Recently, I had the absolute privilege of attending the launch of Peter O’Brien’s fifth collection for Arnott’s. The Irish designer’s name has become synonymous with feminine tailoring and beautiful knitwear.
His sharp eye for detail and innate ability to predict not just what Irish women want but also what their wardrobes need, make him one of the most talented fashion designers on the island.
What I admire most about Peter is his sharp wit, kind nature and modesty. Thus, it was a great honour to interview him about his first steps into the fashion domain, his experiences of being the house designer at Chloé and of course, his take on the frivolous language often employed in fashion writing – pun intended.
How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?
Contrary to today where everybody is exposing everything about themselves on television and in the media, I was brought up in an era where it was considered impolite to talk about oneself. Thus, that kind of question sends me reeling! How would I describe myself? Well professionally, I’m a terrible procrastinator – if it can be done tomorrow night, I’ll do it two days later. I always function better when a deadline is looming. Personally? I think we delude ourselves as to what we really are. I always thought that I was terribly easy-going and very easy to work but when I say that, people in wardrobe or those who work with me, look at me with a raised eyebrow. So, I think maybe I’m a bit of a perfectionist but I hope that I would never be unkind. As a person though, I hope that I am loyal, kind, generous and a nice friend. I’m not one of those people that are hugely driven and sometimes, I kind of wish that I was and that I had that ‘killer instinct’.
I’m not sure if it’s something you learn but instead is an innate skill or ambition.
Well, I think I’m very lucky. I do what I do and I have a relative facility for it. It’s never painless but I guess I’m lucky that I can do a specific thing and people come to me and ask me to do it. You do have to consider yourself incredibly lucky when you get paid for doing what you love to do.
In your early years, what led you to the domain of fashion design?
There was never a second’s doubt in my mind, I always wanted to draw and I always wanted to draw clothes. You could ask my Mum – I always had a pencil in my hand. Even my copybooks in school were covered in drawings of ladies in ball-dresses.
Can you recall the first time you sat down to draw something connotated with fashion?
I remember my aunts in Dun Laoghaire took me to see ‘Oklahoma’ in the Old Pavilion Theatre. Shirlie Jones played Laurie and she wore a gingham dress and in the dream sequence, her dress transformed into a chiffon version. I can recall being incredibly intrigued by that but my favourite thing was the saloon girls in sequins. I must have been about seven but I can distinctly recall being fascinated by the clothes or watching old black and white movies on a Saturday afternoon and trying to figure out if there were cup sequins or flat sequins on Joan Crawford’s dresses. No doubt about it, I was a strange little boy!
Did that kind of behaviour, particularly in school, ever get you into any sort of trouble or peculiar predicaments?
I went to O’Connell’s Christian Brothers School where boys were boys – which meant that we played football. I couldn’t bear football and I thought that boys were revolting, smelly and disgusting. Growing up in that environment, you kind of find strategies for survival; I was good at drawing so regularly, I would sketch naked ladies for the boys and they would leave me alone.
Leaving school, did you have a specific plan as to how you would achieve this dream of dress-making?
Never! I guess I was a bit naïve in thinking that someone would just discover me and tell me that my drawings were wonderful – they would set me up with a house in Paris too, of course!
I imagine in that era, Dublin was not the greatest international platform for upcoming designers. Did your location ever deter you?
I never even considered it – When I was about fourteen or fifteen, Dublin was awash with French students who travelled here to learn English. I can distinctly remember how incredibly chic I thought they were. I couldn’t believe what they looked like! I would try to imitate them too – I bought a riding mac from Clery’s and I used to wear a little shrunken Shetland sweater. I probably shouldn’t admit to this but I even used to buy Gauloises. It’s kind of tragic really…
Ha! You spent your teenage years living in Finglas, I’m very proud to say that I’m from there too but did you ever feel that living or coming from somewhere which is perceived to be a disadvantaged area to be a hindrance for the career you sought?
I was born in London, as a very young child, I lived in Dun Laoghaire but we moved to Finglas when I was about ten or eleven years of age. I stayed there until I moved to London when I was 19. During those teen years, I did have this sense of thinking that bookshops, theatres and nice things were for other people but I really got over that quite quickly. Particularly, when I moved to London because no one cared where you were from and it was the most liberating kind of feeling. I was somewhat aware that people were toffee-nosed about those who lived in Finglas and it still exists to this day – which you probably know more than I do. I mean, there’s nothing worse than an Irish snob, other than perhaps an Irish inverted snob! However, once I decided on the career or pathway I would pursue, the thought that my background would hinder me in some way was unfathomable.
Speaking of your career path, you have previously worked at Christian Dior, Chloé, Givenchy and Rochas but how did your time in Paris influence your own brand and designs?
For my own brand, every design is instinctive. I wish I was the sort of designer who could tell a wonderfully dramatic story as to what inspired the collection but I never have been and each time I lift the pencil, the shape, silhouette and form come from within. However, I imagine the wonderful experiences that I have had moulded and shaped that innate sense of creativity.
What first drew you to Paris?
At the age of nineteen, I moved to London and worked at window displays. When I turned 23, I studied in Central Saint Martin’s as a mature student. I lied – I told them that I had done my Leaving Certificate and they accepted me onto the Foundation Course. After that, I did the Degree Course and then did a Post-Graduate course in Parsons, in New York. Every so often, a gang of us from Central Saint Martin’s would travel to Paris and try to attain some level of work. You’d learn specific phrases like ‘Je m’appelle Philippe et je suis Irlandais’. I got an interview at Dior and they told me I’d start on the following Monday. I went back to London on the ‘magic bus’, packed my belongings and began working for the House of Dior.
You were barely twenty at the time, did it ever phase your or feel somewhat surreal?
I remember my first week working at Dior. It was July and we were in the midst of couture previews. I was standing on the Alexander Bridge with André Leon Talley and two models and remember thinking ‘I can’t believe I’m here – I can’t believe I’m doing this’. I was a lowly assistant but I really thought I’d died and been reincarnated into some magic version of ‘Funny Face’. It was incredible but what happens with any job, even those which you like or love, it eventually becomes just your job.
Having studied fashion to a post-graduate level, did you feel equipped to manage the tasks and workload of these huge fashion houses?
When Chloé’s founder, Gaby Aghion left, I was asked to be the house designer for Chloé but very quickly, I realised how little I knew. You’re thrown in at the deep end and you have to do fittings with the premiere atelier – these are formidable women. They’re the real geniuses because they take your drawings and turn them into extraordinary garments. I guess what I learned from being in the houses of Paris is the importance of and if you were to ask me what I miss about Paris? It’s walking into a design house and meeting the incredibly talented individuals who work there and perform the most miraculous embroidery, stitching, and craftsmanship with their hands. It’s almost a religious experience for me.
Unless you are somewhat immersed within fashion or like me, take a keen interest in both the business and craft of the industry, the general population might be unaware that such talented people exist. Would you agree?
I think it’s a genuine shame that more people do not get to see the unbelievable beauty in exquisitely made clothes. It’s nobody’s fault that they don’t because fashion houses are now run by marketing people. Having said that, we all have too much ‘stuff’ and I think what people are beginning to realise is that they prefer to have less ‘stuff’ but better ‘stuff’. I’m sure you’ve heard it asked before but often people are shocked that a dress could cost £2,000. Actually, the maths to that is quite simple; retailers have an almost 300% mark-up, people who sew clothes in Europe happily receive decent living wages, good fabric is expensive and it’s somewhat easy to tot up. I always think it’s funny though that people view expensive clothes as somewhat obscene but would never describe an expensive car in the same fashion.
What was the biggest learning point about yourself that you took from your time in Paris?
I used to beat myself up over the fact that I wasn’t an ‘edgy’ designer. At times, I wished that I could emulate Yohji Yamamoto or Jean Paul Gaultier who back in the day, were very cool. However, then you realise that you just do what you do and for me personally, the designers who I admire the most are those who stayed true to themselves. That’s not to say that you don’t change over time, there is an evolving process but it’s more subtle in nature.
This evolvement of fashion houses and brands is something which I often think about. For example, if you look at the roots of the house of Givenchy; Monsieur Hubert Givenchy’s muse was Audrey Hepburn and he spent much of his early career designing for both her professional and personal wardrobes. Today with Ricardo Tisci at the helm, the brand is extraordinarily different and I wonder if the founder would be pleased with the change that has incurred?
It’s impossible to know. When I was in Paris, Mr Givenchy was working in Givenchy, Mr Ungaro was working at Ungaro and Mr Valentino was at Valentino. There was an authentic marriage between the brand and those who were creating the collections. This has changed!
Do you think that modern designers should have to abide by certain guidelines to ensure that some of that integrity is maintained?
My friend Joel Rosenthal, who designs the very famous JAR Joaillerie, absolutely insists that when he dies, his brand will die with him and part of me thinks that as well. I think what has happened is that the brand has become more important than the designer. In the days of Mr Balenciaga or Madamoiselle Chanel, these people drew, designed and created on instinct. The image of the house reflected what they created and with someone new at the helm, it’s somewhat impossible for that to continue. The one exception is probably Karl Lagerfeld, he has been hugely successful at Chanel but some of that is because of the ‘codes of the house’. By codes I mean the quilting, the Camélia, the Linton tweed – once you keep those elements, you can transform them in any fashion and it continues to embody Chanel. I think it’s much more difficult for a house like Givenchy or Dior. I’m not sure if we can even validly pose that question anymore because it has become something else, it has become ‘other’. That’s not to say that it’s better or worse, it’s just different.
Much like the garments experience periods of metamorphism, so does language that pertains to the fashion domain. Today, the words ‘high-end’ and ‘couture’ are frequently employed incorrectly and language such as ‘journey’ and ‘statement necklace’ populate many an article but if you had the power to do so, what language and vocabulary would you eradicate?
Ha! Where do you want me to start? ‘Stunning’ and ‘iconic’ really have to go – instantly! Anyone saying ‘it’s all about…’, that drives me insane. When it comes to writing, I think Suzy Menkes is very good; I really enjoyed Cathy Horyn when she was at the New York Times and I like Vanessa Friedman a lot too but there is also a huge amount of really terrible fashion journalism circulating online and in print. It’s not people’s opinions that bother me but the fact that they get so much wrong but sometimes editors don’t consider fashion to be very important and they let people away with a lot.
You mentioned Suzy Menkes, in her first online column for American Vogue, she wrote of her desire to eradicate the bitchiness from fashion. Were you surprised by that?
It was a terrible decision, give me loads of bitchiness! I don’t know why Suzy is playing Little Mary Sunshine because informed bitchiness is great.
Within the past few years, Ireland has birthed some incredible Irish design talent but what advice would you give to those who are currently contemplating a career in fashion?
You have to want it more than life itself and if you are pursuing it to become famous, then it’s not the job for you. Go on a reality television show! I would recommend that you travel and absorb as much information and as many experiences as you physically can. I love Ireland but it is impossible to gain the kind of insights which you could witness in Milan, Paris or New York – we just don’t have that kind of set up. I mean, you will learn more from spending six months in a reputable fashion house than you will in four to five years of college. The other thing to remember is that it’s extremely difficult to set up on your own and to survive, hone your craft and aesthetic in one specific area. It’s impossible to be all things to all people.
It’s interesting that you mentioned the challenges of being independent. Over the summer, Anna Wintour spoke at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and said to the students to be wearing of striving for independence, she recommended that they collaborate with someone who had a keen business sense as it’s difficult to be a design aficionado but also be quite prudent.
Definitely, I mean there was Pierre Bergé with Yves Saint Laurent, Barry Schwarz with Calvin Klein and Giancarlo Giametti with Valentino. Unless you, yourself are skilled in that way, you need someone with a very strong business sense. If you look at young designers such as J.W. Anderson, even with gargantuan amounts of media attention, the only way that they can survive is through funding from huge global conglomerates such as LVMH. It’s a terrible thing to say but in this modern era, who owns their own company? Dries van Noten, Rick Owens, there really aren’t many. My biggest recommendation would be to go and get as much experience as possible.
Speaking of business conglomerates such as LVMH, they have so much control and ownership within the fashion industry at large, is there a possibility that their presence is negatively impacting that fashion landscape and perhaps diluting designers’ ideas?
I’m at the stage in my life where none of them will ever give me a job so I can say this – yes, I think it’s terrible! I think it’s become that ‘other’ which we mentioned earlier. I think the word ‘luxury’ has become meaningless and perhaps that’s because I’m somewhat of an old reactionary and I long for the golden days where ladies sat in elegant gilded chairs and ordered their wardrobes for the following season. Today, the importance has been placed on the brand rather than the designer and I don’t think that’s benefiting the product.
My final question for you Peter, do you think this will all soon come to a peak and fashion houses will be forced to reassess their branding and codes?
I honestly think that change is afoot. Today, the luxury market has mostly been kept afloat due to the Chinese, South American and Russian customer bases. I don’t know how sustainable it all is. I’m not an economist and I’m not a sociologist but I’m pretty certain radical change is on the horizon for fashion within the next twenty years. How it will change? I’m not so sure.
I genuinely cannot thank Peter enough for being so gracious with his time and words. You can follow Peter on both Twitter and Instagram for authentic insights into the Irish fashion landscape and of course, Strictly Come Dancing.
Peter O’Brien’s collection for Arnott’s is currently available online and in-store. With bright orange pencil skirts and the most beautiful black satin dress, I urge you to meander into their Henry Street store or browse the collection online here.