Stylish life of an art director
Carmel Walsh has carved out a glamorous career as a stylist in Florence’s luxury goods market
With her curly red hair, orange lipstick and flamboyant attire, she is a familiar sight in Florence cycling along its narrow streets perched on her bike stopping occasionally en route to chat with friends. Carmel Walsh is the art director and head stylist at Luisa Via Roma, a luxury retailer based in Florence which has a worldwide reputation for creativity, innovation and championing design talent while also embracing modern technology. It launched its website 15 years ago and is known for contemporary videos, artistic collaborations and special events, the most recent involving top international bloggers.
Walsh has been working with the company for three years directing videos and photo editorials, collaborating with magazines and brands, researching trends and new designers and representing the company at Milan, Paris and London fashion weeks.
“I shoot every 10 to 14 days – on locations with up to nine people and with a team of 20 for video. I do model and talent castings, create fashion concepts and mood boards for shoots,” she explains.
Her latest work includes a painterly womenswear shoot based on the pre-Raphaelites and Toulouse-Lautrec with a 24-year-old Chinese photographer (since signed up by Vogue Italia) and a menswear feature inspired by painters Piet Mondrian and Edward Hopper.
“A lot of my inspiration comes from the art world and on location I always tell models to explore the space they are in, to feel part of that space.”
Distinctive in her style, she is often photographed at London and Paris fashion weeks and on the day we met was wearing gold chandelier earrings from Mercantia (sold on Luisa Via Roma), a black toggle jacket from Zara and a midi-length red pleated skirt that once belonged to her aunt Lucille with “crazy” tights by Emilio Cavallini.
Creativity runs in the family. “My mother Miriam, a physiotherapist, taught us how to make our own clothes – she is extremely skilled and taught us crochet, sewing, knitting, macramé – it was automatic,” she says.
Walsh did a foundation course in art and design in Coláiste Stiofáin and started a fledgling business in Cork selling her beaded jewellery and handbags made from her brothers’ old 501s. “That gave me a lot of confidence,” she says.
Working in Cork’s Crawford library opened her eyes to the limitless possibilities of textile design. “So I studied textile design in Wales and learnt how wonderful it was to make everything on so many machines. I learnt the process from material to the finished object. We just played all day.”
A spell as an au pair for a family of art collectors with homes in Italy, France and New York was an introduction to the art world. She followed this with a three-year course in footwear and accessory design at the Polimoda fashion school in Florence. A star pupil, she started working with shoe designer Saskia Wittmer “who was so inspiring and so different – I learnt about perfection and skills. There are 250 different phases in making one shoe.”
Later she became Wittmer’s apprentice making shoes for different designers and small commissions. She was also modelling at the time and had started working as a stylist with a photographer on campaigns, designing bags and small leather goods for Calvin Klein and teaching shoemaking in Palma for Camper.
She was getting interested in the presentation of ideas and photography on websites when Andrea Panconesi chief executive of Luisa Via Roma approached her with a job offer.
At the start she was responsible for a lot of celebrity styling: Chinese actors and singers; Italian footballers; Russian, American and Brazilian bloggers; and Sting’s wife Trudie Styler. She also worked with Swedish stylist B Akerlund on Madonna’s Turn Up the Radio music video. But creating her own images is what interests her now.
“The most satisfying aspect of the job is when a photo becomes timeless. Just because you work in a big fashion boutique doesn’t mean your ideas must be predictable and we’re interested in inviting creative people to work with us and I love putting creative people together – it generates such energy,” she says.
So what does she think about the way the Irish and Italians dress? “The biggest difference in Ireland is between day and evening wear. In Italy because of the idea of the aperitivo, you wear the same clothes for day and evening – like a simple dress – and maybe their day wear is more elegant.
“In Ireland the contrast is extreme and the idea of going without makeup in the evening shocks my Irish friends who get dolled up to the nines. In Italy it’s more casual for day and evening. And sportswear is not acceptable as day wear in Italy.”
She has this advice too: “Accessories are much easier as a way into a trend than the head to toe look. Everything has to start with your shape and what you can wear well to suit your figure. You can work on that basis and be playful. People shouldn’t follow trends to be fashionable or stylish,” she says.
What advice would she give to a young stylist starting off? “Be extremely curious about everything, take note of interesting locations, new designers and, if you see somebody wearing something interesting, ask them where they got it, so you create an archive for yourself and are therefore always ready for anything and are never without an idea. ”
Off duty, home in Florence is a 1950s apartment in the city centre close to the Ponte Vecchio which she shares with two artists. Currently dating a Florentine dentist, she works near Campo de Marte in an open plan office and at weekends practises archery in a small garden built by Michelangelo. “I love Florence because it’s a hub for young artists and it’s nice to step away from fashion and to come back here (after hectic fashion weeks) to a smaller more homely environment. With archery, all you have to do is hit a target. It’s like a meditation.”