Fashion duo Charlotte and Jane on life and work in Kinsale
Irish design label looks to the past and homegrown influences for modern takes on timeless elegance
Fashion designers Charlotte Cargin and Jane Skovgaard. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Clarissa in a houndstooth check dress , €455. Photograph: Michael MacSweeney/Provision
Felicity wears a red tweed dress, €455. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Up a twisting narrow road called Compass Hill, overlooking the harbour at Kinsale, lies The Grove. The handsome, early 19th-century double-fronted house was originally built for commanding officers at Charles Fort on the site of an ancient monastery and Norman tower. Surrounded by a two-acre garden with mesmerising views of the sea, it has been the family home of the Fitzgeralds since the 1960s. They count among their fold the late actor Susan Fitzgerald and her brother Peter, an engineer and one of the designers of the Nelson Mandela bridge in Johannesburg.
Their father, Dr William Fitzgerald, a GP, was a passionate gardener (and spaceship designer) who restored the house and turned a neglected, overgrown wilderness into a garden of great beauty and interest, landscaping it with winding walls, paths and terraces and sowing rare plants, shrubs and trees.
In one part is a 500-year-old beech, said to be the oldest in Ireland, its nine great trunks dominating a carpet of bluebells and wild garlic.
Today, a converted stone coachhouse in the grounds accommodates the studio and showroom of Charlotte & Jane, the Irish fashion label specialising in made-to-measure 1940s- and 1950s-inspired curvy dresses, coats and suits in native fabrics.
When I arrive, a client from Waterford is trying on a slim-fitting tweed dress and debating its length. “A dress has to take me to lunch or to a concert hall,” observes the mother-of-five in front of the mirror.
“You know, you’re not just dress designers, but marriage counsellors and psychoanalysts,” she jokes as the pair pin up her skirt, stand back and suggest higher heels.
A work-placement French student, Sabrine Foulon, who is busy cutting toile for a red riding coat for a Galway equestrian judge, grins at the exchange. The client loves the dress.
Charlotte Cargin came to live in The Grove, her grandparents’ house, with her parents and siblings when she was 13 and, apart from four years studying fashion at St Martin’s in London, has remained there ever since.
“This is not just a home,” she muses later in the comfortable breakfast room, her dog Cheeky asleep on a Chesterfield. “It’s a way of life. I had a wonderful time in London, but I really missed the garden here. Liam [her husband] and I do the garden and we never talk about fashion, but about our vegetables,” she says, proffering blackcurrants in yoghurt dusted with cinnamon, along with other lunchtime treats. “This house was always filled with music, people, relatives . . . and still is.”
Her stylish mother, Rosie, joins us and beams in agreement. Early family life was peripatetic. Her father Johnny – “Catholic and from Cork” – was educated at Sandhurst and became the private equerry to Prince Philip for three years. “The first party I ever went to was in Buckingham Palace,” recalls Cargin deadpan. “Dad was an usher at Charles and Diana’s wedding and remained a friend of Philip; was in touch with him for his 90th birthday. Every September he went shooting with him at Balmoral for three days. When he died Philip sent a very moving tribute.”
Born in London, Cargin spent her childhood with her parents in Berlin, Hanover and Zimbabwe before returning to the UK and finally Ireland when her father retired from teaching in Sandhurst.
Her partner, Jane Skovgaard, a fine artist, also grew up in Zimbabwe. She is from a distinguished Danish family of painters, sculptors, weavers and designers: her father was a forester and farmer and her English mother, a teacher.
Skovgaard studied fine art in Johannesburg and in 2001 landed a job in Ireland house-sitting for the US singer-songwriter Tory Amos in Kinsale. “I came for three months and stayed for 13 years,” she says with a smile, explaining that her fate was sealed when she fell in love and later married Cork documentary maker Edward Godsell. “Ireland is very seductive – people talk a lot and have a good time together.”
She met Cargin while teaching painting and drawing in Kinsale VEC and the pair became friends, Cargin making her wedding dress on her return from London in 2006. They set up business five years ago.
“We have a lovely lifestyle here,” says Skovgaard, who lives by the sea in Kilbrittain and sails. “But it was tricky for the first few years. We started mid-recession and Charlotte had just given birth to her first child.” The pair specialise in marrying Irish tweeds with Indian hand-blocked silks using unusual trims and buttons.
Customers come from a wide spectrum that includes mothers-of-the-bride, racegoers, partygoers and “doctors and lawyers who want something dark and formal but in a funky design”.
Many enquiries come from Irish people living abroad in Dubai, Canada, New Zealand or Australia who are coming home for an event and want something special. “We love meeting clients and take pride in making them perfect personal pieces using local seamstresses,” Cargin says.
The life they lead allows them to run the business as they want “rather than let it run us. Jane and I are not city people. We both love walking and we talk about dogs and children,” Cargin adds. “I always wanted to do fashion, but working in the bigger industry was not for me. Our working life is a lot of our social life and I don’t think either of us could have done this on our own.”
As she shows me around the garden, Cargin points out places where, as children, she and her sister used to stage fashion shows “for anyone interested” and it is clear that the magic of the house and its surroundings – timeless and deep rooted – casts a continuing spell.