‘BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS’
Designer Helen Steele on the tough retail environment and finding inspiration.
Helen Steele – whose eclectic, colourful designs are a hit with celebrities such as Saoirse Ronan, Vogue Williams and Amy Huberman – gives us her views on finding inspiration, affordable collaborations and why Victoria’s Secret needs to embrace plus-size models
Back in February newly-engaged and secretly pregnant Vogue Williams attended an event in London wearing a pink ruffle patterned mini-dress by Irish designer Helen Steele, who was, of course, delighted with the publicity. But the TV presenter, DJ – and now wife of socialite Spencer Matthews and mum of Theodore – did not end her devotion to the pretty, long-sleeved frock there.
‘This is one of my favourite dresses ever,’ she tweeted some months later, the silk fabric accommodating her growing bump. ‘I think it’s going to be my going home from hospital dress.’
For a designer who survived the recession ‘by the skin on my teeth’ such celebrity endorsements make all the difference. ‘Vogue has worn that dress a few times and because of her that dress sold out and we went into production three times,’ says artist and designer Steele, 44, a Monaghan-based mother-of-three, whose love of exuberant colour and luxury fabrics are hallmarks of her bold and beautiful aesthetic.
‘She’s worn quite a lot of my stuff. I created a dress for her for her friend’s wedding,’ she adds, of Spencer’s Made in Chelsea co-star Millie Mackintosh’s June nuptials.
‘It was the first time I’ve ever not used print. That was a total departure,’ she says, of the pale lilac number Vogue described as ‘the dreamiest dress by the dreamiest designer’.
‘Vogue really sells dresses,’ confirms Helen. ‘So does Amy Huberman.’ Ah yes, the so-called ‘Amy Effect’. Last April, the Finding Joy writer went out in London with fellow actress Ruth Bradley wearing Helen’s Cora dress, which features a multicoloured abstract print and matching tie-waist belt. She teamed it with acid pink heels from her own Bourbon collection.
‘That sold out in two days,’ says Helen, of the €750 guna – her designs are stocked online and in Dublin’s Costume boutique in Castle Market. ‘It’s one of those dresses you can dance in, eat loads in and it can actually be worn by any age as well. It’s a great party dress and it will take you anywhere.’
Helen is very well-travelled but she doesn’t have to go far to get ideas for her work. ‘I’ve been living in Monaghan for 20 years and I believe it has been so good to me from an inspiration point of view. I don’t think my work would be what it is without that visual stimulation of rural Ireland,’ she adds, though Helen also likes to visit the ever-changing graffiti-covered lane behind Whelan’s bar in Dublin for inspiration whenever she is in the capital.
‘I grew up in Maynooth, Co Kildare, and then I lived and worked in London for a while, came back to Ireland, met my husband, settled down, had three kids, and then we separated. But it’s all good,’ she says, of the amicable arrangement with Silverhill Foods boss Stuart. ‘We both live on the duck farm. He lives right beside my studio, I live in the family home with my kids.
‘At the end of the day, regardless of what went on, you’ve got to co-parent,’ she says, putting the success of their post-split rapport down to luck. ‘The most important thing are those three children we share together.’
Actor Chloe is 21, plus-size model Halle is 16 and their son Ronnie, 14, is ‘an incredible painter but his heart is in farming’.
Helen became a Mum ‘insanely early. I was 23 when I got married and had our first child. You know what, you grow up together and children make you want to aspire to more and make you want to be the best version you can be for them.’
Last month Halle signed with Dublin’s Not Another Model Agency and has been fitting in assignments around school. But aren’t so-called plus-size models often just, well, normal-sized?
‘It needs to be more realistically plus-size,’ Helen agrees; Halle is size 16. ‘A lot of my market is plussize. I’m not talking about gigantically obese, I’m talking about being happy and healthy in the body you’ve grown into. We have more nutrition and our body shapes are changing and I feel it’s important that the market adapts and provides for women who are looking for decent clothes. I think it’s grossly unfair that the industry is only coming around to it now. That’s why most of my label is one size and it’s one size fits all,’ says Helen, who
“A LOT OF MY MARKET IS PLUS-SIZE. I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT GIGANTICALLY OBESE, I’M TALKING ABOUT BEING HAPPY AND HEALTHY IN THE BODY YOU’VE GROWN INTO”
“THAT WHOLE INSTAGRAM WORLD OF LIES IS FED TO YOUNG, IMPRESSIONABLE GIRLS AND, GOD, TO ME TOO!”
adds that her designs are ‘swimming on size 810, okay on 12-14 and for 16-18 it’s fitted’.
The high prices reflect both the time it takes to produce each piece and the quality of the silk. Helen confesses that she would ‘love’ to do the kind of collaboration with Dunnes Stores that has made life easier for her friends Brendan Courtney and Sonia Lennon – and their work more affordable. In the meantime, she continues working away in her paintspattered studio. How does she manage?
‘Through blood, sweat and tears, to be honest. By the skin on my teeth, quite literally. It’s only in the last year it’s started to turn; that’s the reality. Retail has been turned on its head. Stand alone boutiques are struggling - with the exception of high-end niche boutiques. It’s a really difficult time for retail globally. All you need to do is look at House of Fraser to see that knock-on effect. Even powerhouses like Victoria’s Secret are struggling, share prices are dropping because their model is based on something that I don’t think personally is relevant, and it seems others share that opinion.’
The American lingerie company opened amid much fanfare in Dublin last year, its Grafton Street store laid out over three floors and covering 2,700 square metres. But the brand’s sales have since taken a double-digit plunge.
‘Its core values – the beanpole sexy supermodel, huge fashion show with girls in thongs and guys awkwardly playing music – is just cringeworthy and grim. That’s just my opinion,’ says Helen. ‘There’s room for everyone in the fashion world but it’s just a bit tired. All they need to do is one small thing – put a plus-size model in – and things might change a bit for them. The work they go through to do those shows is incredible and it’s not real,’ she adds, of the notoriously gruelling pre-show diet and fitness programme the so-called Angels such as Bella Hadid must follow.
‘I think it’s wrong to project that image to young impressionable girls, older girls as well,’ complains Helen, who is on a roll now. ‘That whole Instagram world of lies that is fed to young, impressionable girls and, god, to me too! I look at Instagram and think I’m such a lazy a** b **** because I’m not eating kale and pumping iron in the gym. That’s not real. No one is supposed to starve themselves. Not everyone can afford to join a gym.’
Helen’s customers don’t sound like the kind of people who are slaves to social media trends. ‘They range from eccentric to very creative to some very serious businesswomen. They’re grandmothers, mothers, daughters. They’re very confident, they know exactly what they want and how they want to feel. And they wear the clothes, the clothes don’t wear them, which I think is really important.’
We are speaking with Helen today about her
involvement in the charity GOAL’s What on Earth project, for which some of Ireland’s top artists, designers and personalities have painted or decorated 100 resin globe sculptures for a fundraising auction. Helen’s submission is a typical riot of colour but with a serious message.
‘It’s basically four weeks of paint being delicately dribbled all over the globe. It was too hot in my studio so I have this really cold spare bedroom that my kids think is haunted so I painted in there,’ she chuckles. ‘My piece is supposed to represent the travelling of refugees throughout the world and how when we embark on our own travels a lot of the time we could be flying over the islands in Greece and not being aware of what has gone on and what is still going on. Each little dot is supposed to represent each of us.’
It has been her ‘lifelong dream’ to create art and Helen says a painting will hang in a gallery and be enjoyed by a few but her clothing ‘grows like wildflowers throughout the world’.
Model Cara Delevingne pitched up at Glastonbury wearing one of her reversible jackets in 2013, and has worn her tee-shirts on other occasions. Helen has also worked with Oscarwinning actress Saoirse Ronan.
‘We did a kind of collaboration on a print for a dress for the Irish premiere of Brooklyn. It was basically a peacock print. So she came up with the idea and I put a print together and then she basically worked on the shape and there were fittings. I got to meet her amazing mother too,’ she says. ‘The most perfect person to work with is a strong, intelligent, successful young woman and Saoirse ticks all the boxes.’
Helen Steele can rest in the knowledge that she ticks all those boxes herself. VISIT goalwhatonearth.ie for information
Helen with her contribution to the GOAL What On Earth project
Actress Amy Huberman gives the thumbs-up to her Cora dress
Vogue Williams and, left, Saoirse Ronan show off their Helen Steele creations