Pieces of me: Helen McAlinden, fashion designer

Quality and simplicity are the most important things for fashion designer Helen McAlinden, and her Co Dublin home reflects her love of simple but well-made objects. ‘I prefer to pare things back, not bling them up,’ she says


Fashion designer Helen McAlinden thinks her pared-back sense of style, the trademark of her eponymous label, “evolved most probably as an antidote to the gritty, punk backdrop I grew up against in Belfast in the chaotic 1970s. I became consumed with creating this condition of complete simplicity,” she says.

She studied fashion and textiles in Manchester and in the 1980s joined Ramsey, an Irish linen label beloved of Americans. She spent the next 14 years transforming the brand into a fashion house, with outlets worldwide.

In 2001 Helen established the Helen McAlinden fashion brand and has invested “blood, sweat and even my house at one point” into developing her label, which now has five stores in Ireland. She lives between Blackrock, Co Dublin and Cornwall in southwest England, with her partner, David.

Do you have a particular interiors style?
I would have said minimalist, yet all the knick-knacks and accessories around my house would beg to differ. I’ve always been into what’s now being referred to as “essentialism”: as in, not amassing items superfluous to your needs, but ensuring everything you do own is of real quality which you deeply appreciate. That goes for food, furniture, art and fashion. I don’t do disposable or quick fixes.

How did you approach your home revamp?
Very badly. I was convinced this ash green shade of paint would be the perfect neutral and had seen it looking very elegant in rooms elsewhere, but my house ended up looking like a hospital and we had to repaint everything. I eventually came across Little Greene’s Dolphin paint in 246, and I’ve used that everywhere – on the walls, the radiators, all my old 1990s oak furniture and on the once-pink bookshelves too. I was pretty surprised at how well they all turned out.

Any other decorating mishaps?
The floors were another steep learning curve. I wanted that lovely clean blond wood you see in Scandinavian design. So we sanded the original oak floorboards back to their bare state, they looked great until we sealed them and then they proceeded to turn an awful orange shade. My very patient sander took the wood back to its natural state again and between us we experimented with lots of different lime washes to get that clean, ashy look I was after. Three parts plain white emulsion, with seven parts water turned out to be the perfect combination.

We mopped it all over the wood and then sealed it with clear satin varnish and they have transformed the entire house, making it so much brighter and giving it a really airy feel.

What is your favourite spot in the house?
There are two big old windows in the bedroom upstairs that overlook Dublin Bay. I just sit there with a glass of wine or a book and look out at the sea. It’s like a painting that’s always changing and it’s better than Valium at calming you down.

What would you rescue in a fire?
Apart from Victoria, my cat, it would be an old art deco vase from my grandmother’s house in Maynooth. I’m not sure if it’s worth much, but to me the black and gold graphic design just embodies simplicity and elegance and still looks as relevant today as it would have back in the 1920s.

Do you collect anything specific?
Whenever I’ve had a little extra money over the past 20 years, I’ve tried to buy a painting. I’ve a Patrick Scott, two David Martins, a John Woods and a Bob Crossley. I tend to buy based on the colours, not the actual subject of the painting. Not surprisingly, when I hang them up, they all tend to look the same – abstract landscapes in muted greys and blues. I’m also currently really into mixed metals and like grouping brass, copper and silver bits together.

There is an unwritten rule that’s it’s bad taste to mix up metal finishes, but in fact, I think they can really complement each other.

Any interior turn offs?
Chandeliers. Glass, crystal, gold – no matter the material, to me they just scream opulence, which I just don’t value. I prefer to pare things back, not bling them up.

If you had a windfall to spend on your home, what would you do next?
Definitely the kitchen. We installed our current kitchen in 1989, so it’s paid its dues. This time I’d go for a really engineered German-look kitchen, probably all black with sleek, handle-less cabinets that just disappear into the wall, floating worktops and the best appliances going. If there was any change left over, I’d get a landscaper to turn the back garden into a zero-maintenance zone. Gardening really is just a euphemism for outdoor housework.

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