When Irish designer Jacqueline Quinn bought the original sketches of clothing designed for Jackie Kennedy at auction, they provided the inspiration for her latest collection. She tells Liadan Hynes why the former First Lady was the original icon, not just of style but of sustainable fashion, too. Photography by Ashley Bravick
'Her shoes told me a lot about the woman," Jacqueline Quinn says. "Everything about her was very practical in her approach - her shoes were very practical and comfortable. She was like the Queen: she never wore a glamorous heel. She never wore high heels, because she would be taller than her husband."
Quinn is an Irish fashion designer who has lived in New York for 25 years. As well as her design work, she is in the process of completing a master's in visual arts at Harvard. Much of her time is spent at the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, undertaking research work.
The woman in the comfortable shoes she's referring to is, of course, former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy - whom she is named after.
Mrs Kennedy has been a lifelong source of inspiration for Quinn, but her latest collection, named Jackie, was inspired by something quite specific: sketches by the legendary fashion designer Oleg Cassini of outfits Jackie Kennedy wore when she was First Lady.
"I got really interested in the history of Jackie Kennedy from the angle of the colours that she wore," explains Quinn, who also teaches at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). "I wanted to do a colour history of Jacqueline Kennedy's clothing, which had never been done. And a colour log, because the fabrics are fading, even though they are keeping them in the right packaging and storage. Jim Wagner, the curator of Jacqueline's dresses, is the only one at the JFK library who can actually handle the dresses. He and I developed a huge relationship."
Last summer, Quinn was in a friend's house in Boston when, on a Friday night, she got the call from Jim to say that Oleg Cassini's estate was coming up for sale. Cassini, who had died in 2006, had designed for the biggest film, TV and theatre stars of the post-war era and became Jackie Kennedy's personal designer, referred to as her 'Secretary of Style'.
"I took out my platinum card, which I am always hesitant to use; it's my back-up," Quinn says. "I watched the sale live; I was on the phone, bidding - it felt like a movie. My biggest fear was that I would go over my budget, because you get caught up. That I'd end up losing my house, and my daughter wouldn't be able to go to college," she laughs.
Her initial plan had been to bid on swatches, but Jim advised her to instead go after Cassini's sketches. She bought a set of 16 - 14 Cassini had made for Kennedy, two for Grace Kelly, to whom he was engaged for a time. The entire lot cost $5,500. The collection includes a drawing for the dress the First Lady wore to her husband's inauguration ball, a gown later termed one of the '50 dresses that changed the world' by London's Design Museum. Quinn has loaned the sketch of this particular look to the museum.
The drawings also provided ample inspiration for her own designs.
"I didn't want to copy Jacqueline Kennedy exactly, but I was influenced by the make of the dresses. I felt that she had an approach of sustainability, so I wanted to emanate that back into my collection. It's basically done through very good, sustainable, natural fabrics that will last in the wardrobe for a very long time. And the art of tailoring, the way the garments were cut. There were a lot of sheath dresses, and a lot of A-line dresses, so perspiration was kept away from the body. She was aware of how she had to look - never did you see a sweaty arm patch on Jackie Kennedy."
Quinn's own love of design was sparked on a family holiday in Achill in the 1970s. "I was 12 or 13, and like a lot of Irish holidays, it was pouring down with rain. My dad went out and bought sketch pads and colouring pencils. We're stuck in Achill Island - it's rain, sheep, and that's it. And my parents had five children. I drew this woman who was wearing a lime-green pantsuit. And then I said, 'Oh, this is amazing, you can actually design clothing'. I spent the day drawing, and I thought, 'Oh, I could do this, this could be fun'. I think that was the moment the light bulb went off."
After graduating from the Grafton Academy of Fashion Design, Quinn moved to New York where she worked for New Balance, DKNY, Jessica Simpson and Guess, and did a stint as creative director for Betsey Johnson.
As part of her master's, Quinn is writing a dissertation on the influence Jacqueline Kennedy had on Irish fashion when she and her husband visited here in 1963. "I'm interviewing women on the difference between the parochial 1950s style of dressing, where a woman had two sweaters and two or three skirts, and then how things began to change in 1959-60, when the Kennedys started to come on the scene. It was actually the beginning of modern Ireland. With [Taoiseach Sean] Lemass, we began to come out of parochial Ireland; women were trying to emulate glamour in their own way."
Their own way was, she points out, clothes made from patterns bought for about 75p, and shared among women, often at coffee mornings. Clothes that were the very epitome of sustainability.
"We didn't have high-street retail like we do today. You had Switzers; Burgess in Athlone. People had one coat, one good pair of shoes, and then an everyday pair. What I've got from my interviews, and what is now a huge influence on this collection, is the simplicity of everything. Fine lines, simplicity, wearability and sustainability. People just got on with it - it was a different mindset."
While drawing on these key pointers for her Jackie collection, Quinn has also modernised things somewhat: lowering necklines, changing the cut of the bustline to avoid the more pointed look that was popular in the 1960s.
Comfort is key, she says, another trait she saw in the First Lady, whose shoes, as mentioned, prioritised comfort. "She wore a kitten heel. I found out from the JFK library that she bought a Chanel shoe, but they were a very practical walking shoe. Because I'm in my mid-50s, I want a comfort level, and I want the women I design for to be comfortable."
So what is it that made Jacqueline Kennedy such an enduring touchstone for Jacqueline Quinn?
"I think it's her simplicity. For me, she's the epitome of class."
The Jackie collection is now available from Om Diva, 27 Drury St, D2, tel: (01) 679-1211, or see omdivaboutique.com and jacquelinequinn.com