Candidates for the catwalk

Tue, Jan 20, 2009, 00:00

Barack Obama’s presidency is ‘going to be the best thing for the menswear trade since John F Kennedy’, according to Louis Copeland. But how well would our male Cabinet Ministers fare in a politicians’ fashion show, asks Catherine Cleary

IF LOUIS COPELAND is correct, 12 Irish politicians will be taking a hard look at themselves in a full-length mirror this week. The Dublin tailor believes that Barack Obama’s inauguration as American president will raise the bar for male politicians’ sense of style all over the world. And our dozen Irish male Cabinet Ministers will be no exception.

Always one to spot a marketing opportunity, Copeland has clipped press photographs of Obama emerging from a car the day after his election with a Canali label showing inside his suit. The man who becomes US president today was described earlier this month by his wife Michelle as a no-frills dresser, who still has several outfits dating back to his community activist days. Obama made the cover of GQ Magazinein September 2007, when he was said to own five worsted-wool two-button suits, all in blue or grey, from the Chicago tailor Hart Schaffner Marx.

So what do our 12 male Government Ministers wear to work? Where do they buy their suits? And are there any golden rules that stylists and fashion pundits recommend for the working Irish male politician’s wardrobe?

THE VERDICT IS that they are a mixed bunch. Perhaps mindful of Haughey and the Charvet shirt era, there is an apparent lack of sartorial dilettantes in the bunch. There is the Minister who does not know where his suits come from because his wife buys them, the Minister who shops local and jokes that another world leader follows his style closely, the Minister who uses a bespoke tailor but only because he can’t get a standard-size suit to fit, and the two Ministers who, when asked where they bought their suits, replied “in Cork”.

Even before Kathleen Reynolds famously sewed up Albert’s suit pockets for budget day so he couldn’t shove his hands into them, the Irish political wife has been a strong force behind the image of male politicians.

Áine Ní Choincheannain, the wife of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Éamon Ó Cuív, is the stylist behind the man who rarely fails to put the Fáinne on his lapel. She is also the person who advises which tie works best with which suit, according to his spokeswoman.

Noel Dempsey’s wife, Bernadette Rattigan, also provides style advice to her man. The Minister for Transport admits that he spends no time thinking about what to wear to work. “If it weren’t for my patient wife, God only knows what monstrosity I would climb into each day.”

He buys his suits “in the world fashion capital of Trim”. He says that Pat O’Byrne on Market Street in Trim has been “looking after my modest clothing needs for as long as I can remember. We like to think he’s the Yves Saint Laurent of Meath. He jokes that the “Russian president Dmitry Medvedev got his start in politics when he won a Noel Dempsey lookalike competition in a Moscow pub one night. He has Pat on speed dial but Pat’s much too discrete to say anything about it.” (The Minister bears a likeness to the Russian president.)

A spokeswoman for Defence Minister Willie O’Dea says he has his suits and shirts made by a tailor in Limerick, and has done for years, as he is not a standard size in a suit.

Both Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin and the relatively newly appointed Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, says they shopped in Cork when asked where their suits came from. “The Minister shops locally in Cork and tries to buy Irish-made suits, shirts and ties where possible,” a spokesman for O’Keeffe says. “Since his appointment to Cabinet in May he is more style-conscious and believes good presentation is an important consideration for a member of Government.”

Minister for the Environment John Gormley says he has always worn a shirt and tie in the Dáil. “Sometimes I think I almost overcompensate as a Green Minister because people are dressing much less formally than they did in the past.”

He does not have a huge wardrobe of suits, he says, and some are 15 years old, dating to his time in the Mansion House as lord mayor, “although they’re slightly tight around the waist now”. His favourite suit shop is Magee in Dublin.

Meanwhile, some commentators have welcomed Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s apparent reluctance to change his image since taking up office. He has not been known for his sartorial elegance in the past and at times he has looked slightly rumpled when photographed alongside other European leaders. A spokesperson for the Taoiseach reveals only that he buys his clothes “locally”.

MAKE-UP ARTIST Ivey Sullivan says it’s important to consider what works on television. She says a poll conducted for the Labour Party in Britain said people wanted smart looks from politicians. “That means suited and booted. Politicians have to look like figures of authority and you don’t get taken seriously in leather jacket and jeans.

“The two key combinations that emerged were the red tie, white shirt and navy-blue suit and the silver grey suit, pale blue shirt and dark blue tie.”

And while women may complain that looking smart is easier for men than women, Sullivan explains that the simplicity of the suit and tie combination can be a challenge. “They have to know what fits them and what colours look good on them.”

Although the suit is regulation uniform in political life, it is becoming less common in other professions, she says. “It used to be that every doctor and bank teller would wear a suit. That’s no longer the case.”

Retail and fashion consultant Eddie Shanahan says everyone should follow one golden rule of fashion. “I think the most important thing people should do is dress for themselves, not other people. That way they can feel confident and comfortable. I had a tough business meeting this morning and decided not to wear a suit and tie but instead wear a particular shirt that I liked and felt confident in. I didn’t dress to suit anybody else. Everyone else in the room was wearing a suit and tie, but it worked: I felt I did well in the meeting.”

Politicians follow a “slightly archaic dress code”, he believes. The suit look is not always a winner when you are trying to get someone to trust you, he believes. “If you lined them all up against the wall you’d be hard-pressed to pick someone you’d like to go for a pint with.”

A pressed, crisp shirt and trousers can look smart and confident. “If I was styling someone I’d recommend simple things like plain fabrics. No check, plain and stripe in the same outfit – that’s trying too hard.”

In times of recession, sales of ties have been seen to rise and Shanahan has noticed more businessmen in regulation suit and tie at meetings recently. “I think Irish men use suits like armour,” he says. “They think ‘I’ve got my suit on. I’m protected.’ But I’ve been at plenty of meetings recently where guys’ suits haven’t seen a steam iron this side of Christmas.”

SPEAKING FROM A fashion trade show in Florence, Louis Copeland says it is probably true that Obama could “look good in a sack”, given his height and build. “I think he’s going to be the best thing for the menswear trade since John F Kennedy.” Copeland’s formula for good business attire is “a good dark suit with a nice shirt and tie”. He says Irish men should steer clear of mid-blues and light browns in a suit. The typical Irish complexion cannot carry off a silver grey suit, he says. If he had to pick a well-dressed politician it would be Fine Gael Senator Brian Hayes or Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan. “For a biggish man he’s never too flashy and that’s important in that business. They shouldn’t try to be looking like male models, but look clean and presentable.”

And his advice for politicians who are not slim-hipped and 6ft 3in like the new US president? “If you haven’t got the figure, wear a suit as dark as you can. Don’t be wearing lighter colours that make you look heavy.”

Barack vs Brian: how they match up

Brendan Courtney, presenter of RTÉ1 fashion programme Off the Rails, on Obama versus Brian Cowen:

Barack Obama“Don’t underestimate the power of an athletic body and a handsome face. Male models are male models for a reason. Obama already has a very presidential aura, almost like he’s practised faces and movements. But I think he’s just naturally like that. I don’t think he’ll raise the bar particularly on menswear. He’ll just don the uniform of the suit . . . but he’ll wear it like an athlete . . . I’m a big huge fan, like every reasonably minded person.”

Brian Cowen“I think everybody can look great, but you have to want to look great and you have to believe there’s a benefit to looking great. He looks like he doesn’t think too much about how he looks. And I think in a way people like that – a kind of charming dishevelment.

He doesn’t look like he’s in it for spin and it works for him in a weird way. Like Gordon Brown, he’s been handed this poisoned chalice. If we had a big white-toothed shiny-haired taoiseach we’d be suspicious. We don’t do pretty boy politics in Ireland yet.”