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



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

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