Former Gaelic football star Paul Galvin on how fashion turned his head

Not so long ago he togged out as an All Ireland-winning Kerry footballer and he's been named a GAA All Star – one of the sport's elite – but Paul Galvin has swapped all that for fashion. He tells Gail Bell about his journey from being a formidable force in Gaelic to becoming one of Ireland's leading men's designers

Designer Paul Galvin models a navy military coat with gold buttons, from his Shelby collection at Dunnes
Gail Bell

IT MUST rate as one of the most unlikely lifestyle switches in the history of Gaelic football, but former Footballer of the Year, Kerry legend Paul Galvin, is having the last laugh on those who once sniggered behind his back – as well as openly in his face – when he revealed his new calling as Ireland's first man of fashion.

A few years ago, the self-taught Dublin-based designer and author of In My Own Words retired from inter-county football to turn his attention to what he felt was the neglected area of quality Irish fashion (for men).

Now, in what has proved a fast-tracked career, somewhat off-field, he has just launched his fifth range with Dunnes Stores.

The Shelby collection is a personal interpretation of the look, style and personality of the 1920s and was largely inspired, he says, by the cult television series Peaky Blinders, of which he is an unapologetic devotee.

"I just love the show," Galvin, a former teacher and four-time All Ireland medal winner, enthuses down the line from his busy Dublin workplace. "Up until I started watching Peaky Blinders, Leonardo DiCaprio was my favourite actor, but now it's definitely Cillian Murphy. I would be doing well if I could persuade him on to the catwalk wearing Shelby..."

With its trademark baker hats, burgundy braces, Long Johns, and tweed-effect three-piece suits – accessorised with pocket watch and topped off with overcoat – the Shelby 'story', he says, is presented in a contemporary, "well tailored and masculine" way and, so far, has taken the dapper high street crowd by storm.

The 1920s look reimagined by Irish fashion designer Paul Galvin, who's a big fan of hit BBC/Netflix series Peaky Blinders, for his Shelby collection at Dunnes

"I think now, difference is more likely to be embraced than shunned and that is another social change for the better," he says. "There is growing confidence among Irish men who want to wear what they want and embody a whole look, right down to the hairstyling.

"With this new collection, for instance, I knew hair and hairstyling were central to a man's look in the 1920s, so I designed a barber's shirt as a conceptual piece inspired by barber culture – with the help of fourth generation Dublin barber, Sam Donnelly, who features in our campaign shoot.

"We're only over four weeks in and the range is sparking loads of interest and selling really well. It is a strong look and it seems to have chimed with the mood of the moment. I'm hoping to plan an event in Northern Ireland soon as we have some great stockists there – Belfast is a great place for individuality."

It has been a hectic morning and our phone call is squeezed in between rounds of meetings and inspections of a myriad of new samples which have arrived well in advance of the next batch of designs – intriguingly entitled, 'Bogman' and 'Boxer' – which will be hanging on rails early next year.

The extraordinary Galvin style story first began when the high profile football retiree – who counts several exhilarating clashes with "tough" Tyrone and Armagh men among his sporting highlights – confidently walked into Dunnes Stores head office with a copy of his book to present to the doyenne of Irish retail, Margaret Heffernan, company CEO.

He showed her some samples he had had made up – he doesn't operate a sewing machine himself, based on the principle that "that is what tailors are for" – and, not long after, signed a contract to start a clothing label.

Apart from completing a graphic design course, Galvin (37) is basically self-taught, but like most creative people, he embodies an almost mystical talent for tapping into popular culture, pinning down a zeitgiest and remodelling it with a new twist for a new generation of everyday style icons.

Emboldened by this innate sense of being able to visualise the Next Big Thing, the designer has now set his sights on the unusual and unrelated topics of boxing and bogs as reference points for next year's "cultural storytelling" under the Dunnes label.

"I get inspired by all kinds of contemporary reference points, and that has included everything from Olympic cyclists to the Easter Rising and Irish novelist and poet, Samuel Beckett," he tells me. "I think Netflix [where Peaky Blinders is currently airing] is a great cultural driver, as is social media, so it is important to keep abreast of trends.

I don't like to talk about 'fashion', as such, as I see what I do more as cultural storytelling and having a vision of how clothing can be part of a bigger story, says Paul Galvin

"Media sports personalities like David Beckham are good at influencing what men wear, and, in the background, music – hip-hop, especially – are directing male trends. I take contemporary reference points and then compile a complete look, from the colour stories to the shapes and proportions.

"I don't like to talk about 'fashion', as such, as I see what I do more as cultural storytelling and having a vision of how clothing can be part of a bigger story.

"For Boxer, I saw how the McGregor and Mayweather fight was getting everyone talking and leading to an upsurge of interest in that sport, so that made me think of designing a fitness collection.

"I always loved boxing, so it made it a good starting point. Then, with Bogman, I wanted to recreate a feeling of times past when men worked on the bogs in open shirts, vests and loose flannel trousers.

"It's not a strict interpretation, but it's a way of connecting with the earthy feel of those times; an era when my grandfather's generation enjoyed the earthy, outdoor life and the storytelling and friendship which were intrinsically linked into their rural communities."

Galvin comes from hearty rural stock himself and recalls actually falling into a bog hole near his house when he was about 10 years old – but whether the Bogman collection has been a delayed reaction to that terrifying experience or not, he cannot tell.

Yet, the designer, who is married to Irish broadcaster Louise Duffy, retains a fond attachment to Penny Lane and the bog road where he grew up, despite being "really "p****d off" that, when he emerged from the bog hole, his jeans were fused to his skin and the Velcro straps on his prized new trainers wouldn't stick any more.

Today, getting things to "stick" is still the aim, but more in a metaphorical sense and related to catching hold of the right look for the right time for the right price – although he remains meticulous about standards and personally ensures all his buttons (no Velcro) are securely sewn to each waistcoat, jacket or coat that bears the Galvin name.

A casual look from Paul Galvin's Shelby collection for Dunnes – Black and white striped top with red pocket (€25); Grey denim skinny jeans (€35); Laced up tan leather boot (€70)

But the biggest challenge, he maintains, in working in fashion – sorry, cultural storytelling – is ensuring the creative process segues seamlessly into commercial success, as the end result must always be for the lines to sell as well as they look.

With this in mind, the former Kerry All Star regards the sort of steely determination required on the Gaelic pitch, the teamwork and collaboration, not unlike the qualities needed to bring about a successful result in retail.

"It's more similar than people think," he concludes in his southern vernacular. "I'm always going on about how the the whole Gaelic structure could be redesigned. Some people in the GAA saw me as a deviant for my career choice, but I think Gaelic football needs designers now: for game play, for designing tactics.

"I still love the game, of course; I may not be wearing the jersey now, but you will always see me at the odd match; a player-turned-spectator – with opinion."

Probably, the best-dressed one at that.

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