Her dresses were worn by the world’s top celebs, but NI designer Helen Fitzpatrick tells Stephanie Bell why she gave all that up to launch her own range of jewellery
Her beautiful creations have adorned some of the world’s most famous fashion icons — Jacqueline Onassis, Elle MacPherson, Diana, Princess of Wales and Queen Rania of Jordan to name but a few.
Northern Ireland designer Helen Fitzpatrick has enjoyed success on a scale that most professionals in the world of fashion can only dream of.
Haute couture and couture supremos such as Oscar de la Renta, Bruce Oldfield, Gucci, Prada, Versace, Yves Saint Laurent — virtually every big name in this glittering industry — have used Helen’s designs.
In many ways she is one of Northern Ireland’s best-kept secrets — working alone in a small studio in a quaint old Irish cottage in Co Antrim, Helen’s life couldn’t be further removed from the glitzy world of celebrity that her clients inhabit.
A fine craft design honours graduate from the University of Ulster, Helen has dramatically changed the direction of her career in the last two years, which has meant giving up most of her work for the rich and famous.
Instead she has chosen to follow her heart by making her intricate embroidery designs more accessible to the general public through a unique and stunning jewellery collection.
And unsurprisingly, her exceptional designs are already making headlines across Ireland.
She has secured a major contract for an exclusive jewellery range for Tipperary Crystal, scooped the coveted Best Overall New Product award at the prestigious annual gift and jewellery showcase exhibition in Dublin last year and had her jewellery featured in the hit BBC drama series The Tudors.
Married to Robert and mum to Christian (6), Helen is content with life back home near Moira after several heady years learning her trade at a top fashion house in New York.
She takes us back to where it all started.
“I love being a designer, it’s the thrill of seeing something begin from nothing to become a wonderful creation that makes a woman glamorous,” she said.
“It started in early childhood. I adored old films and was captivated by the actresses’ style.
“I started making my own clothes when I was a teenager. It saved a lot of money and I could buy a bit of fabric which didn’t cost much and whip it up into something fabulous overnight to wear the next night.
“I also made clothes for other people while studying.
“At university I knew I wanted to start up my own business. I studied embroidery because I liked the challenge and the complexity of it and had thought about designing for brides when I graduated because it was a market which lent itself more easily to something unique and special.”
Unknown to Helen and her fellow fashion students, their final year shows in 1989 were being closely monitored by a representative of the Youth Exchange Bureau in Dublin.
She was tasked with attending all the final year student fashion shows across Ireland to find seven students to participate in a Wider Horizons Textile and Fashion Project.
Helen explains: “She was looking for seven students with seven different disciplines to be sent abroad on a three month internship with a company of their choice anywhere in the world.
“It was all-expenses-paid and the idea was that the students would learn new skills and bring them back to Ireland to be utilised in business here and help the country.”
Helen was thrilled to be sent a letter informing her that she had been chosen for this amazing opportunity and asking where in the world she would like to go.
“I chose America because of the language and because they are great at business and I felt I could learn a lot from them.”
In what was an opportunity of a lifetime, Helen was given a joint internship, working with both Finesse Embroideries, whose creations are used by all the world’s top fashion designers, as well as America’s leading designer Mary McFadden.
“When I started the internship, I realised very quickly that just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you know everything and I had the great chance to learn a lot of new techniques,” she says.
“It was just incredible. All of a sudden I found myself working alongside the world’s great designers who I had read about and written about as part of my studies.”
Just two weeks into her three-month internship, Helen was invited by Finesse to join its elite team of designers permanently.
She was thrilled at the chance and stayed for five years, during which she worked closely with many of the world’s top couture and haute couture designers on commissions for their famous clients.
Among the most memorable was designing the wedding dress of the Queen of Jordan.
Helen says: “It was a very big project because of the time we had and because of who she was and who she was marrying.
“I worked closely with Bruce Oldfield to achieve the very special and complex embroidery, which was based on a Palestinian design. She had a three-layered skirt and the embroidery was around the hemline so there was yards and yards of it, all hand sewn.”
Another commission that Helen is rightly proud of was for a dress and bolero for Princess Diana.
She recalls: “Her designer Catherine Walker commissioned it and at first we didn’t know who it was for.
“We sent a range of samples through and they chose mine and when the contract came through, it stated that the dress was for Princess Diana.
“It was a stunning two-piece dress with bolero which she wore to a private function in India in 1992. It was later among the outfits which were auctioned for charity at Sotheby’s.”
Homesickness forced Helen to give up her powerful position in New York in 1993 to return to the family home outside Moira.
“I missed my family and I missed Irish life and Newcastle and the Mournes,” she said.
“When I told Finesse I was leaving, they arranged for me to continue to work for them as a consultant from home in Northern Ireland.”
Among the many important designs Helen created from her Moira workshop was the embroidery for a stunning Valentino evening dress for Elle MacPherson to wear to the Baftas and a gown for Laura Bush to wear at her husband’s presidential inauguration ball.
The materials used and the time spent creating Helen’s complex embroidery means it is accessible only to the very wealthy.
These are dazzling creations that cost tens of thousands of pounds and the most expensive Helen ever worked on for Balmain of Paris cost a staggering £180,000.
Helen is now employing the same fine techniques and materials in her jewellery collection, a large part of which is designed especially for bridal parties.
She says: “Only a certain number of women could afford to buy the designs for haute couture and couture and I felt that I wanted to do something similar in miniature to make it more accessible to more people.
“I had been experimenting with jewellery and when the chance of working for Tipperary Crystal came, it was taking up more and more of my time.
“I put the same heart and soul into each jewellery piece as I did for my dress details and I believe that is what makes it so pass-remarkable — it has never been seen before, it brings the spirit of haute couture into jewellery.”
She adds: “My wedding range allows me to be very creative and there are a lot of corsages and very special pieces. The jewellery needs my full attention and while I am doing it full-time now, I am sure at some point I will go back into fashion embroidery.”
Helen Fitzpatrick Jewellery for Tipperary Crystal is available at top retail outlets throughout Ireland. The rest of her pieces can be viewed at her studio in Moira, tel: 3834 6011