‘I cried when I heard that Diana had died. She was just an amaz­ing per­son’

From un­em­ploy­ment to dress­ing Princess Diana, Paul Costel­loe has lived a sin­gu­lar life. He speaks to Donal Lynch about love, death, con­tro­versy and the evo­lu­tion of Ir­ish style

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - INTERVIEW -

Oh how we love an im­politic de­signer. In a fashion world dom­i­nated by mu­tual back­slap­ping and air kisses, there is a guilty plea­sure in the unedited broad­sides of an opin­ion­ated provo­ca­teur.

Per­haps the in­dus­try’s most re­li­able font of con­tro­ver­sial quotes, Paul Costel­loe rides the line between of­fence and fun with rel­ish. On a TV chat­show this year, his judge­ments on ev­ery­one from Camilla Parker Bowles (“very small”, wouldn’t swap his wife for her) to Penny Lan­caster (“a bit gawky”) caused tut­ting and so­lid­i­fied his rep­u­ta­tion for pro­vid­ing good copy, even if it opened him up to ac­cu­sa­tions of be­ing like Don­ald Trump (whom he ac­tu­ally ad­mires in some ways).

Two of his sons sit in on our meet­ing at his Lon­don stu­dio — per­haps in the hope they might rein him in a lit­tle. But thank­fully there is fat chance of that. Within a few min­utes, he’s given me the low­down on ev­ery­thing from Theresa May’s in­fa­mous leather trousers — “just aw­ful” — to Ivanka Trump — “you wouldn’t kick her out (of bed, pre­sum­ably)”.

At 72, with his brand ex­pand­ing via his col­lab­o­ra­tion with Dunnes Stores and prof­its at his firm hav­ing tripled in the last three years, Costel­loe seems to have less rea­son than ever to edit him­self. As with many peo­ple his age, you get the feel­ing not much wor­ries him any more.

He laugh­ingly shrugs when men­tion­ing the fall­out from his more risque riffs. “I came out of my mews in Dublin af­ter I ap­peared on The Late Late Show,” he re­calls. “I spoke to the lady who runs the newsagent. She said, ‘Peo­ple said you don’t like women’. But I was hav­ing fun, that was it. There’s noth­ing wrong with chau­vin­ism. We have a man in Amer­ica who is a chau­vin­ist and be­came pres­i­dent. I just like hav­ing a laugh.”

Lon­don feels like a fit­ting back­drop for a con­ver­sa­tion with Costel­loe, since this is where he made his name. We meet in Maryle­bone, not far from the Princess Diana me­mo­rial. Of course, it will be 20 years this week since the princess met her end in Paris. For more than a decade, Costel­loe dressed her in his gor­geously tai­lored cre­ations, com­mut­ing from his fac­tory in North­ern Ire­land to Kens­ing­ton Palace to do the fit­tings and mov­ing in a world few Ir­ish peo­ple had seen.

“I did cry when I heard she had died,” he re­calls. “I was still in bed. It was one of the best and worst days of my life. As a fam­ily we all went down and ab­sorbed the tragedy to­gether. She was amaz­ing. She was con­fi­dent in how she looked. I very much let her lead. She knew what she wanted.”

Costel­loe’s sta­tus in Eng­land made him a sort of or­a­cle of na­tional style. When he de­cided to play Dar­win — telling Im­age magazine that Ir­ish women “only a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions out of the bog... wouldn’t know style if it tot­tered up to them in 10-inch heels” — there was much anger. He as­sures me things have got bet­ter and says that com­ments like this were made in the con­text of the over­heat­ing econ­omy. “It was the be­gin­ning of the Celtic Tiger and I sensed we were tak­ing our­selves very se­ri­ously and were go­ing mad with cap­puc­ci­nos and cigar-smok­ing and how we looked,” he re­calls. “The com­ments came in that con­text. I think I recog­nised the crash was com­ing. I could see us lov­ing our­selves a lit­tle bit too much — and that doesn’t suit Ir­ish women, or men.” He says the style stakes are even higher now on both sides of the Ir­ish Sea, but that might be be­cause the English have be­come more tacky, rather than us com­ing on. “You can go to As­cot and see English floozies who are just as bad as Ir­ish floozies. It’s all very risque and that’s fun.” In per­son, this is all de­liv­ered with a twin­kle that would make it hard to take of­fence, even if you were dy­ing to do so. The opin­ions are part of the brand. Of Theresa May’s leather trousers, he says: “In one way, they were brave, but in an­other way just aw­ful. She’s prob­a­bly be­ing ad­vised by some­one from Vogue to wear clothes like that. They’re try­ing to make her cool, but she’s not cool — she’s a mid­dle-class politi­cian.” How about the Ir­ish Taoiseach, Leo Varad­kar? “I think, in terms of style, Leo is em­u­lat­ing Macron and Trudeau. He has a spe­cific, sporty style and that’s good. I think there are times he should wear a proper power suit. You have to be care­ful.”

Paul was the youngest of seven. His fa­ther was man­ag­ing direc­tor of rain­wear man­u­fac­tur­ers Val­star. The fam­ily were posh by any stan­dards — the house had a ten­nis court — and the Black­rock Col­legee­d­u­cated baby of the fam­ily wanted to be a painter. Un­for­tu­nately, a brother was al­ready stak­ing out that ter­ri­tory. Cloth­ing de­sign seemed a work­able com­pro­mise, though he still thinks of him­self as a painter.

His pre­lim­i­nary train­ing came in Paris, which he hated be­cause he went there be­fore it was con­sid­ered chic to ad­mire Ir­ish peo­ple. “The French looked down on us, so that was tough. I had a girl­friend from Toulouse. I would have to get the train from Paris to Toulouse to meet her and I would be sent back. They aren’t keen on Ir­ish guys.”

His love life didn’t mas­sively im­prove, but his ca­reer moved up­ward. Af­ter Paris came Mi­lan, where “Ar­mani was still king”, fol­lowed by a move to M&S in Lon­don. “They thought that be­cause I’d been in Paris with Jac­ques Esterel that I’d be able to make pat­terns,” he re­calls. “I man­aged to fool them for a month be­fore I was moved to the HQ, where it was like a hol­i­day. “They had these huge tea trol­leys come around. I was tall and skinny af­ter Paris, so it was good.”

He moved to New York for a while in the 1970s and got a Green Card. “I found it ter­ri­ble, dif­fi­cult, un­be­liev­able. I didn’t know what peo­ple were say­ing with their ac­cents. I’d end up hav­ing a tuna sand­wich ev­ery sin­gle day in the deli be­cause that was the only thing I could get through to the Puerto Ri­cans slam­ming food down in front of me.”

He lost his job with Anne Fog­a­rty and re­mem­bers feel­ing re­lieved that at least he was far from home. “If you’re go­ing to be out of work, make sure you’re in some big for­eign city be­cause it’s too hu­mil­i­at­ing if it hap­pens at home. I ended up work­ing in the Em­pire State Build­ing, look­ing down on all of them, de­sign­ing lin­gerie. I was des­per­ate for a job.”

He even­tu­ally re­turned to Ire­land and es­tab­lished his own la­bel, Paul Costel­loe Col­lec­tion. His rep­u­ta­tion was as a mas­ter of cloth — an ex­per­tise honed in Italy. It was when Princess Diana be­gan sport­ing his cre­ations that his ca­reer went strato­spheric.

“I was still com­mut­ing from the fac­tory in North­ern Ire­land and you still had the bomb threats. The fact that as an Ir­ish­man I was wel­comed in the Palace was quite funny. I would be brought into her draw­ing room and there would be a lady-in-wait­ing there. She would go and we would do the fit­ting: she would take off her clothes. She re­minded me of my sis­ters — she was tall, easy to deal with and ap­pre­cia­tive. Not a prima donna.”

As de­signer to Diana, he as­sumed a lofty po­si­tion in English so­ci­ety, open­ing at Bri­tish Fashion Week, for in­stance, and de­sign­ing Bri­tish Air­ways’ uni­form. It was a sort of de­signer lau­re­ate po­si­tion that has since passed to Julien Mac­don­ald, who pos­si­bly didn’t make the change easy by say­ing the ex­ist­ing de­sign “made the cabin crew look like some­one’s old granny queu­ing for a bus”. Costel­loe shot back that Mac­don­ald should “stick to de­sign­ing evening slap­per stuff ”.

“I was just be­ing bitchy to Julien Mac­don­ald,” says Paul, smil­ing rue­fully. “I think I was prob­a­bly be­ing spite­ful. I’m a voyeur. I look at ev­ery­one, I take in ev­ery­thing.”

Part of his crit­i­cism of Mac­don­ald’s de­signs were that, like a lot of fashion, they seemed made with the very slim in mind. Costel­loe says fo­cussing ex­clu­sively on this de­mo­graphic is a com­mer­cial mis­take. “Large sizes are

There’s noth­ing wrong with chau­vin­ism. I just like hav­ing a laugh

where the money is, but it’s where (de­sign­ers) stupidly avoid. I’m now sam­pling in a size 12, but I was sam­pling in a size 10.”

One won­ders how his more out­ra­geous quips go over with Dunnes Stores’ CEO Mar­garet Hef­fer­nan, but he says they’re more alike that one might think. “She is sim­i­lar to me in that we both think on our feet. She is a great re­tailer. We have a lot in com­mon, ex­cept money. It was a com­mer­cial de­ci­sion. I went to Dunnes and asked if they’d be in­ter­ested be­cause Deben­hams al­ready had jumped on the John Rocha band­wagon. If I lived in Italy, it might be dif­fer­ent, but the re­tail mar­ket here is cer­tainly high street.”

That kind of prag­ma­tism has prob­a­bly helped greatly in pre­dict­ing what those more dis­cern­ing bog de­scen­dants will en­joy. Taxi driv­ers and clean­ing ladies tell him that they slept on his sheets last night. “I’m more happy that those peo­ple are able to af­ford my things than the Lady Go­di­vas of Dublin,” he ex­plains. “I sort of think I could run for mayor.”

He says there was a time in life when peo­ple pre­sumed he was gay, be­cause of the pre­pon­der­ance of gay men in the in­dus­try. Straight de­sign­ers, he adds, aren’t as con­spic­u­ous be­cause they might not un­der­stand that only a small part of the whole scene is “go­ing out with your boyfriend”.

His fam­ily is im­por­tant to him. He men­tions their sup­port sev­eral times. He is clos­ing in on 40 years of mar­riage to Anne, and they have seven chil­dren to­gether, three of whom work with him. For him, part of the se­cret of such a long mar­riage is ac­cept­ing the es­sen­tial dif­fer­ences between men and women.

“Women go for the in­ner man, whereas men go for looks first,” he tells me. “We know women are smarter than us. They know how to ca­jole and they take stress bet­ter than we can.” Later, he adds: “You see so many women who marry the wrong man and say, ‘But I love him’. I think on one level women dis­ap­prove of chau­vin­ism and on an­other they like it. It gives them some­thing to talk about with their friends. It gives them some­thing to com­plain at. Mr Nice Guy doesn’t get that far.”

Per­haps in that vein, he tells me that he has great ad­mi­ra­tion for Don­ald Trump, even if his flag­ship build­ing is a lit­tle tacky. “Trump Tower is so ugly, the ugli­est build­ing in New York. But I re­spect that he is stick­ing to his poli­cies. I think he is a great shake-up for pol­i­tics.”

He’s not a fan of get­ting older, but he still cy­cles ev­ery­where and says work keeps him young. He has no in­ten­tion of hang­ing up his boots.

“The only way I’ll step back more is if some­one from the fam­ily steps up. I wouldn’t like a stranger. That’s just in­stinct. But I’m still ex­cited by the work, so I can’t imag­ine stop­ping. I wouldn’t like peo­ple to get bored.”

Of that, there seems lit­tle chance.

Paul Costel­loe will be launch­ing his spring/ sum­mer 2018 col­lec­tion at Lon­don Fashion Week on Septem­ber 18. To learn more, visit www.paulcostel­loe.com

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