Creative Control


At his salon on Molesworth Street, designer Jen Kelly assures his clients that whatever their shape, they shall go to the ball - and in a garment that fits like a glove. His collection, pictured on these pages, is couture rather than ready-to-wear - each client has different needs and wants, and it's Jen's job to make sure they're fulfilled. A client will view the samples in his salon, and after a discussion of fabric and detail, as well as several fittings, the garment is made up. He only shows once a year and has no interest in ready to wear.

He describes the Irish fashion industry as "unlike any other in international terms. Rocha and Costelloe find it difficult because they're producing for an international market and it's not relevant here. I don't know if there will ever be a fashion designer in our history that can compete internationally like Valentino or Armani and, being aware of that, I have no interest. I'm personally satisfied doing with what I'm doing.

"I was always reluctant to say I'm a couture designer, but increasingly I think I am. A couture designer produces a silhouette, and that silhouette echoes in each and every collection." His silhouette is his signature. With each commission a series of the client's measurements are taken to make a toile, or prototype, of the garment. The beauty of couture is its ability to conceal body flaws by ironing them out on the toile.

The former president, Mary Robinson's gait, for instance, meant that her skirts fell inward, between her legs. Jen countered this by lifting the waist-line "so that her skirt stood out. It's not really disguising, it's working to flatter and accentuate, hide that little tummy or that broad back, whatever. In couture you can do that. In ready to wear you can't.

"Everyone is different. If you've a good pair of pins or a good bustline you can pretty much wear anything if it's made for you." The pleasure of couture, for those of us who've never had the experience, is that "it's personal to you. It's like lingerie - you know it's there. People do notice hand-rolled hems and hand-made buttons."

At your first consultation, Kelly aims to win your confidence by "putting you at your ease, suggesting lines that really flatter, or encouraging the sensuality of a silk lining". An ex-pupil of the Christian Brothers, he has taken their mantra and rather cheekily adopted it to form his own philosophy: "if you take a woman and you model her bustline and waistline you've got her for life. Clothing is not brain surgery; it's not serious." His area of expertise is "the waist. I can really give people a waist".

The bust is another speciality subject. "There can be nine panels in a bodice that I do." Most of these are virtually unseen, which has ensured a loyal following and made him a favourite amongst brides-to-be. His only pet hate is "cheapness". This he attributes to our "Catholic conscience, people thinking `am I worth that?', `can I really justify spending that?' I hate it when I see women that can really afford the best scrimping on themselves."

What's `expensive'? "£500 on a nylon dress is expensive; for twice that you can have something you can wear for the next 10 years. I like nice things. This collection is `Mormon women meets Italian flash'. It's 1940s and 1950s chic and it's beautiful. Its influences are opulence and luxury."

First timers are advised to invest in a "black dress or a beautiful evening coat or jacket. If it's made for you, it's made in proportion and anything in proportion suits you." Made to order can, he maintains, be as "competitive as what's in the shops. For £895 to £1,200 you can get pretty much anything, from a suit to a dress to a coat, which can be as lavish as you want within that price. I think that's as competitive as Richard Allen or Brown Thomas." For £495 he can, on occasion, make a simple unlined dress but only "for someone that's really beautiful" and doesn't need all of the little tweaks that we, mere mortals, do - we Irish being "fleshier" than other nationalities.

Ten years in the business, with a client list that boasts the likes of Celia Larkin, Roma Downey, Enya and Jean Kennedy Smith - all women of a certain age - who would he still like to dress? "Madonna. There's one lady who wears a coat on every occasion. That's star quality - and it pays; she's at the top. I loved her in Evita, although the costumes weren't really her.

I think they should have taken more poetic licence because she's such a flamboyant woman. I think in half-shades, sage greens, burgundies, deep purples, she can look mysterious. Purple is my thing at the moment: I really love it. I love luxury."

Jen Kelly's collection can be viewed at his salon at 38 Molesworth Street, Dublin 2. For appointments call 01 676 9844.