The “queen of cashmere” on burn out, comebacks and spending two years in bed
She’s the undisputed queen of cashmere, the designer whose flamboyant coats, colour- l oaded sweaters and sexy cobwebby dresses changed forever the image of Irish knitwear. This year marks Lainey Keogh’s 60th birthday and her comeback in Ireland with a collection spearheaded by an invitation from buying director Shelly Corkery to be the centrepiece of Create at Brown Thomas next week. For a Dubliner who began her design business as a homespun knitter in a small room in South Anne Street in the late 1980s and grew to become an international star, it will be something of an emotional homecoming.
Success has had its price, however, as she faced her greatest challenge in the 2000s with serious health issues when her business almost fell apart. It all started in New York in 2003, she explains when we meet at her Wicklow home. “I was attending a big promotion in Bergdorf Goodman and I picked up a virus which completely floored me. I couldn’t fly home and had to stay with friends to recover. Six months later back in Ireland, the virus reappeared and I collapsed in February the following year and the girls [ her team] took over. They were wonderful and kept the business going. I had just bought this house, though all I had was a bed and a kettle. It was a total wipeout – a mixture of the virus and burnout. I couldn’t read or watch TV. I was in bed for two years,” she recalls. Recovery, thanks to healer Vicky Davey who came to her every week, took nearly six years and was further helped by Keogh’s Buddhist beliefs.
Today, dressed in one of her cashmere cardigans, tracksuit bottoms and runners, she is the picture of ruddy health. Her house, whose restoration took 10 years, is magnificent. It’s an imposing late 19th- cen- tury building partly wreathed in roses, hidden away up a long avenue and surrounded by huge mature trees, with views of the Wicklow Mountains from its windows. It was built for Emily Synge, a cousin of the playwright JM Synge, in 1886 and later belonged to the writer, artist and gardener Ralph Cusack, then briefly Oonagh Guinness of Luggala. “It was always a hideaway place,” says Keogh. “And different people had affairs here including, it is said, Brendan Behan with Caroline Blackwood”.
One of a family of 10 – eight girls and two boys – from a third- generation farm in Oldtown, north Dublin, Keogh is closest to her sister Irene, the eldest of the family who used to manage Windmill Lane Recording Studios and now spends much of the year abroad. Her two brothers are behind another successful family venture, Keogh’s crisps, a brand that sells all over the world including China and Saudi Arabia. She is immensely proud of her nieces Shauna and Kate, one of whom works in Nasa, the other in neuroscience. From her mother, Patricia, who recently celebrated her 85th birthday, Keogh inherited gardening skills. “The garden is my inspiration,” she says ( she has 17 acres). “My mother is an amazing gardener and she has made the garden with me. I have the courage and the green fingers, but she has the knowledge and artistry.”
Her big break came in 1989 when Christian Lacroix awarded her the Prix de Coeur in Monte Carlo saying that her collection was a coup de foudre – love at first sight. Within two years, she had got a number of new clients, including Maxfields in LA and others. “Twenty- five years later, we are still working with Maxfields,” she says. Having support from designers such as Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenburg furthered her reputation along with a long list of celebrity clients. Daphne Guinness, for instance, “feasted” on her knits, “wearing them for breakfast, dinner and tea”.
Keogh was once asked who she would most like to dress and replied Elizabeth Taylor. It was through Maxfields, a sophisti- cated destination shop, that she finally met the famous star, who was to become a regular client. “She was 70 when I met her for the first time, playful, gutsy and a powerhouse of energy. I couldn’t stop pinching myself and was told to bring everything I had to her house, so I arrived with all my suitcases and left with nothing, not even the suitcases. Later, I sent her a present and I got a phone call – I actually got a phone call from her,” Keogh says dramatically. She is a compelling storyteller.
She shows in Paris twice a year, but the US, particularly the west coast, is where her big exports and popularity lie. “It is really important to turn up to support the people who support us. Most US customers have no idea of the process – they just think we buy fabric so they are fascinated that we buy yarn and a couple of weeks later, it is this thing. There are a million ways you can wrap a thread.”
As to her personal life, she once said that she fell madly in love with Steve Lillywhite ( the English record producer who worked with U2) but she had a long affair with the expressionist artist Michael Mulcahy. “If ever a man ran away with my heart, it was he. But it was not to be and I am glad I never married and blessed that I didn’t marry him,” she says. Her constant companion now is a lively little pooch called Woof, half shih tzu, and half toy poodle. “I just want some happy times with my little doggie, going for long walks as often as I can. I am not big social person – the illness took that out of me and if I overdo things, it creeps up on me.”
Once known for a volcanic temper, she admits: “I was a total bitch in my heyday because I had such an enormous vision and believed in everything in a very short deadline. The shows in London nearly killed me. My pace is different now – I realised that you don’t need to work at that pace. It is not
Elizabe‘ th‘ Taylor was 70 when I met her for the first time, playful, gutsy and a powerhouse of energy
your life’s purpose. It is better for me to do things one at a time and care about the people who work for me.”
Standouts in her new collection are the poncho she calls the Blond Blanket, and the Black Tiger and Black Orchid coats in chenille, cashmere and marabou feathers with embroidery by Theresa McAuley. She is working, for the first time, in a pale palette, with soft cherry blossom pinks and blush tones, neutral shades extending to sweaters, socks, scarves and beanies.
“We have never been so luxurious and pale. I think of bright stuff as difficult, but there is a glamour in brightness. Older women glide gracefully into the pale palette and it is great with our skins and incredibly luxurious. And all made in Ireland.” Create, celebrating the best of Irish design, runs in Brown Thomas, July 3rd- August 13th
Clockwise from left: Lainey Keogh poncho; White, embroidered cocoon coat, ¤ 4,250; Cherry blossom, fringed coat ¤ 2,250; White, hooded and belted cardigan, ¤ 2,250. CREDITS Model: Thalia Heffernan Stylist: Darren Feeney Photographer: Eilish McCormick Hair: David Cashman Make up: Adrianna Dryniewicz at Charlotte Tilbury at Brown Thomas