Paul Costelloe

My appetite for insight and information in relation to the fashion industry is almost insatiable. When I was younger, I would sit around the dining room table and pester my parents and siblings with information about upcoming Irish designers, trends and the changing landscape of the fashion industry. It was obvious to everyone that I needed an outlet. Thus, I started this blog.

In those early days, I documented various red carpet appearances and trends which had filtered from the catwalk to the high street. I love to ask questions. Honestly, I do. Whether that’s sitting beside an elderly lady on the bus and chatting to them about the weather or interviewing one of my favourite fashion designers, I get a genuine buzz from hearing their personal anecdotes and insights.

Thus, when an opportunity arose for me to speak with the renowned fashion designer, Paul Costelloe, my excitement was immeasurable. We discussed the role of business conglomerates in the fashion industry, the importance of being yourself and our mutual love for being Irish. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of it!

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How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?

Personally, I’m difficult. Professionally, I’m probably reasonable – in general – to work with. Tolerant too, I think. You’d probably have to ask those who work with me.    

Speaking of employees, how would you describe your team at Paul Costelloe HQ?

Well number one, I keep it very small. This is so I’m not under financial pressure. There’s no real point in paying out money when it’s not necessary. The secret in fashion is to keep your overheads low, so you don’t feel nervous. Most designers, we aren’t very good at finance, it can put you under tremendous stress and then you can’t create. It’s really important that you have peace of mind, particularly in relation to the financial aspect of the business.

When doing some research, I discovered that you once considered a career in book-keeping, but chose the domain of fashion design instead. However, when you look at brands and fashion houses, even the most youthful of designers, many of them have been bought out by global conglomerates such as LVMH. How important is it for young designers to have an aptitude for the monetary aspect of fashion?

I think it does help to have a certain financial approach to the industry but it can also be a negative too. You can be too cautious and being cautious can hinder creativity and almost heed it from fulfilling your design wishes. It’s the same with being taken over by a conglomerate; it can be both a positive and a negative. All of a sudden, you have to question – who owns the brand? And to some extent, do you lose your control as a designer? For me personally though, I don’t have any regrets in how I developed my brand and grew it independently. I may not be a superstar presenting on the Paris catwalk, I’m on the London schedule, but do you know what? For someone with very limited ability, I’ve been very lucky.  

In the early days of your design career, you trained in Italy, in Paris and in New York, what did you take from each of these locations?

I think Paris was the most influential on my career and design aesthetic. It was couture-orientated with great emphasis on tailoring and beautiful fabrics. Coming from Dublin, it gave me a taste for what fashion is and the ideology that I continue to believe in, even today. I was greatly inspired by Ungaro, Saint Laurent and even Pierre Cardin when he was at his best. All of these people were on the streets where I worked. My entry into fashion was very much based on that culture whereas other Irish designers who perhaps travelled to England, they were very much part of the sixties, revolutionary era where people like Vivienne Westwood rose to fame. However, my strength in design came from Paris and the skill of tailoring, it continues to be what I am talented at – I think it’s almost in a person’s DNA.

When you arrived back to Dublin in the late 1970’s, did you notice much change in the city?

It was a terrible time. The Troubles in Northern Ireland were really serious; there was a lot of unhappiness. I was very glad to come home, having worked in New York and Paris, I was relieved to be back on familiar territory but I ended up working in a factory in Northern Ireland. I also brought up seven children in that time.

Seven children? Wow, I’m the eldest of five children and I often feel that we live in each other’s’ pockets – it isn’t a bad thing but I can’t imagine what it is like being one of seven.

Well, I’m one of seven children and my wife is also one of seven children. It’s very destructive altogether! 

Wow. Family get-togethers must take quite a lot of planning!

Too much!

Back to fashion! I imagine that when you were first establishing your business in London, Dublin was a very different city in comparison to England’s capital but do you think that we have in any way caught up with our British counterparts, in terms of the fashion landscape?

I think we have a lot of talent here. I also think that we have a lot of talent leaving.

Do you think that’s because young designers see it as their only option?

I think unless we develop our fashion industry here, they’ll continue to feel that emigrating is their only option. However, I still believe that travelling is the best way to learn about fashion – particularly in cities like Paris, London, New York, Korea, Seoul, Japan, and Beijing – it’s a very exciting career but it’s essential that you have your own instinctive style, philosophy and belief in yourself. People say ‘Look at Miu Miu, look at Prada’. Yeah, that’s fine – they’re Italian, they have that workmanship – but we have to be our own person and that can be stressful because you can be nervous about what others may think of you but being yourself is great. It can cause a lot of trouble though…

I imagine that it takes a while to learn or to become comfortable with. Surely it’s not something that miraculously develops in first year at Central St Martins or NCAD etc.?

No, not at all. It develops through experience, working with good quality brands and gaining richness and an insight from that. Then you distill what’s most central to both you personally and professionally.  However, how many people begin their brand and are able to sustain it? Fashion is much like the pop world, they come, they go. I’m very fortunate to still be in it.

Speaking of ‘still in it’, a few years ago Drapers said that your sustainability was unquestionable but why do you think that Paul Costelloe the brand has had such extensive longevity so far?

I think it’s just because I hate being beaten. I’m quite competitive and I like sports. I hate losing, I’m not obsessed with winning but I hate to lose.

Within the fashion world, what does it mean to lose? Or what does it mean to win?

For me, winning is having a product that you are pleased with against the competition. It doesn’t matter if one dress is £10,000 and the other is £300. The question always is ‘Does it stand up against the competition?’

Who would you consider to be your competition, Paul?

Gosh, it’s getting less and less, in a way. Labels like Boss, Jaegar, Max Mara. I always look at Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Miu Miu and most of the international designers. In comparison, I don’t often look to British designers, I don’t like the quality of the products. However, sometimes I like Alexander McQueen – sometimes I don’t though.

Is that because of the change in creative director at Alexander McQueen?

In the beginning, it was very costume-orientated but I like to see designers such as Roberto Cavalli. I was cycling down Sloane Street in London last week and came across an impromptu photo-shoot happening in the middle of the road. The model was wearing a Roberto Cavalli shift dress – the simplest design imaginable – but she looked great.

Do you think with the rise of the internet, social media and blogging, we’re continuously searching for the most eccentric elements of fashion and disregarding the simplicity which was favoured in the past?

I think there is an element of that occurring. For example, with Jeremy Scott at Moschino but I believe there to be a huge appetite for clean-cut tailoring and simplicity in design of garments that will be part of a woman’s wardrobe for almost forever. A modern style icon for me is Charlene, Princess of Monaco. She has incredible elegance and taste.

Have we lost some of that elegance?

I don’t know, I think people are looking at labels such as Cos – not that I’m terribly mad about it – but it has succeeded because it’s simple and I think that’s probably a positive. I do think there is a return to understated glamour but that too will change. From my experience, women like change.

They’re as effervescent as the industry itself.

Effervescent – exactly!

As a designer, is there much change in the creative process when designing for your own brand for London Fashion Week to collaborating with a high-street chain such as Dunnes Stores?

It’s really quite different. For London Fashion Week, you just let the pen do the work and buy fabric at £40 a metre. For Dunnes, it’s much more commercial and I think that’s where I am reasonable to work with. I do want to make a living but I also want to make nice garments at a variety of price ranges. I’m sure I make mistakes and often do things wrong but c’est la vie.

Do you often consciously connect the two collections? Perhaps linking a fabric or silhouette from London Fashion Week in September to what arrives onto the rails of Dunnes in Mullingar and Ennis?

I don’t think that there is a great difference between the two collections. What I like to think is that what I do in Mullingar or Ennis, if treated carefully, is just as good as what you find in Brown Thomas. Price is not relevant but quality and design is essential. What I love is when I’m on a street in Dublin and an elderly lady approaches me and tells me that she loves my ‘stuff’. People who would never normally have walked up to me seven years ago – I now feel part of Ireland, something which I didn’t feel before my collaboration with Dunnes.

Would it tempt you to come back to us more permanently?

I think I’m more valuable to Ireland from my experiences outside of Ireland – I’m a little like Joyce in that fashion. It’s still a small country, one that’s experiencing change at a very rapid rate but I think I can give more to Ireland by being away.

You’ve had an incredible career, from dressing members of the royal family to having your face on a postage stamp but what has been your personal or professional highlight?

I don’t think that I will ever forget my first visit to Kensington Palace. It was at the time when Princess Diana was at her peak in popularity; she had been married perhaps three or four years. I was sitting in her lounge, I was with my assistant and I remember touching the couch that I was standing against. I remember having to almost pinch myself to realise that I was there and it was actually happening. Afterwards, the two of us went out to Hyde Park, we sat on a bench and digested that it actually happened and how thrilled we both were – which is an incredible emotion.

My final question for you Paul, you’ve had incredible moments – as we’ve just spoken about – but what remains on your bucket list for the next decade?

Very good question! I would like to paint more. Actually, I will be having a joint exhibition with three of my sons on September 19th in the Sol Gallery on Dawson Street but apart from that, I want to develop my catwalk shows. I would like to get more retailers not just looking at it but buying it and investing into it. I want to make them more than just a runway with some models, I want it to become an experience. 

Thank you so much to both Paul and Jordi for all of their assistance with this interview. To find out more about Paul Costelloe, you can follow the brand on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Written by

Sinéad Burke is an academic and a writer with an obsessive interest in fashion, education and 'Extraordinary Women'. She is an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Women's Council of Ireland.