Designer Paul Costelloe: My favourite Princess Diana dress was made in Dungannon

Jenny Lee talks to Irish fashion designer Paul Costelloe about the inspiration behind his latest collection, the secret to his success, cycling, painting and his memories of working in Tyrone

Irish fashion designer Paul Costelloe. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

BEAUTIFUL tailoring, luxurious textures, quality materials and acute attention to detail, as well as the designer's passion and charismatic personality have seen Paul Costelloe grow from a small Irish womenswear design and production house 40 years ago to one of fashion's most recognisable names.

Born in Dublin to an American mother and Limerick father, who was managing director of a company that produced raincoasts, Costelloe left Ireland at the age of 19 to study at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris.

He worked for couturier Jacques Esterel between 1969 and 1971, before working for Marks & Spencer in Milan and London. A move to the US saw him work with designer Anne Fogarty before he returned to Ireland where in 1979, where he established his own label in the Strelitz factory in Moygashel, near Dungannon.

Costelloe has fond memories of his humble beginning in the Tyrone factory.

"On my studio wall I've got hanging a big black and white print of the workroom in Moygashel of one of the girls cutting out fabric," he tells me.

"I spent over a decade in Dungannon and I've incredibly fond memories of my time there and the loyalty the people there showed for the Costelloe brand. I remember holding fashion shows in the Ulster Hall in Belfast with bombings outside and roads blocked. I was convinced no-one would turn up and I ended up with a full house."

The Paul Costelloe name today encompasses a wide range of collections including womenswear, menswear, bags, accessories, jewellery, eyewear and his exclusive Paul Costelloe Living collection for Irish retail group Dunnes Stores, including The Paul Costelloe First Holy Communion Collection. He credits this "diversification" as being crucial to his survival in the highly competitive world of fashion.

As well as his long-standing relationship with Dunnes, the 6' 4'' designer's continued links with Ireland include using linen from Ballymena firm Baird McNutt and Emblem Weavers in Wexford and tweed from Magee in Donegal.

"I don't use them because they come from Ireland, but because they are the best in the world," he says.

Last month Costelloe presented a confident Autumn Winter 19 collection at London Fashion Week in front of a full house that included Dublin singer Imelda May and Irish model and television presenter Vogue Williams, whose wedding dress he made last summer.

His collection showcased his tailoring skills with military-inspired coats in pure Italian wool, symbolising an escape from austerity. There was also opulent velvet corduroy, flower strewn day-to-evening pieces, pencil skirts teamed with over-sized Aran knitwear, and aristocratic-inspired long, billowing princess gowns.

I ask him, were his latest designs a creative response to Brexit?

"You walk around London and see all the monuments of celebration, then you look at these politicians and you just wonder, what has happened to the British empire? It's just shocking that no-one is making decisions," he responds.

"The chaos that has penetrated the UK over the past two years is so depressingly boring and I felt this was a moment to bring out the red jackets and a little bit of military trim and generally be a little more positive."

There was a nod to the 80s too with the appearance of shoulder pads.

"We're not returning to the days of Sue Ellen Ewing but tailoring is what I've always done – it's been distinctive of the brand for years," he says.

And does he worry about the implications of Brexit for his own business?

"I've lived through a lot worse – I worked in Northern Ireland in the late 70s and 80s and survived. Indecision is the worst of all. But I've reached a stage in my life where I don't worry so much.

"I'm planning to go back in April to New York and do a little more ploughing. Often when you're not desperate, that's when things can happen," he adds philosphically about trying to crack the American market.

Now aged 73 and a grandfather, Costelloe has no intention of retiring.

"I really enjoy my job – it's part of me. If my adventures ended, I would end with them," he says.

Top of his wish list for those he still wants to design for her are Irish actress Saoirse Ronan and princesses Kate and Meghan.

"They are both strong women and have great styling. Kate is very grounded, she re-wears the same things and pulls them off. Meghan is a self-made woman and has huge individuality," he says of their style.

Costelloe has long-standing links to the British royal family. Among his clients are the queen's granddaughter Zara Tindall while during the 1990s he was one of Princess Diana's favourite designers.

"I remember the first time I went to Kensington Palace and I fell up the stairs with a handful of garments and a bunch of flowers. I remember touching the couch I was sitting on and looking on to Hyde Park and it was surreal as she was the most famous name in the world at the time.”

His favourite dress of those he designed for Diana was a floral linen dress that she wore in Australia.

"It was a pink and yellow print which was made in Dungannon. She looked amazing."

When it comes to his own style, Costelloe, who's wearing jeans, a denim shirts, grey cardigain and pair of Converse trainers when we speak, admits, surprisingly: "I'm not a fanatic for men's clothing personally."

So is it a case of comfort over style?

"You can have comfort and style," he corrects me. "Wearing clothes is more about attitude and feeling," adds Costelloe who enjoys jogging and makes his 16-mile daily commute into his London studio by bicycle.

Attitude is a quality he also looks for when casting models.

"I had 250 models turn up for London Fashion Week, from which I had to choose 16. Being able to walk well and to smile confidently is what makes the impact."

Costelloe has been criticised in the past for his outspoken views on Irish women, having said they "wouldn't know style if it tottered up to them in 10-inch heels".

"It was just a very flippent remark 20 years ago that went viral. The Irish are so international now," he admits.

And his views on Irish men who don shorts at the slightest sign of sun?

"You know, why not? As long as they aren't too short and put on a bit of tanning so they don't look too white,” the father-of-seven laughs.

While none of his children have followed him into fashion designing, four of his sons are artists and his mezzo-soprano opera-singing daughter Jessica, whom he recently travelled to Beiruit to see perform in La Traviata at the Al Bustan International Festival, is involved in the family company as managing director.

Painting is still something he enjoys doing, to both relax and inspire him.

"When I'm travelling I paint a lot. Rather than going out to dinner I will excuse myself and disappear down a dark road to paint people eating in Vietnam, or walking along a French river bank," says Costelloe, who doesn't rule out bringing an exhibition of his artwork to Northern Ireland in the future.

:: Paul Costelloe will be sharing more stories from his career in An evening With Paul Costelloe, at Lisburn's Island Arts Centre on June 13. Tickets at

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