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Ulster ace Tommy on ball for life after rugby as he dips toes into world of fashion

By Vicky Notaro

Published 16/04/2016

Tommy Bowe modelling clothes from his own fashion label
Tommy Bowe modelling clothes from his own fashion label
Tommy Bowe accompanied by his wife Lucy Whitehouse as he receives an honorary degree from Ulster University

While rugby players are a pretty dapper bunch in this day and age, it's still pretty rare that the worlds of the sport and fashion collide.

Many top players have side businesses in the food and drink industry, investing in bars and restaurants, but for Ulster and Ireland winger Tommy Bowe, it's clothing that came a-calling - and it's an industry he's grown very fond of.

With a men's fashion label and a shoe line to his name, Bowe is making clothes for the average man with a reasonable price tag, and doing well at it too - his XV Kings apparel range has grown from 13 pieces per season to more than 65 in a couple of years.

"It all came about by chance, really," he said.

"I first got in to shoes about four or five years ago. I was approached by two guys from Monaghan, where I'm from, whose family had been in the shoe business for three generations. They wanted to launch a new collection of men's shoes and wanted me to get on board. I didn't know a whole pile about men's shoes at the time, but I certainly do now.

"I liked that it was something different, that I wasn't doing the tried and tested thing. That's how Lloyd and Pryce happened."

Two years later and after expanding in to women's and children's footwear, the trio decided to broaden their horizons and go into men's fashion together.

"I was quite keen to get in to clothing, and explore that new area. We toyed around with lots of different names; all three of us liked the Kings part, and the XV relates to 15 rugby players on a team. We thought we'd give it a shot, because it's hard to know what people will like."

Bowe is also the face, and feet, of his side projects, so is he comfortable in front of the camera?

"I'm not sure I'll ever be comfortable to be honest, but it's something I've been doing for 11 years, since I started playing rugby professionally, so I guess I'm just a bit more used to it these days."

For Bowe, business has been an eye-opener - and the lines aren't just something he lends his name to, he's involved throughout the entire process.

"I try to get as involved as I can - I chat to the guys and throw around some ideas, look at samples, see how sales and deliveries and manufacture are coordinated. I really enjoy the whole business side of it; coming from rugby, that's something I've done for so long and you're very much in a bubble.

"Everything is about the game, so it's great to step outside that sometimes and see how the real world works."

Bowe has been kicking his heels on the sidelines since suffering an injury during last year's Rugby World Cup, but has just returned to the Ulster squad. He said it was frustrating not being able to work.

He says: "Oh yeah, it's a killer, it's really frustrating. I was fortunate to be part of the World Cup and I really enjoyed it, but being injured and missing the Six Nations was tough. Once you get back on the pitch though, you see light at the end of the tunnel, and feel like part of the team again." A newlywed - Bowe married former Miss Wales Lucy Whitehouse, a nurse that he met through friends when living in Wales and playing for the Ospreys - Bowe admits that life after rugby is on his mind.

"I'm always thinking about it," he says. "I just turned 32 and when you get to this age, it's a bit of a reality check. I'm very fortunate to be playing as long as I have - so many friends had to hang up their boots early, with their career ending in injury. It's something I'm very aware of, and even within IRUPA (the players' association), they're very keen to try and get players to study or do some work experience, and get an idea of what they might like to get in to afterwards."

Although he deems it a "juggling act", Bowe is pleased with the side path he's taken thus far.

"We got started with the shoes in a difficult period economically. Five years ago the recession was in full swing. So we've made a constant effort to try and put the clothing in at a price point that's very reasonable. We wanted to create a brand that people are happy with, but that's not breaking the bank. We're competing with huge brands though, like G-Star and Superdry."

He's also adamant that they're not trend-driven.

"We try to base the line around the average man, and cater to as many different people as we can. We have some shirts with a bit of a funky pattern that some guys would never be seen dead putting on and other more plain and casual stuff. It's a nice mix. We're not trying to follow the trends of London or Milan."

Despite his love for the fashion industry, Bowe's heart belongs to the game of rugby. "Rugby has always been my number one love, it still is and I'm so lucky to be paid to play the sport I love, but whenever I do finally hang up my boots, a new challenge could be to get in to the business world and try something different. I wouldn't say I have a business brain per se, but my parents had their own businesses so it was a big part of my childhood."

During his time off through injury, Tommy did a bit of commentary for some Ireland games.

"It's something that I enjoy doing, whenever I was out injured it's nice to still be part of the game and get to go to matches, but it's not something I'm interested in at the moment."

I tell him that on his recent trip to Ireland, former All Black Dan Carter complained that he hadn't got a pair of Lloyd and Pryce shoes. "Ah, they're not on sale in Paris yet," he says. "I must send him some over - and Ronan O'Gara too, his must be worn down to the soles at this point."

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