Paul Costelloe interview

You’ve been a designer for over 35 years what do you consider has been your career highlight?

Paul.  I’m still expecting it. I don’t in anyway feel fulfilled. Probably the nearest thing to a highlight would be the first time I dressed Princess Diana. That was a pretty major experience going to Kensington Palace, that first time was very special. I couldn’t believe it. She was at her peak still very happy, at least we thought she was. She was married living in Kensington Palace and nothing had gone too “dodgy” at that point. She was still playing the role of “the Princess”.

MF. Do you remember what year that was?

Paul.  It would’ve been the early 80’s

MF. What were you dressing her for?

Paul. It was always for trips. Trips to India, so sleeves had to be longer her body had to be somewhat covered. You have to take things like that into consideration.

 Diana Princess of Wales chats to female students during a visit to Oman University

She was charming, great, always had a cup of tea and biscuits waiting for me,  very friendly. She was lovely, pleasant, modest a great girl.

MF. Was it Paul and Diana ?

Paul. Yes it was. As an Irishman I don’t bow to royalty, I don’t curtsey. I shake hands.

We always kept in contact for quite a while. Every Christmas I got her personal Christmas card. You could see even from the Christmas cards that the relationship was changing. They appeared close together and then further and further apart.

MF. Certainly you can consider that a career highlight even if it wasn’t the financially most rewarding.

Paul. No, no but they always paid. (laughing)

MF. She was iconic and her fashion sense was excellent.

Paul. The present Princess will never be the same. She had class…different era of course.

MF. I think they are both “of the moment”

Paul. Yes, I agree. She bought up her children really well. Charles can’t take any of the credit for that.

In your professional opinion was there any one designer who was your inspiration?

Paul.  Definitely Georgio Armani and when I started off Courreges, Ungaro and St Laurent…a long time ago. They were my early influence Armani was later.  Courreges was very space “agey”, geometric blocks very sporty. Roughly the same time as Mary Quant but she bought it to the street. It was clean, very fresh, very Mod but in a very nice way.  At that time Paris was still very couture no high street fashions. Whereas as London was very much Carnaby Street and all that and I wasn’t really a part of that.

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I was living in Paris. Ended up in a funny little street living in an L-shaped room at the very  top of the building.  Very basic.  I didn’t have a weight problem, I tell you.  You could live poor in Paris and still feel OK. It was very romantic.

The couturiers used to celebrate the feast of St Katherine which was the feast of machinists. All the workers would dress up and be entertained by the couturiers.

What would you consider to be you career low point?

Paul. The last couple of years have been pretty tough.  I’m a bit like a footballer. I licence my name to different areas such as childrenswear, handbags even candles. The licence I had for ladieswear which lasted 10 years ran out of money basically. So in 2011 and 2012 I had to go out and try and find a backer which was very difficult. Firstly it was financially difficult but secondly they wanted the brand  lock, stock and barrel. The Paul Costelloe lifestyle. The offers were pretty meagre, which was humbling so I didn’t go down that route.  So I decided to retain the brand and retain my name. So, I’ve continued in a very small way as you can see here. Developing small ranges in the hope I can build a new smaller business concentrating on the Home market. I’d still like to find someone who would want to take my ladies wear range at the top end of the market.

Paul Costeloe Living

Of course age comes into it, you know….longevity. Who is going to carry on the brand? You have to face mortality. Both career and physical. Physical doesn’t worry me. It’s more on the career side with peoples’ expectations of me. Because you’re in the business your age is known you can’t hide it!

The last couple of years have been tough and tough on my wife too. But at least I still own my own brand and I get up in the morning and say “ get on with it”. I think I’m still relevant and I still believe in my designs. Particularly in tailoring, I don’t think there are many people better than me in ladies tailoring.

It’s tough ‘cos I’m not a socialite, I don’t play that game. Which can be a bit of a disadvantage. It can be an advantage to be very working class or aristocratic in the fashion industry but coming from a middle class, Catholic Irish background I don’t really fit in.

With the benefit of hindsight is here anything you would’ve changed in your career?

Paul. No, there’s nothing I would’ve changed because I felt I was doing it right at the time. I suppose I’ve been “rowing my own canoe” (even with a financial partner), I’ve always been the one that’s called the shots. Maybe I should’ve allowed a greater input from people on the business side. ‘cos you can’t be good at everything. I’m a bit of a self-made man.

I also tried to balance family life and work, I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said “ The paths of glory lead but to the grave”.  Trying to keep a lifestyle together. I wasn’t  like Paul Smith travelling to Japan and China building up a brand I was hanging in London, Paris and New York having a good time.

I don’t have any regrets but I do think I could have made better decisions from time to time. But I have seen my kids grow up so it was a fair trade-off.

You design collections for men and women do you have a preference?

Paul Costelloe sketch

Paul. Women by far. Menswear isn’t quite s challenging. A little bit here a  little bit there and if you’ve got a good tailoring factory  you can get through quite easily. Womenswear is much more personal it’s your reflection  and because you’re a male you’re facing it completely differently from a woman. It’s much tougher but the satisfaction seeing my wife wearing one of my dresses recently at a trade fair in Milan and  looking amazing in it. That made me feel great. When I did British Airways uniforms and seeing the girls wearing it, especially long haul going to Hong Kong ,seeing them looking trim and beautiful so rewarding. I have a total appreciation of the female form. I still see women as attractive Oh god yeah!

As you know our publication is aimed particularly at the 50 plus age group. Your collections have never been age specific. Do you think there is the danger of “mutton dressed as lamb” for both sexes and if you do how would you suggest they avoid that stigma?

Paul. For men it’s fairly easy. If you’re rotund avoid  double breasted jackets. It exaggerates your proportions. You really have to be slim and Italian to wear DB successfully. Men seem to get away with it better if they have the personality to carry it off.

But when women overdress and look so uncomfortable, wearing shoes that are too high, a skirt that is too tight, a jacket that is showing her breasts almost to the point of falling out, over tanned and over groomed hair I really think that’s a disaster. “The girl next door” look works …simple, plain and elegant. Not modest but just keeping it simple. Less about fashion and more about who she is. Sometime women get so obsessed about fashion that they buy things that just don’t suit them. It’s also about quality. You can go to Top Shop if you’re a size 8 or 10 but if you’re 12, 14 or 16 it will only exaggerate your size.

If you could suggest a capsule wardrobe for men and women what would you suggest?

Paul.  Probably black. For a man a well cut black suit white shirt and simple narrow tie. And I think sometimes you can wear trainers with a suit which is a great look. For a woman, again a well cut black suit with pencil skirt, opaque tights and black suede court shoes. I think hair should either be worn up or even cropped almost into a boy look and a very light make-up.

Casual wear, for men  can be a bit of a disaster which was proven by “dress down Friday”! Simple well cut jeans and T-shirt and a good quality hoodie can look comfortable and cool. Or, of course, a nice polo shirt.

Women, again a cut-off pair of trousers or narrow leg jeans just above the ankle can always look good as well as some of the stretch lycra leggings with a very simple top. Layering works very well and jersey can be a great fabric to hide all he lumps and bumps.

You’re well past retirement age now, do you have any intention of actually retiring?

Paul. No way! I’ve got a love for painting too. I’m having an exhibition in Dublin in a couple of months time. So even if I gave up fashion I’d continue with my painting. I enjoy the challenge too much. I don’t want some young designer taking my spot in Harrods or John Lewis. I want to fight for it, I may end up losing it eventually but I’m gonna fight my corner.

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Your new menswear collection is called Costelloe & Sons do you expect your sons to perpetuate your legacy?

Paul. Certainly at least one of them will. I’ve got seven kids. The eldest is a broker in the city, the next works in retail for TM Lewin, Gavin is a lawyer, Jessica is an opera singer, Robert is in business in China and the last two are both in art college.

They’re all involved in some way or another and the boys  all my models for my menswear shows. Which is amazing for me ‘cos I’m not Georgio Armani but that’s one thing he can’t do.

Men wearing suits designed by Paul Costelloe

What do you do in your spare time?

Paul. Painting and I play a bit of tennis at Putney tennis club which is very informal. I work at the kitchen table at weekends. I watch the rugby. Weekends go to quickly and I hate Mondays.

What’s your favourite holiday destination?

Paul. I’m really bad on holidays. My wife doesn’t book them and I don’t bother so we always end up in Portugal in the Algarve. We just stay in a little Sportif Hotel right on the front.  We wake up go for a jog on the beach, a swim in their lovely outdoor pool and breakfast. It’s very simple but we love it.

If you hadn’t been a successful designer what other career would you have chosen?

Paul. Oddly enough it wouldn’t have been painting,  I wouldn’t have made a living at that. I applied to the American Embassy to go to Texas, I wanted to be a cowboy!  I wanted to be outdoors on horseback. Who knows how it would’ve ended up I might have been a rodeo rough rider.

Finally, what are the three things you can’t live without?

Paul.  Firstly I have to say my wife, number two would have to be a paintbrush so I can express myself when I’m travelling and finally my Converse trainers.

MF. Thank you Paul it’s been great.