Why Northern Ireland fashion designer Patricia Grogan didn't enjoy working with Rihanna
A parcel full of lookbooks belonging to fashion legend Gianni Versace set the Belfast fashion designer Patricia Grogan on the road to success. Nearly 30 years on, she tells Una Brankin about her own bespoke tailoring business — and gives her no-holds-barred verdict on celebrity style
Deep in the attic, Patricia Grogan keeps a box of precious lookbooks sent to her in her student days by none other than the legendary Gianni Versace.
The late designer provided Patricia with the batch of catalogues after she wrote to him, as part of her fashion degree, to ask about the inspirations for his flamboyant collections.
The huge parcel cost £45 to send from Italy more than 25 years ago, and the books' presence today in a Greenisland loft chimes with the depiction of Versace in an American crime drama series as a warm, hard-working person of integrity.
"I was so delighted to get that package - I was only 19 and I had written to several big designers, asking for help," Patricia explains.
"I was never into Versace prints, but his tailoring was incredible, right down to the construction of the undergarments for his dresses.
"I still have the lookbooks - they're probably worth a bit of money, but I wouldn't give them away."
Roll on almost three decades, and that young fashion student now has her own business, The Cut, specialising in beautifully tailored suits, dresses and shirts for women, on Belfast's Chichester Street.
Having also recently expanded into men's tailoring, her clients include lawyers, businesspeople, doctors and several VIPs, including radio presenter Carolyn Stewart, model Nuala Meenehan, Petra Wolsey, co-owner of The Merchant and Bullitt hotels, and former broadcaster Linda Bryans - women as stylish as Patricia herself.
The reason her name is not yet as well-known as those celebrity clients is that she's a self-confessed dark horse who doesn't court publicity, unlike the media-savvy Versace and his sister, Donatella. Where they converge, however, is in their exquisite tailoring - a skill gained young in both cases.
Versace learned from watching his mother, a dressmaker who worked from home. Patricia had a more formal mentor in a Savile Row tailor who taught her at aged 16 on an HND course at the former Blackman College in Belfast.
"Mr Raise was an old Jewish tailor - he was a very nurturing English gentleman who came over when he married a lady from here," says Patricia.
"His knowledge was incredible and I was a sponge. He taught me how to cut a calico sample on a stand, how to cut patterns.
"I learned all about clothing production - you had to make a suit and an overcoat. I remember getting 100% in the practical exam and one of the tutors calling me a smart alec."
Patricia, who's originally from Glengormley, studied fashion at art college and completed an internship at the former Pink Inc clothing company in Edenderry, before opening a very successful alterations and dry-cleaning business on Botanic Avenue in Belfast.
She credits her business-minded parents for the entrepreneurial streak she combines with her artistic skills - her father is a former self-employed electrician, her mother a hairdresser who ran her own salon.
"Mum always had Vogue magazine in the house and she was always into fashion - she used to get her clothes from Renee Meneeley's (an upmarket boutique) back in the day," Patricia remembers.
"The funny thing is, she couldn't sew on buttons, but I was always making little outfits for my dolls and loved the idea of tailoring and the construction involved.
"I think it must go way back to my great-grandmother. She would make clothes for mum and the rest of her grandchildren. That's very rare these days."
As her alterations business grew, so did Patricia's reputation for excellent tailoring skills. Her eye for detail and dedication to creating the perfect fit meant that her customers would leave her studio with their outfits transformed. Ill-fitting suits, coats, shirt and dresses would be tucked and sculpted to flatter the body to the utmost degree; high street fashions would suddenly appear bespoke.
When a HBO production unit hit Belfast in 2009, seeking experienced staff for the wardrobe department on a new drama called Game of Thrones, Patricia soon came under their radar.
However, as it turned out, medieval gear and travelling to multiple locations to kit out a cast of hundreds wasn't quite Patricia's thing.
"I turned it down - it didn't suit me," she admits. "Nobody knew then what a beast Game of Thrones was to become, but I don't regret it. The people who work in that industry have to travel a lot, and I don't like to be away from home for long.
"I had a young son, Jude (now 13), and I wanted to concentrate on my business. Looking back, I'm glad I did."
Jude is Patricia's only child from her marriage to UTV Life cameraman Simon Crook. The couple will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in July, no doubt wearing gorgeous outfits by Patricia. She's currently making suits for both Simon and Jude for a friend's wedding, and it's no surprise to hear she made her own bridal gown.
"It was ivory and it had a full tulle skirt and a bodice with long lace sleeves - you can wear a slinky dress any time," she says.
"I did change into a suit in the evening, though, so I parted with tradition in that respect. I still have the wedding dress - it's in a bin liner somewhere in the attic with the Versace stuff."
While Patricia missed out on working with the cast of Game of Thrones, she did get up close and personal with Rihanna when the Bajan pop star was filming her controversial We Found Love video in a disapproving Bangor farmer's hay field.
Far too discreet to say on the record what she thought of the singer's reportedly discourteous behaviour, Patricia does confirm she cut short her tailoring stint with the star.
"I'm surprised the entourage, who were lovely, didn't make me sign some sort of confidentiality thing," she says. "I didn't care about Rihanna's behaviour. I was being paid quite a handsome fee to basically pin her outfits together, but I declined a second day's work on the shoot because of it.
"When I saw her I thought she wasn't all that special, but when she turns on Rihanna, the showgirl, you can see the star quality. You can see her switching."
As for Rihanna's barely-there fashions, she and her fellow modern pop princesses have no sense of real style, says Patricia.
"They are so influential - there are 14-year-old girls putting totally unsuitable images, for a child, on Instagram," she adds.
"I think that's why I started wearing suits. On a sub-conscious level, it was a reaction against that trend for getting everything out. I wear trouser suits all the time. I do the whole shirt and tie androgynous look, which happens to be really in at the minute.
"When I'm dressing down, I still tend to wear a suit jacket but with well-cut jeans - Nobody or Dr Denim stretch. Heels are okay for night but impractical for daily wear. I like platform trainers with my suits. It's impossible to do a job in six-inch heels."
Award-winning hair stylist Paul Stafford is among Patricia's male clients at The Cut. She opened the by-appointment tailoring business, originally for women only, in 2015 at premises two doors down from her current, more elegant studio, which was launched this Easter. With its Georgian facade and steps up to the front door, the new place has a Savile Row air - without the heftier price tags.
Prices for her bespoke suits in 100% wool and linen, from the best Italian and English mills, start at £550.
"I used to wear boys' suits - I've a flat chest and no hips - but they weren't ideal," she says.
"Unless it's very expensive, it's very hard to get a good, well-fitted suit on the high street. There are so many going around in mismatched jackets and trousers, and badly cut suits I have to stop myself from running after people in the street.
"I realised there was a market for women's tailoring here. For a start, there are more female than male barristers in Northern Ireland, and I've lots of clients ordering suits for gay marriages now.
"No matter who comes in, it's the lady's body shape that dictates what length the jacket should be and where the buttons should be.
"The cut is everything. You have to know where to pinch it in. There are elements you have to allow for - a flat seat or big boobs, or a big bum. You have to take it all into consideration."
Personally, I'm beginning to think a trip to the charity shop is on the cards for my three uninspiring off-the-peg trouser-suits. As Patricia says, your clothes should make you feel better about yourself, not worse.
"It makes such a difference to your posture and the way you hold yourself," she adds. "I really do think a good suit makes you do your job better - it gives you confidence.
"I do have an eye for what looks right on the body, and I guide customers towards that. I'd never lie to them and tell them they look great in something when they don't."
Patricia's best and worst-dressed
Meghan Markle is my choice for best-dressed. Her show Suits was great for tailored dressing. She's new and fresh and in great shape.
The worst? Camilla, I'm afraid. She looked good on her wedding day and she's perfect for Charles, but she's very conservative. Not everyone needs to be incredibly stylish, though. She's probably great fun.
Sharon Stone looks great and doesn't feel the need to flash the flesh. I loved the crisp white shirt she wore with a black evening skirt to the Oscars a few years back. Alexa Chung and Emma Willis are both cool girls who are comfortable in their own skin.
I know people love Kim Kardashian, but I don't like her style at all. She's influential and I worry for young people growing up and this whole selfie thing. And Rihanna has dreadful style. Her own fashion label is phenomenally successful, but it's just not my thing.
Melania Trump can be interesting, but she dresses so expensively and, as a First Lady, people naturally question the money spent on her wardrobe. Jackie Kennedy had her critics in that respect, too, but she's a classic style icon, and continues to be.
Theresa May needs a makeover. Her skirts are too short and should be on the knee. She does wear the odd good accessory, but her clothes are not in proportion and that makes her look awkward. And as for our own lot over here, don't get me started.
Patricia’s top tailoring tips
Always get the sleeve length right. I can cope with too short, but too long is a real no-no. It makes everything else look out of proportion.
A one-button jacket is better if you have a bust. A flatter chest can take three.
Always take into consideration the choice of shoes you'll wear with the suit and bring them with you to fittings.
Underwear is so important - you must have the right bra and pants, especially under a dress. I cut them to just skim off the hip - you can spot a belly button a mile off.
Spanx must be the right size - lots of women buy too small to suck themselves in. But you're just shifting the bumps elsewhere. It's all about a smooth silhouette.
On a classic white shirt, the position of the button is all important. It has to be right between the breasts or you can see the bra. I like a nice double cuff and crisp fabric for a white shirt.