At home with Hilary Weston
The former model who invented the Primark label, owns Brown Thomas and went on be Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, has worked alongside her billionaire husband, Galen, for five decades
Hilary Weston outside her home in Windsor, Florida
Hilary and Galen Weston at their home in Windsor, Florida
Hilary Weston is wintering in Windsor – a gated community for the very wealthy on Florida’s Atlantic coast, with a somewhat fitting name. In Canada, where the Westons sometimes live, the couple has been compared to royalty, and it was Hilary who chose the name for the Florida estate that now has some 325 luxury homes (she also has a say in who gets to buy or build there), but Windsor is just a small part of the Weston story. Together Galen and Hilary Weston head up a multi-billion dollar fashion and food empire that includes Brown Thomas as well as Penneys, Selfridges, and luxury goods stores and supermarkets across Canada. Add to that vast property interests and a generous philanthropic programme, and you have a life that does not allow for too much Florida downtime.
Hilary Weston is here, though, to launch a Jasper Johns exhibition at Windsor’s gallery and in between that and entertaining house guests, agrees to a rare interview.
Impeccably dressed in black and white striped pants and crisp white shirt, her upturned collar brushed by avant garde gold leaf earrings, she greets me at the door. “Let’s go to my children’s sitting room,” she suggests, leading the way along a covered walkway, overlooking an enclosed courtyard garden dappled with winter sunshine. “Rather, my grandchildren’s room – my children are all grown up now. But they used to play in here and run straight out into the pool.”
Her accent is unmistakably English, and while celebrated as one of Canada’s most influential women for her high-profile public service, Weston’s roots are decidedly Irish.
She was born Hilary Frayne in Dún Laoghaire in 1942, the eldest of five. Her modelling career began in the 1950s and 1960s when designer Sybil Connelly – a friend of the family – invited the young Hilary to tour the US with her to model her couture collection.
“I was a sort of muse. In a way, at that time, one was representing Irish fashion,” Weston recalls. “Chanel always used Irish tweed. Poplin, silk poplin, it was all made in Ireland. Sybil Connolly made these incredible dresses and ball gowns in fine, fine hand-pleated linen. Everyone in America loved those things.”
At home, the story goes that she was spotted by Galen Weston, a young man from a fabulously wealthy Canadian family who had come to Dublin at 21 to escape a domineering father and to make his own way in the retail world. His father, Garfield Weston, had refused to bankroll his travels but then his Northern Irish grandmother, Eliza Whalley, had stepped in, offering him “a hundred grand” to go to Ireland and set up a business there.
In Dublin, he spotted the young Hilary on a billboard, sporting hot pants, and said to a friend that she was the kind of girl he would like to meet. The friend, auctioneer Corrie Buckley, arranged for them to meet at a dinner party.
“He had a terrible cold. I remember we managed to persuade him to have a hot toddy as it was the only thing that would cure him.” She smiles at the recollection. “Well, I think he had rather too many hot toddies! It cured him but it nearly killed him as well.”
By 1965, they were engaged; on July 23rd, 1966, they married in England.
If there were any assumptions that the young model would turn trophy wife, they were quickly dispelled. While Galen ploughed on with developing the Powers supermarket chain – which later evolved into Quinnsworth and which, incidentally, introduced the first avocados to Ireland, Hilary Weston moved from modelling into fashion retail and soon found herself in charge of what was to become an Irish institution or two. When Galen bought Todd Burns, a chain of Irish department stores that evolved into Primark, followed by luxury department store Brown Thomas, she put her modelling experience into revamping the fashion departments of both firms.