Interview: Smythson's Rory O'Hanlon, classic by design

Designer Rory O’Hanlon has worked with the cream of international fashion, and now the low-key Louth man is revamping a classic British brand

 

Smythson, a very British brand whose famous past fans include Katharine Hepburn, Sigmund Freud and Hardy Amies, has an Irish design director with serious fashion credentials.

Catching a bus home to Dundalk, Co Louth this Christmas you might find yourself sitting next to Rory O’Hanlon, a most understated talent, who comes from Kilcurry, a sleepy village outside Dundalk, about a mile from the border.

O’Hanlon is not big on fuss, as is evident from his homeward journey plans – and everything he designs. He has spent the past 20 years earning his fashion stripes, working with the world’s top talent, and has carved out a name for himself as an accessories designer who makes covetable items that also sell like hotcakes – fashion gold.

After a diploma in engineering – the drafting skills he learned have stood him in good stead – he studied fashion at Ravensbourne where David Bowie and Stella McCartney both did foundation year. After graduating, he worked at Calvin Klein in New York and at Gucci in Florence – then under the stewardship of Tom Ford. The seven-days-a-week work schedule was all- encompassing. He regrets not exploring the Tuscan countryside more but can say he designed some seminal pieces for the Italian fashion house, including the sculptural metal belt buckles from Ford’s 1996 White Dress collection – he moulded the idea in clay one morning and saw it fabricated in metal the next day.

His talent and charm have opened many doors for him. While at Gucci, and commuting between London and Florence, he met handbag designer Anya Hindmarch. “I offered to help her carry her big bags of samples onto the Gatwick Express. We got talking. She said that if I ever wanted a job, to let her know.” He did and worked with her for two years.

HandbagWhat excites him is reinvention and having whetted his appetite with Ford, he moved from Hindmarch to Burberry, starting on the same day as creative director and now CEO Christopher Bailey. The reinvention continued at Jil Sander, where he worked under Raf Simons, who later replaced John Galliano at Dior. It’s a roll call of the industry’s most respected designers. From Jil Sander he was headhunted to join Phoebe Philo’s team at Celine. “When I met her, she was very personable and she was carrying a bag I’d developed at Jil Sander.”

Each new work opportunity afforded him the chance to rethink a brand without jeopardising its heritage, something he excels at. By paring back the shouty, logoed hardware then in vogue he made handbags for Celine that transformed the high-end accessories market, and played a pivotal role in the label’s commercial success.

He was back in New York working for Coach when, two years ago, Smythson came calling and he jumped at the chance. “It was the breadth of their offer, from stationary to leather goods, that appealed, plus the fact that it wasn’t super flashy but rather discreet, that it had over a century of heritage and an incredible archive. It wasn’t touched or spoiled. It was a chance to develop large leather goods, to nurture the brand.”

Samantha Cameron, businesswoman and wife of British prime minister David Cameron, was creative director of the brand until May 2010 and is credited with making Smythson take that first step from stationery into fashion accessories. She remains a brand ambassador.

The fact that it was not a fashion label but a lifestyle company also appealed to O’Hanlon. “Customers have been coming to Smythson for a Panama diary all their lives. Families have been using them for generations.” In addition to Hepburn, Freud and Amies, he’s trying to find out if James Joyce used the stationary.

book

He was a fan before joining the company, using Smythson notebooks for sketching and jotting. And he has kept every one he ever filled with ideas. “I constantly refer back to them, especially when I’m blocked. I’m a bit OCD so they sit on a shelf, lined up in order.” Smythson’s tiny little books with hand-made gold spines make gorgeous stocking fillers, he says. They cost from €55 and, if you buy them online, they can be personalised with your initials.

Of the new bags he’s designed he says he is making timeless pieces, something he admits “is easy to say but not easy to do”, as longevity is only proven over time. At the top of the product pyramid is the 1887 collection, made of three different leather weights. He’s also expanding the company’s menswear, introducing understated styles in the Montagu and Burlington ranges that many women will also love. These can be ordered online from Smythson.co.uk.

O’Hanlon is one of six children, and his three sisters and mother have been rather spoiled over the years, getting bags designed by him, building what he jokingly calls his own private archive. (When he asked to look at a leather bag he’d designed for Calvin Klein two decades ago he couldn’t believe his mother had thrown it out. ) Part of the Smythson range is a series of very upscale Christmas cards that, while expensive, will, O’Hanlon believes, touch recipients because “Time is one of the modern luxuries, so when you receive a hand-written note or card it feels very personal, especially if written on beautiful stationery.”

At Christmas, he plans to “stick his feet in the fire” and indulge in a piece of his mother’s Christmas pudding. If one of his sisters is feeling charitable she might pick him up from the airport, “especially if she thinks there’s a Smythson bag in it for her”, he laughs.

Smythson accessories and Panama tote bags are available exclusively at Brown Thomas. Brownthomas.com; for personalisation or to buy the 1887, Montagu or Burlington bags, visit smythson.co.uk