‘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
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