for men he asks himself what his sons would wear. They're his "benchmark", six of them aged between 19 and 32, all fresh-faced and Ampleforth-schooled. His also has a daughter, Jessica, an opera singer when she's not being his PA or modelling his label.

She took her tumbling red Pre-Raphaelite locks on to the catwalk in London last year, as did her six brothers. What a lovely family, I say, though he laughs and corrects me: "It's not Little House on the Prairie."

Costelloe doesn't seem very settled in London, their home since 1999. He thinks he doesn't fit in. He's been a stalwart of London Fashion Week (though not this year), and he's had royal endorsement from Princess Diana to Zara Phillips. But, he says, "the fashion world in London is a bit of a closed shop".

Apparently they like a working-class, tough, gay, erotic, self-made man (Alexander McQueen comes to mind). Or someone with a 'surname' (he mentions Sophie Dahl and Emma Freud, but not Simone Rocha). They don't have much interest in "Mr Middle of the Road, married, boring" and that's him, he says.

Costelloe just tries to live like a normal guy. He still plays "rubbish rugby". He has failed in different areas because he hasn't given his work everything, and he wants you to know that. "I'm not committed," he says, and he means it in a good way. "It's a job. I work 9 to 5, then I go into my other world; family . . . I close the office." Perhaps this is why he's gone far, but not too far.

"I'm always looking," he says.

"I cycle through Knightsbridge, and I cycle up the King's Road. It's great for seeing ideas, seeing what people are wearing, looking through windows".

He studies people's outfits in shops and on planes more than in magazines or on catwalks, absorbing ideas for the next production.

"Fashion is exceptionally difficult. But that's the fun about it. It's nearly like self-flagellation.

''The satisfaction is very short-lived. You might do a great catwalk; it'll go in the paper. Then, hold on, how much did you sell? Did it pay for the fashion show? No, you lost money; you lost €100,000, €50,000. So many people drop out . . . I've been struggling."

What keeps him grounded in this horrible world? "I could never afford not to be," he says, referring to his children's school fees. Then he admits: "It requires a lot of self-belief."

When Costelloe is leaving I tell him he's a very nice person, because it's true. For a second his good mood vanishes in gruffness. "I don't want to be nice, that's boring," he says.

And off he goes to work on his winter collection.


NAME Paul Costelloe.

AGE 68.

LIVES Putney, south-west London.

FAMILY Husband of Anne, father of seven and grandfather of one.

LIKES "Unpretentious restaurants, good company."

DISLIKES "Cropped trousers. I hate men's ankles showing, I wouldn't go down that route."

WHAT YOU DIDN'T KNOW He can draw, but he can't sew on a button.

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