Paul Costelloe and the Future of Fashion
Updated: Jul 29, 2019
The fashion show launching the Paul Costelloe Spring Summer 2018 collection was held at The Wardolf Hotel, bright and early on the morning of Monday 18th September. As one of London’s most iconic hotels, steeped in history and representing the ultimate in Britishness, it was the perfect location for such a timeless event. The visitors were treated like film stars, offered champagne on arrival, plus coffee and pastries from Paul, and given generous bags of diverse delights including a candle handmade in Ireland from the Paul Costelloe Living range of homeware, with a burn time of 65 hours.
During an exclusive interview for IRK Magazine, Paul Costelloe discussed his visions for the future of fashion, shared memories that explain the inspiration for his collections and offered wise words of advice to emerging designers.
IRK: You are described as one of the most established names in British fashion…
Paul Costelloe: ..and one of the oldest names, yeah!
IRK: … and you are celebrated for your hand-crafted, luxurious fabrics combined with cutting edge design, innovation and creativity. I was lucky enough to see first-hand your genuine enjoyment of the fashion show launching the Spring Summer 2018 collection, dancing with the models and genuinely engaging with the visitors. Could you please talk me though your creative process. How do you develop the inspiration for each collection.
Paul Costelloe: Funnily enough, that is one thing that I was literally coming in on. I was thinking what was I going to do for Autumn. I had the Hound of Baskerville on my mind for some reason. An old movie from 1959 with the old Sherlock Holmes, Peter Cushing, he was brilliant. Way before the version by Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock.
Its either a movie or something, for example, for spring I picked John F. Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy and that American period, which of course I could relate to because I lived in that time, I am no young person, so I can remember working in Paris in the late sixties and early seventies, so I was in my comfort zone somewhat, working on that period. Pierre Cardin was my neighbour work wise. Then I kind of, sort of drift into the fifties with that Dior look at the end of the collection, where everything was below the knee, mid calf length from which I have kind of jumped on somewhat. I am starting to see everything very long all of a sudden.
I suppose I work in fashion because I couldn’t do anything else. At school I was very unsuccessful. I was given a gift as a painter. Art is probably my natural gift. But I wasn’t committed on that either, and I am not probably that committed into fashion. Fashion is a way of making a living, a way of meeting attractive girls, a way of trying to understand women maybe and to some extent I enjoy that challenge. I enjoy the challenge of competing against much younger designers. I am a bit of an egotist with probably more talent in one way. I never went to Central Saint Martins. Never really went to college, I am a voyeur with my eyes, which is what guides me, and proportion, and I suppose a sense of subtlety.
Being brought up in kind of a middle class Irish background, somewhat, in a walled garden, croquet being played, tennis courts, fields and horses and that kind of background. Even though it was Dublin, we were somewhat sheltered to some extent. So when London had Carnaby Street I was doing Haute Couture, so I never went through that Mary Quant period. So that is why probably still, because I initiated working in quality and good fabrics, I have always tried to maintain that level, and you don’t get that through school or college, you get that from work experience and from the window you look out of. That remains with you for life, which is good and bad.
IRK: Has your creative process evolved since you launched at London Fashion Week in 1985?
Paul Costelloe: That was when London Fashion Week became significant in the 90’s but before then, I can remember so well, a man called Percy Savage was the one who pretty much set people up, like John Rocha and myself. It was a pretty historical period. Who was the girl who walked up to Margaret Thatcher with Ban the Bomb on her t-shirt? Katharine Hamnett. It was a very extreme part of the industry. There were a lot of interesting people. Not very commercial, but it was fun, it was interesting.
IRK: Does your creative process change when you have a private client as opposed to when you are working on your collection?
Paul Costelloe: With a private client, you have to please the client number one, and that can be very difficult, or it can be a pleasure, depending on who the client is. I don’t have many private clients. It is not part of the business. I am really a ready to wear designer.
IRK: I read that unfortunately you broke your collarbone just weeks before London Fashion Week. Were you able to rely on your family and team to take over from you when you were recovering?
Paul Costelloe: I am left handed and it was my right shoulder. Its still pretty bad! I have just started physiotherapy but its a sore one.
When you do a fashion show it is total self indulgence. Completely creating what you like, for beautiful girls who are all size 8 or 10, they are all 5ft 10”. Its just like doing a painting, but unfortunately it has to be destroyed and its over now and I am starting on Winter. We have just come back from Paris, myself and William, and all of a sudden we go ‘Oh great!’. We have found one company that was the starting off ground for Winter 2018, a menswear tailoring fabric supplier, and that is all you need, one or two pieces of fabric to initiate, and then you start thinking about where will I go from there. Will it be like Sherlock Holmes, with men in very tailored coats and ladies in very deep cut evening gowns. So you start playing on that for a little bit, and because I am a prolific sketcher, for each collection I draw about a hundred or more drawings, and then we edit it down to what we think as a team, Christina, Jordi, William and Robert, and we all add a little input in the final decision. Drawing is a big way of getting ideas out, and being able to edit. Its a cheap way of producing a sample range.
IRK: And do you draw on paper? Or on an iPad?
Paul Costelloe: No, everything looks like this (demonstrates drawing), and these are notes on the side, describing how the drawing will be.
IRK: IRK is an International magazine whose current issue concerns #FUTURISM. The juxtaposition of the use of fabrics on the edge of technological developments such as latex with natural fabrics, complimented by the architectural jewellery of Sarah Angold, has resulted in your recent collection being described as a vision for the future. What are your thoughts on this interpretation, and do you have a vision for the future of fashion?
Paul Costelloe: Getting very deep, yet I am the last person you should be talking about this. I do think it is quite fun working with very high, modern, technical materials such as Latex, which is quite modern and quite futuristic, and then blending it with the traditional, and that adds a real moment of excitement, because you are playing on the two sides of two very different cultures. Where you have your modern thinking and your traditional thinking.
The conservative people don’t particularly like that I blend latex with more traditional materials, they take is as lowering the tone, but its not, its giving it modernisation, maintaining the Paul Costelloe brand as being aware and moving on, but not doing it in an ugly way. There are a lot of ugly clothes out there, which really, the most beautiful girl will still look interesting in but not attractive. Maybe because I am straight, I play on the attractiveness as number one. Femininity rather than shock as number one. I don’t shock. I don’t think I can shock. My background doesn’t allow me. Coming from a middle class Irish Catholic background, brought up in the late fifties and early sixties in Ireland, you are born with a crucifix in your head, in your mind and in your body, and that remains. So, this is for me being risky, but adventurous, bringing in Latex and more modern materials, and we are going to be moving forward on this line because we feel that its keeping with the brand. I don’t want to be boring but yet I don’t want to be ugly, and thats the road. You have to be quite careful, it's like walking on a trapeze, if you go and lean too far one way then you are going to fall off, and I need to keep a brand that I can sell. That people when they are online and view the different collections that I am doing, homewares, whatever I am doing to keep the brand alive, that's important.
IRK: So, keeping the balance between the old and the new clients, so in a way you are trying to step between both, right?
Paul Costelloe: Yes, I probably had the mother as a client thirty years ago and now I want to get her daughter.
IRK: So, spanning the generations?
Paul Costelloe: Yes, now spanning the generations, thats always a challenge.
IRK: Within the Spring/Summer 2018 collection there are numerous references to sources of fabrics from family run firms. To me a family business evokes ideas of responsibility, environmentalism and heritage. With the Paul Costelloe business being family run, is this by chance or design, and to what extent does it reflect your values?
Paul Costelloe: I think its by chance because nobody has been asked to work for me. It has been their choice to enter in a small way, in a big way, part-time, whatever. Its like a pond that is there and you can put your foot in, you can put your whole body in and thats up to you. The only person who has put her whole body in is my poor wife, but for everybody else, if say William says in the morning he wants to go back to Fine Art, he will get my blessing. If Robert, as he is, he is going off to New York tomorrow on an adventure, a working adventure. Jessica is an opera singer but she works in my social media. No man is an island, but I suppose I am a bit of an island.
IRK: And the choice to work with other family firms?
Paul Costelloe: I enjoy it. I like smallish companies. I was trained in Italy as well as Paris, and Italy is all based on family and all of the successful companies are family run. I am quite instinctive with Italians and I work well with them and I understand them. I can tolerate their passion, their devotion and their temperament. Its all very, very special and they are the most gifted people and most of the fabrics are Italian. And then Irish too! And England, its interesting. Its a very fascinating business and people underrate it terribly.
IRK: As Oscar Wilde, you describe yourself as having the simplest of tastes yet always satisfied with the best. Can you elaborate on how you determine quality?
Paul Costelloe: I love that quote, I am glad you noticed that. I think it all depends, it can be good service, that can be quality. Its just something thats beautiful doesn't have to be expensive. People are still thinking that because such-and-such a handbag costs this much it must be wonderful. That Gucci shoes must be amazing because they have got so many jewels on them and they are only going to cost you two thousand pounds. I still think that I like simplicity and I like beauty but I don’t believe it should ever bear a price-tag, that certainly doesn’t influence me.
IRK: To what extent are environmental issues and ethics important for the brand.
Paul Costelloe: Yeah, thats always a tough one. I am not such a committed person as Stella McCartney in that I am not a vegetarian and I like a full English breakfast every so often. To be quite serious, I like the environment and I am quite environmentally conscious. I want rivers to be clean and I want people to be able to fish in the rivers. I would be very concerned about particularly dyeing of materials that would run in the rivers because most of the old mills were built beside rivers and one has to be really aware of that. I really do believe in organic farming, but I think that it has to be true organic, as I think again we are being dictated by price and that can cause some real environmental harm on the earth and our own fields, and you see terrible things, and again plastic. I don’t believe that we should go and bring in plastic bags from the supermarkets. They should be serving us environmentally friendly bags, for example biodegradable materials such as paper. That should be part of when you buy something, and the supermarkets should be putting that into their price, and not charging us for it. Yes I am for the environment, but I am not a fanatic. I like foxes and all that, and my logo is a fox.
IRK: You mentioned earlier the walled garden that you grew up with, so a connection with nature as a child was quite strong.
Paul Costelloe: Yeah, absolutely! Very good interview, you are very good, yeah, I love outdoors, just a feeling of being free. As a young boy growing up in a walled garden, I would be left out from about ten in the morning in the summer, and in Ireland they had long summer holidays and they still do. Children get like two and a half months and I feel so sorry for English children being locked away in July. So yes, I spent a long time outside as the youngest of a large family, the youngest of 7, a lot was going on, so they thought ‘push them out in the garden’. So yeah, I just love the sound of croquet balls, people playing croquet when you are up in your bedroom from the age of six, with the sound of playing outside. That was a wonderful time in my life.
IRK: You have had an impressive career to date. What advice would you give to aspiring fashion designers?
Paul Costelloe: I think the word is tread softly, piano piano in Italian, slowly slowly. Learn from others. Learn to get experience in the right company that you can relate to. Don’t expect that you are one. Early success can be very dangerous and you can fall very quickly. Whenever you do decide to set up on your own, because you believe you are good enough, surround yourself by very strong financial advisors, because you can loose everything and in one season you can go bankrupt, and to go bankrupt or to go into administration is one of the worst experiences anyone could go through. Even though they say ‘oh you will be back on your feet in a year’, people always remember the bad times. They will remember more about your failure than your success. People thrive on other people’s failures and thats what they remember. Truthful, huh?
IRK: You are reported as being the private designer for Princess Diana from 1993 to 1997. In 2013 you were quoted in the independent as saying that ‘The Duchess of Cambridge is no Princess Diana’. Is there anything you would like to the comparison between the Duchess and the Princess now?
Paul Costelloe: I think that she has come from a completely different background and I think that your background and how you were brought up by your parents is so relevant to how you are. Diana came from British Aristocracy, quite arrogant, quite ballsy, plenty of opinions. The Duchess came from a hardworking, committed family with simple, uncomplicated values. Work hard and you will succeed philosophy. Its unfair to compare them because its not one, but two very different cultures, and I think that she is different, her plus is that number one she is a happy person, whereas Princess Diana was probably with moments of happiness and lots of grief. I knew Diana at the stage when she was somewhat happy, still lonely, there was always loneliness there. The Duchess of Cambridge is certainly not lonely (laughs), and I think she is a great credit for carrying out her role with a smile.
IRK: You are quoted in the Independent in 2016 as expressing an interest to work with the Duchess, saying that ‘it would be amazing if she could wear my collection’. Can you imagine the perfect outfit from your collection for the Duchess? Or would you prefer to design something especially for her? And if so, can you describe how it would be?
Paul Costelloe: I would love to. Quite honestly I would put her in that long, mid calf, pale blue linen dress. I think she would look stunning in it. And she is wearing Irish as well, so I always like to get the Irish bit in, you know. In fact, Orla Kiely, I used to have a shop in Dublin and she worked for me. She was the most organised of all of my assistants. There to open up the shop on time, didn’t smoke, she was a very great girl.
IRK: You are quoted as saying that creativity, texture and traditional designs are what you want your brand to always be. How do you envisage the future of the Paul Costelloe brand.
Paul Costelloe: I think the Costelloe brand can spread, because it has heritage and I would hope youth. I like heritage and youth because they are kind of a contradiction, and as long as we will still have to be producing catwalk shows, for a long time. People are thinking that it is not important anymore, its what appears. But you don’t get images like that, because that was spontaneity, and you caught it (pointing and referring to a photograph that I took after the fashion show), and you only get that at a catwalk show. Well, actually no, that was at the presentation, which is quite funny. You probably got more interesting shots in the presentation than in the fashion show.
IRK: Yes, the presentation was fabulous and I loved the way that you interacted with everyone as you were walking around, and dancing with the models.
Paul Costelloe: I think that is interesting, isn’t it, it really is.
Robert Costelloe: It couldn’t have been more unstructured. The PR team were worried about the press all outside in the Paul cafe space wandering off, which wasn’t happening at all. So we just opened the doors and this torrent of people came flooding in and there was this dedicated space for the models to be and it just turned into this huge press opportunity, for about an hour, and everyone got amazing shots, details and emotions. Much more than personality than how we have done things in the past.
Paul Costelloe: You should see the shot she has Robert, you really should.
IRK: I was just sitting there and all of this was going on around me!
Robert Costelloe: Awesome! Its a lovely shot, there were some great ones taken.
Paul Costelloe: Yes, its a great shot. I love this guy! (laughing) So good, and fun, you know? Its like something out of a film.
IRK: And there was a moment when the models were on their phones, smiling and taking selfies. That was amazing. I mean, talking about #FUTURISM!
Robert Costelloe: In our spray painted iPhone covers that we had done up. I thought that was really interesting because we really kind of liked the idea. For a lot of people it is more about that personal experience. How you can kind of give your viewer a bit more of a reality of what is really going on in a fashion show. A models eye view. We would like to take this a step further next season. Not just the girls taking shots of each other and everything, but possibly being in the presentation space giving a live stream almost, from their phones, and really showing what it looks like.
IRK: Because a lots of people at the show were live streaming on Instagram and it would be interesting to do that from the models perspective.
Robert Costelloe: Exactly! I though that would be quite a fun idea! Really engages your audience.
Paul Costelloe: They were very spontaneous, those models. Maybe it was the atmosphere that got them.
IRK: It was an infectious atmosphere.
Paul Costelloe: I suppose that is where we see the brand going into other areas. We are developing other homewares to extend. Fashion can touch many areas but it is getting the opportunity to develop it, because there is a lot of competition out there and we are a small family company. We are not a multi-million pound company, but at least it is our own and we are not answerable to any board, and I have worked under those situations. In fact, I have never been happier since I am my own person. Instead of, kind of, ’well, should you really be showing that in latex, is it going to damage your name, and not be appreciated by our customers coming from the country.’ Its my own drawing plan, my own pen, and yes we want to move forward. Its getting out there and keeping people aware. Its also a small team and we work with a lot of sample units and a lot of people. Its very young, you know. (laughing) This is the base. Christine is 22, William is 25, Robert is 28 and Jordi is 31.
IRK: You are surrounded by a young and energetic team!
The interview was conducted on the morning of Friday 22nd September at the Central London Studio of Paul Costelloe with his team consisting of his son's Robert and William Costelloe, and his assistants Jordi and Christine.. The author Natasha Hall was absolutely delighted to be presented with an original drawing by the designer as a parting gift.