Larne designer Geraldine Connon: My day with Royals at London fashion week party
Larne-based designer Geraldine Connon was one of the lucky few invited to a cocktail party at Buckingham Palace on Monday to help celebrate The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange. She tells Stephanie Bell about networking with the industry's finest - and how her chosen career was in her genes
In her 33 years of working as a successful fashion designer, Geraldine Connon has chosen to stay out of the spotlight, quietly building her reputation among a loyal clientele which stretches across the world.
Yet on Monday night this unassuming Larne designer found herself thrust into the limelight when she had a ticket for the hottest fashion event of the year so far - a cocktail party hosted by the Duchess of Cambridge and Countess of Wessex.
The glamorous event in Buckingham Palace featured the elite of the world's fashion industry and Geraldine found herself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Stella McCartney, Naomi Campbell, American Vogue editor Dame Anna Wintour and her British counterpart, Edward Enninful.
The event was organised to celebrate a new creative idea, the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange, which allows emerging designers to partner established names to develop their products.
Geraldine (58), who lives and works in Larne, modestly says that she had no idea why she was on the guest list other than the fact that she is a seasoned designer of over three decades - albeit one who has made a point of staying out of the public eye.
"I have always kept a very low profile in my business and the only reason I can think of for my invitation is that I have been doing this job now for so long," she says.
"I was speaking to other people at the event and we think they found us online. I was in New York on business in December and came home to find the invitation waiting for me and as per usual I was going to keep it to myself that I was going as I didn't know what to expect.
"We were encouraged to network with everybody and I thought there would be about 2,000 people there but there was only 300 of us and there was people there from 52 different countries. Some had designed dresses especially for it which were on display and will then be part of London Fashion Week.
"I think everyone was embracing the new notion of moving out of Europe and having a closer relationship with the Commonwealth.
"Everyone was really in awe of being invited to it. I didn't feel overawed, although it was a surreal experience."
Fashion was the theme but the organisers took the pressure off with a simple dress code which stated a choice of "lounge wear, a day dress or national costume".
Naturally our local designer created a one-off dress especially for the event. Geraldine looked classy in a gorgeous red velvet dress while the Duchess of Cambridge wore an Erdem dress and earrings by Indian designer Anita Dongre and the Countess of Wessex sported a Burberry dress.
Geraldine says: "I wanted something that would emulate my own personal style which is quite classy and I designed a dress in red silk velvet with applique. On the night there were all the styles you could think of, it was amazing."
Prince Andrew's eldest daughter, Princess Beatrice (29), also joined the party and Geraldine got to chat to her and to Sophie, the Countess of Wessex. She had met Sophie some years ago at an event in Hillsborough and was stunned to find that the royal not only remembered meeting her but also their conversation.
"I didn't get talking to Kate but I met some amazing people from all over the world," she says.
"I spoke to the Countess of Wessex and Princess Beatrice and they were both totally friendly and talked to me as if they really knew me. I had met the Countess of Wessex before and she remembered it. She was lovely and Beatrice was so gorgeous. Everyone was really trying to embrace links with Northern Ireland, including the royals."
Geraldine has won many awards over the years for her designs and her work has been seen in dozens of photo-shoots and catwalk shows from London to Australia. When the Irish Linen plus Lycra blended fabric was developed in Northern Ireland, she was one of the designers asked to design clothing to test its uses and wearability.
In 2002, her designs were showcased at the private residence of the British ambassador in Paris and exhibited at Premiere Vision, the world's largest exhibition for weavers of apparel and furnishings fabrics.
She has also held her own fashion show at Hillsborough Castle, raising £20,000 for Save the Children in the process.
She studied fashion design at the University of Ulster and went on to work in the costume department at the Lyric Theatre.
She also taught for a short period but decided to follow her dream and establish herself as a fashion designer. She believes that it is in her blood as her great-grandfather, Philip Lepar (Leopold), was a tailor by trade. He set up business in Belfast in 1899 under the name of Leopold & Son and famously designed military uniforms for the soldiers in the First World War.
She also had a great aunt who was a skilled tailoress and a great uncle who ran what she describes as "a high class tailor's" in Belfast.
Geraldine taught herself how to sew and make clothes and soon found she had a passion for design. She recalls the early days starting out in an industry which is notoriously hard to break into.
"When I started out everyone wanted to be a fashion designer," she says. "The Emanuels had hit the headlines for Princess Diana's wedding gown and everyone was full of aspiration even though being a fashion designer wasn't held in the regard that it is today.
"It was great to see, but I wasn't just caught up in the excitement of the time, I knew this was the only career for me.
"From the moment my parents bought me my first sewing machine I was hooked. I opened my studio in Larne and I'm still there. I am a lot older now but I still have that strong work ethic."
Geraldine's loyal client base is spread across the UK and Ireland and even further afield and they return to her time and again because they are assured of a bespoke creation, tailored to make them look and feel amazing.
"I have learned to work with all manner of fabrics over the years and I offer the designing of the widest variety of clothing from intricate wedding dresses and occasional gowns to a perfectly tailored trouser suit," she says.
While Geraldine likes to keep a low profile, her work speaks for itself and she is acclaimed for her classic designs. She has built her reputation on working with the finest fabrics, creating individual designs for her private clients. Her aim in dressing clients is always understated elegance, with subtle attention to detail and, above all, tailored perfectly to their silhouette.
"I've just spent my career dressing ladies and learning the trade and using all fabrics and taking care of business," she says.
"I have private clients from all over and I design everything and wouldn't be frightened of any piece of cloth. I also design for all shapes and all sizes. I get tremendous pleasure from designing an outfit to suit the shape of the person and tailoring it to the body of the person.
"My designs would be quite classy with an edge and always with really beautiful materials."
Fabric is her great love and she is known to use cloth in her designs in a way that shows vision and imagination.
The same applies to her approach to fashion shows. Once she has embraced the essence of what the client wants, she is known to follow her own instinct and take the project further.
"The secret, I believe, in knowing that you have impressed, is when you can hear a pin drop within your audience," she says.
"The silence is deafening. I always aim for that."