Jen Kelly: The most important thing I can do for my clients is to make them feel sexy and gorgeous
Londonderry-born designer to the stars Jen Kelly says women need to ditch black trouser suits from their work wardrobe. He tells Helen Carson classic workwear should be cut from a different cloth
Michelle Obama has worn his bespoke designs and he has dressed everyone from supermodels to the Saudi royal family, but the international designer with a flare for haute couture, Jen Kelly, is calling time on the black suit most women consider a staple in the office and the boardroom.
"The black trouser suit has had its day," says Jen.
The internationally renowned fashion designer says when it comes to office wear, women need to embrace colour and be less formal. Although now based in Dublin, Jen was back in his native Northern Ireland recently at the invitation of Women In Business who were hosting a special event at The Outlet in Banbridge, entitled Dress for Success.
I caught up with him after the workshop, where he shared his fashion know-how with highflying local business women.
When I ask him how we should be attired in order to scale the dizzy heights of the corporate ladder, he is uncompromising - especially about the ubiquitous black trouser suit favoured by most of us for the nine-to-five grind.
Apparently, though, the black trousers hanging in practically all our wardrobes are, well, so last season. His advice is clear - the black suit we think looks professional while being forgiving is not doing any of us any favours on the career front.
Now based at his Dublin studio - a four-storey Georgian property near O'Connell Street which he describes as "a real fashion house", Jen does what he loves doing the most - making women feel good about themselves with his creations.
And while he is adamant his goal in life is to create fashion that makes women "feel happy, gorgeous and sexy", most of his childhood was spent feeling bad about his passion for fashion as a young boy at Christian Brothers School in Londonderry.
When he was 12, his eye for style was noticed by his school mates, and raised a few eyebrows: "I used to stash copies of Vogue magazine in my school bag between arithmetic manuals and my track trainers." He admits going against the grain at this age wasn't easy: "The only thing that saved my bacon was that I was a terrific runner."
He adds his parents had "no influence" on his career in fashion, but it was "his dear aunties" who taught him to clip shirt collars in Derry. Proximity to his native city is important to Jen, who is a frequent visitor to Derry and also holidays regularly with the clan - he says this keeps him grounded amid the glamour of his client base which includes heads of state.
Now well established as an international designer excelling in the world of haute couture, Jen has seen his breathtaking designs worn by supermodels Naomi Campbell and Christie Turlington as well as the Princess of Saudi Arabia, and First Lady Michelle Obama.
But the designs which proved a game-changer for the Northern Irish man were the ground-breaking, figure-hugging costumes worn by the dancers in Riverdance, The Show, which went on to became a global phenomena.
Jen got the Riverdance gig when he was working at RTE as a designer. "It was the year Ireland hosted the Eurovision Song Contest and Riverdance were performing between the contestants. I had to create costumes they could dance in," he says.
His imaginative use of design, which involved creating costumes made of a unique mix of high tech Lycra and stretch fabrics, to create fluid, body-hugging costumes rather than the traditional stiff kind, propelled Jen to international acclaim.
The innovative costumes were then adopted by Riverdance, The Show and Jen joined the troupe travelling with the hugely successful show to America, Australia and Europe as their designer. At the height of Riverdance, The Show's popularity, he was churning out a whopping 400 costumes a week.
"Being with the show was wonderful at first, but after a while with the constant travelling and working to tight deadlines, I just wanted to come home and concentrate on my life here," he says.
He is no stranger to Dublin, having studied Pure Fashion at the Irish National College of Art & Design leaving with a First Class Honours degree. He also has a business degree which he says is equally important in the life of a fashion designer.
"I learned a lot in retail where I worked as a window dresser, but I learned my trade, my craft at college. If you cannot make something then you don't understand when something is right with it and when something is wrong with it," he says.
His trip up north to meet with local business women may seem far removed from the jet-setting career he once enjoyed - he began his professional career designing costumes for operas, theatre, drama and TV here and in America - but Jen says this experience has served him well, adding when it comes to dressing women "all the world is a stage".
"What women do in business is the same thing as a stage. Previously, I created clothes for drama productions, now I create clothes for the drama of life."
He says, just like in a TV or theatrical production, clothes in the world of work must be "appropriate and you have to get it right".
"I think women in the workplace are too conservative - more conservative even than their male counterparts," he argues.
So, what should we all be wearing while we scale the corporate ladder?
"A beautiful red dress is perfect for a meeting or nice jeans, white shirt or blouse," he says.
Career women on the up should also consider the colour navy rather than black, according to this artiste.
"A white shirt, dress or something in denim, khaki or a natural shade during the summer months as an alternative to a formal black suit. I think the black suit has had its day. Dresses are much more important now."
How you wear this essential office one-piece is "well fitted at the waist, bust, hips," adds Jen. "I don't like anything hanging from dresses. A zip-up figure-flattering frock should be all about simplicity."
He also dismisses style rules for women which prescribe certain outfits for curvy girls which are a no-no for their leaner sisters.
"I don't think anyone should be restricted. Women know their own bodies - they haven't got this far dressing themselves without knowing what is right for them. That's why I always listen to what every woman tells me about her body," he stresses.
But the simple design beloved by Jen in the world of haute couture usually comes with a hefty price tag. So, how do hard-working women on a budget balance the books?
"Many women feel that haute couture is out of their financial reach, yet investing in a designer coat, for example, offers so much wear and can be adjusted to reflect changing trends for the same price as 10 coats from the high street. It can be worn for years.
"Ultimately, it is about what you value about yourself and how it makes you feel.
"To me couture is all about the cut - and a good cut can have the appearance of reducing you by two dress sizes. No diet is necessary when you have the right finish - I can flatter anyone.
"To me couture is classic - it's not about what is trendy - fashion is fickle and fleeting. When something becomes a product, not an original, I can't bear that ... that is why I create couture."
To the designer whose brand is about tailoring, high quality fabrics, which include handmade lace and handspun tweeds created for international fashion houses Chanel, Lanvin and Dior, it's all about the detail and craft - the only things done by machine in his design process are side seams.
He concedes: "Chain stores have their place, but I am a fan of places like The Outlet where you can get great labels such as LK Bennett and Armani. To me this offers great value - it makes more sense to buy something that is better made and better quality at a reasonable price. I would rather spend my £400 here on a wardrobe than the 20 or 30 items from the high street."
He is happiest, though, dressing women in his studio which comprise work rooms, a basement and a salon - this is his creative hub where new collections take shape and his clients are transformed. He believes in the empowering nature of the having the right clothes - and his duty to provide this.
"The most important thing I can do for my clients is to make them happy and make them sexy and gorgeous when they wear something by Jen Kelly. I would hate to think somebody was wearing clothes and was wearing me - they should feel they are wearing something that reflects themselves - and it is a real privilege for me to do that."
Current trends that excite Jen are the use of high tech fabrics by the industry which he describes as "the revolution in fashion".
"There are some gorgeous tweeds which I love and the fabrics being used now are amazing - they hold women in all the right places. I think that is why Victoria Beckham's VB fashion line is currently so successful."
Although he's not a fan of VB, adding "let's see where she is in 20 years time", his industry respect is reserved for "time-served" designers who have spent decades honing their skill.
So, where does Jen shop for his threads. "I have tailors I use in Scotland and London. I get fabrics when I am on buying trips to Milan, then get them made up at boutiques in Italy - I prefer to give the business to the small guy who has spent many years perfecting their talents - they have the abilities that no-one else will have," he says.
"I also buy some ready-to-wear suits and have cashmere overcoats that I have worn for years as they never really change."
If there is one person Jen would love to design for, it's his style crush, another famous First Lady - Jacqueline Kennedy.
"I draw inspiration from ladies of foregone elegance like Jackie Kennedy, who is a prime example. She wore designs that drew admiration for their fit, not for being flash.
"That is what I always aspire to - to create couture that exudes grace, not just glitz and glitter."
Jen Kelly Dress for Success was a Women in Business Northern Ireland event hosted by The Outlet, Banbridge. For further details on The Outlet, Banbridge visit www.the-outlet.co.uk and Women in Business NI www.womeninbusinessni.com
Jen's essential workwear checklist
- For the boardroom: red or white dress, crisp white shirt, shirt dress in white, denim, khaki or natural, navy top, trousers or jacket and dressy jeans
- For the office: replace predictable black suits with dresses
- Forget the power suit - the 1980s are well over
- Channel this season's spring/summer colours and refine the palette down to shades that flatter most skin tones
- Soft, feminine single pieces which are well tailored, and have a simple, classic design
- When it comes to labels, choose items by designers with a proven track record in the industry