He’s one of Britain and Ireland’s best known designers and though Paul Costelloe shows no signs of slowing down, he’s adapting his work for a virtual audience
"It's like making a Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments in one day." That's how designer Paul Costelloe describes his AW21 fashion collection which debuted as an online show just two weeks ago. "It's a new experience, doing virtual shows. You have to become more camera orientated and keep the budget down because situations are pretty tough at the moment so you use your brain a little bit."
While quite unlike the fashion shows we expect from designers, which include the atmosphere of crowds mingling and photographers snapping those dressed for the occasion, virtual shows give designers a second chance at editing says Paul.
"You can look at it and if you don't like it, tweak it. It's like a tiny mini film and you can make changes here and there from that point of view. But you don't have the atmosphere there, we have an empty catwalk, nobody sitting around it. It's quite isolated but it makes realise how lucky you are just to be working."
Fortunate to work, yes, but of course the Dublin-born designer misses the camaraderie and company that a catwalk show offers.
"It does have an impact," he says of the lack of audience. "It's rather like watching a rugby match or football game or even looking at it on film, it doesn't have the same effect at all. It depends how people want to present their collection too. But it's up to you to make the best of what we have and that's what we did."
Unlike traditional shows, Paul's next season's collection was edited to around five minutes, with 35 outfits worn by five models. Amended to be 'buzzy and more exciting,' he describes the change in sourcing models due to the pandemic.
"Some girls weren't coming for castings in London, they were too nervous which I understand. Even last September, we had 200, 240 models to cast 10 or 12 or 15 and this season we had 50 models from which to select five."
He acknowledges Covid's impact on many industries and is grateful to still be able to work.
"I've got my own little studio here in London, just off Marble Arch, and I've been cycling in every day.
"In fashion, you cannot work from home; it's impossible, unless you've got a mansion like Victoria Beckham. My little humble semi-D would not facilitate," he says with a smile in his voice.
"It was okay from May to September but when the weather changed and since Christmas, it's been pretty tough getting up and getting out and saying, 'Right, I must go in and keep working on the collection,' and to keep your enthusiasm. Luckily I've got a family so six people around the table every night for dinner makes a difference. I'm very lucky to have that so I certainly wasn't suffering from loneliness. But you do suffer from that [lack of] energy that you would have under normal circumstances.
"I cycle down the King's Road and normally I would get ideas but all the windows are blocked up and when you go into the centre of London, it is a desert. It is so sad; a big city to close down completely. Even in Dublin it's not as bad because you've got the sea, the same in Belfast, you've got water there. All you have here is the Thames and the Thames on a bad day looks pretty grim.
"We've got a great little team. My son William works with me and my daughter Jessica is on social media. I'm one of the lucky ones."
One of the most established names in fashion, the Paul Costelloe brand incorporates fashion, homeware, jewellery and occasionwear. It is this diversification that is all the more important, particularly during a pandemic.
"Absolutely, it's very important to keep the image visible," says Paul. "Someone may go in and buy a cup from Paul Costelloe or a cushion [Paul has a homeware collection with Dunnes Stores] and that's very important.
"Homeware has been amazing; everyone has been looking at their home and garden so luckily I have that side and I'm very grateful for it."
When arranging the interview, Paul's daughter Jessica said that her father considered Northern Ireland a second home, having established his own label in the Strelitz factory in 1979 in Moygashel, near Dungannon.
"I've got wonderful memories of Northern Ireland," says Paul, born to an American mother and Limerick father.
"In Belfast, the Europa Hotel, I did a couple of fashion shows there. Dungannon was where I was based and the people were amazing.
"Recently I gave a talk in Lisburn on the history of fashion and there were a couple of people there who originally worked with me when we had the factory. You never can go back but I would love to have a little factory making beautiful linen garments again in Northern Ireland because that's where it should be. But alas, nobody has come knocking on my door and offered me a couple of million," he laughs.
That said, his current work has taken him back, in part, to Northern Ireland.
"I've been working on some prints for cushions but oddly enough we've worked with a company in Northern Ireland, William Clark. I gave them the drawings and they've been printing them. It's been really great to get back into Northern Ireland and doing something, I've really enjoyed that and intend to work more with them."
He describes the Northern Irish appreciation for textiles as 'right there in the DNA' and something we 'should all be proud of.'
Paul has described his career - one totalling over 40 years - as full of peaks and valleys. Does he look back fondly at his work to date?
"To date?" he laughs.
We're not writing you off yet, there's more to come we say.
"No don't write me off yet! I don't know why I keep going. I'm a very bad loser, I suppose, I don't want anybody to take my slot. It can be a valley at times but at least you can look up at the stars and pray to God that you'll get out of it, and in many cases I have.
"Even today I had a phone call with an acquaintance asking if I would be interested in doing menswear tailored suits for a particular company. I thought, 'Bloody hell, I must still be alive!'" he laughs.
"But without the fashion shows twice a year, people will forget you very quickly.
"This specific show [AW21] is a retrospect to some extent of when I was living in Paris in the late 1960s, early 1970s, little beautiful tailored suits and simple dresses, short trapeze coats and very bright leggings which my son William did the prints for. It's very much a French mood."
The collection - he describes it as "colourful" - showcases cedar greens, midnight blues and ochre and burnt orange, with checks, plaids and geometric prints. The elegant, modern looks are accessorised with the brand's bags and belts in bright styles. Though only five minutes long, his AW21 offering packs a punch.
He mentions the hit Netflix drama Call My Agent - "it's a little bit quirky like that" he says of next season's designs.
"I think it's quite commercial which for me, for something of a change, but that period was kind of commercial. Nobody's wearing suits anymore but I think that look could come back, short skirts and cropped trousers and so on."
The youngest of seven children, Paul's parents encouraged him to broaden his horizons and leave Ireland.
At 19, he jumped on a plane to study at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris.
"I was absolutely struggling to find food really," he laughs at the memory.
"It was a very early time in my career so I didn't mind starving myself just to be in Paris… you had a lot of chaos but it was great. At least I could see what was beautiful and what was hip."
It is this advice - to experience something outside of your normal remit - that he would give to those hoping for a career in the industry.
"Working outside of the shelter of your home is advisable, because you have to survive and you learn the skills of survival and of adjusting.
"You can become too complacent.
"When nobody knows who you are or where you've come from, it can very much be a reality check.
"You're judged by what you do rather than by who you are. That's important."
As we spoke of earlier in our conversation, Paul stresses the importance of diversification.
"They [designers] really should have skills - you can be a wonderful fashion designer but can you do anything in ceramics? Can you work on a wheel to make a beautiful bowl that you can sell for four hundred pounds?
"Develop your skills early on. I still paint and I can sell my paintings, they sell ok. That was the gift I was given from God rather than a designer but I made my living from designing.
"I think for young people, try everything initially rather than getting yourself caught up in one specific part of the fashion clothing industry."
An expectation of a Paul Costelloe garment - he was one of Princess Diana's favoured designers - is the silhouette, a cut that flatters the wearer. Tailoring is key for Paul and it's something he takes very seriously.
"A lot of the colleges, I don't think they spend enough time on tailoring. It's been forgotten to some extent. They are very good designers but when it comes to cutting a pattern, and particularly jackets and coats, it's quite difficult. The person I work with who makes most of my jackets and coats, he's over 70, and based here in London. He's absolutely brilliant."
Unsurprisingly cut remains important for Paul's customers - "people still love a lovely coat or a lovely jacket or dress" - but that taking time to choose the 'right' garment for each consumer has never been more important.
"I think now, people aren't going to rush and buy as quickly online as they have been, they're going to spend more time looking at what they should buy. They're going to try out more clothing before they make a decision because they've had more time to look.
"I think it hasn't really changed as much as you would expect," he says of his clientele. "I think people still like something that feels good, that is special. I think they don't want to be buying the same as everybody else, they do like something a little special. I think smaller companies which have begun to grow since the virus hit can do very well. It's all quite exciting really."
The designer - who worked for couturier Jacques Esterel in the late 1960s/early 1970s, Marks & Spencer in London and Milan and Anne Fogarty in the US prior to establishing his own brand - suggests we could see an uptake in women's made-to-measure clothing.
"We know of menswear made-to-measure but I think there's room for women's made-to-measure [so] that they can get something they're really happy with, that fits them and that isn't too expensive.
"Yes, it'll be more expensive than what you buy in a department store but there are opportunities, I really do believe it.
"Fast fashion will always be there but there is an opportunity for a home dressmaker to make a nice little living."
Paul Costelloe Home Living is available from Dunnes Stores. For more information on Paul, see www.paulcostelloe.com