Dressed for success
Six high-flying women discuss their working wardrobe with Deirdre McQuillan. Photographs by Aidan Crawley
Caroline Sleiman is a market development manager, and is responsible for managing a portfolio of alcohol brands in Ireland and her job involves business meetings in Dublin, Paris and London. “My role is large and varied. Each brand is different and has a different personality associated with it, either with fashion, cinema, literary awards or the Gold Cup, so I find myself in a variety of situations. I dress for myself more than for the situations. I think more about the practicalities of what I need to get done rather than impressing people and am very conscious of wearing what is appropriate.”
A petite size six to eight, she dresses mostly in black, brown or grey. “I mainly wear dresses, rarely trousers, the reason being there’s less stuff to think about. I find Irish designers don’t cut that small, so even though I do buy in Dublin, I usually shop in small boutiques when I’m travelling.”
Her clothes have to be light – “even in winter I would rather a cardigan than something heavy”. She puts a lot of emphasis on accessories. “I’ve black dresses in different shapes with long or short sleeves, which I’ll wear with belts, bracelets, cuffs or rings. I don’t wear earrings and I don’t use scarves that much. But bags are my thing.”
She has inherited some from her mother and remembers, as a child, her father buying her mother a Christian Dior bag, one that she loves. “She gave that to me and it is such a fantastic memory. I would like to think in the same way I would pass mine on to my daughter as well.”
A lot of women, she thinks, tend to hide behind suits. “I work in a male-oriented business, but I don’t think you need a suit to fit into that world. For me clothes are about what you are, not about your armour. They are there to enhance your personality. I would say I look stylish and professional rather than avant garde – that’s what I would hope, anyway.”
She travels light “and I’ve have learnt over the years that travelling with a big suitcase is not the thing to do. I take three dresses for three days and dress them up in different ways. I can’t live without a pashmina when travelling and always wear boots or flats.”
Of mixed Irish-Lebanese parentage, she goes back every year to Beirut, where she has a good dressmaker – “every woman in Lebanon has a dressmaker” – and she has also found a good one in Dublin, who is “a whizz with any kind of alteration”. For basics she goes to Banana Republic and Gap, gets T-shirts from Helmut Lang “because they’re the best and I don’t like shirts or blouses”, and buys quite a lot online. “And I still raid my mother’s wardrobe.”
Dress by Preen, bought in the Design Centre along with the necklace by Erickson Beamon; shoes by Todds
Nicky Samons’s slim, lithe frame testifies to a previous career as a ballerina and trained ballet teacher, but after an honours degree in marketing from the University of Johannesburg, she joined Kelloggs in 2004 and has been working in Ireland for the past four years.
Her current job, as European brand activation manager, involves a lot of travel to key meetings with other European teams – she goes to London, Paris, Brussels or Milan at least once every two weeks, “but the nice thing about [the Irish office] is that it’s relaxed and you can get away with a nice pair of cigarette pants, a shirt and a casual cashmere jumper”, she says.
Ballet pumps or flat shoes are “an absolute must” for travelling. “I take my heels in my carry-on for big business meetings. I hate check-in luggage, so I keep clothing to a minimum – two pairs of pants or an A-line skirt and shirts in the same colour palette along with something for evening, like a pair of jeans and a shirt.” She tends to wear blues and greys rather than black “so they can mix and match”, but will dress up a work outfit with a black tuxedo jacket.
The Italian office is the most formal, she says. “Men wear business suits and within that different shirts or ties for different meetings. Women wear suits or dresses with jackets. No sandals.” In Ireland, the unwritten dress code is “smart casual” and the office operates a “casual Friday” when staff can wear jeans with a shirt – for her, a slimfit Ralph Lauren pinstripe.
“I buy all over the place,” she says, counting Harvey Nichols, Massimo Dutti, Zara and occasionally Topshop among her favourite shops. “I wear a lot of Seven jeans because they are a brilliant fit, with a nice pair of heels and a beautiful shirt or blouse. I love See by Chloé and All Saints because they are never so trendy that they go out of fashion.” She admits that Mulberry bags are her “absolute favourite – my bags have to be big”.
Comfort is another priority and she cautions against wearing clothes to work that are too tight, or trousers cut so low that underwear is visible. “If you have to think whether something is appropriate for work, then it is not. My working wardrobe and my casual match each other. I think I am a very conscientious dresser and that’s become more apparent as my career has developed. The way you dress is how you want to be perceived and that is seriously.”
Dress by Moschino, shoes by LK Bennett and snakeskin bangle by MoMuse at Bow Boutique, Dublin
Dorothy Mathews, from Slane, Co Meath, gave up a career in occupational therapy when she started making jewellery after doing an art course in the UK. Founded in 1994, Corona Silver carried off both the best jewellery design award and best overall product at the RDS that year. Since then, she hasn’t looked back, producing some 800-900 designs, with two collections released each year.
“My work demands being in my showroom, doing exhibitions, visiting customers in their shops – I am the face of Corona Silver in these situations,” she says.
“On the road I wear trousers, boots, T-shirts and a tailored jacket. I like tailored jackets and I usually do my shopping travelling around to customers.”
She is an authoritative guide to fashion boutiques around Ireland, and her working wardrobe is often chosen strategically. “Sometime I dress around my jewellery, especially if I have new designs to show to customers,” she says. Like many other businesswomen, good tailoring and comfort are priorities and, clear cut in her choices, she stresses that she is not a slave to fashion – “though when I was 20 I spent everything on clothes”.
“I find getting the right trousers very difficult and wear Apriori because the fit is good. If I wear jeans, they have to be dark denim. I wear dresses from Max Mara or Karen Millen, but another great place for them is Design Lodge in Lahinch.”
She also cites Venezuela in Skerries for its well-chosen Italian labels, “great unstructured clothes for petite sizes. Every town in Ireland has a good boutique.”
Women need to know what suits their shape and they make mistakes, she thinks, when they dress inappropriately for their age – too short dresses with high heels, or clothes that are too tight or don’t fit. Leggings without any layering are a pet hate.
Jacket from Aria in Naas, shirt from Annaleens in Kilkenny, jeans from Susu boutique, Clonakilty, boots from Pasma in Ardee and Corona Silver jewellery
National Library of Ireland
Fiona Ross is a former Goodbody stockbroker who started her career in financial services in London, and has worked all over Europe and the US. Now, she is director of the National Library of Ireland and chair of the Consortium of National and University Libraries. Ross places comfort above all else when it comes to work wear. “Financial environments are quite formal. New York is very suited and booted and even today in the IFSC nearly every woman is wearing a black or navy suit. As I’ve got older, I’ve started to put more creativity into what I wear. You want to be more yourself. Plus, I am not a size 10 any more, so a pencil skirt doesn’t look the same – that’s another factor.”
Ross is an ambassador for one of Ireland’s leading cultural institutions. That means a varied day dealing with often unexpected public engagements, ministerial visits, welcoming foreign dignitaries or addressing school groups. “Every single day there are always events such as opening nights at theatres or concerts that I could go to of a semi-formal nature.” In addition to running the 122-year-old library, she will also be focusing on raising much needed funds for the institution.
Her solution is the printed wrap dress. “I nearly always wear dresses because they are comfortable and I am tall. When I started this job, I went out and bought 10 jersey wrap dresses in Pamela Scott – I’m very much a high-street shopper. Now I have a whole row of colourful jersey dresses, which I tend to wear with black or navy jackets which I buy when I’m on holiday from Fiona’s in Skibbereen.” Accessories are minimal – flat or high shoes and two or three traditional handbags, “nothing fancy”. A keen sportswoman who runs up to half marathons and does five kilometres on the treadmill most days, she’s more attracted to workout gear than daywear.
Women shouldn’t be afraid to have a bit of individual flair, “something that says something about who they are”, although she admits that the ability to reinvent oneself can be limited with children. As the mother of teenagers, Ross says they can be her harshest critics. “My kids will tell me whether they like something or not. They like you to be like you.”
Silk print dress by Rocha: John Rocha, bought at Debenhams. PHOTOGRAPH: ERIC LUKE
Irish businesswomen tend to be conservative and have lost their ability to engage with their femininity, maintains Ann Corcoran, the founder of an advertising and marketing agency, Limetree. The company, set up nine years ago, has since branched out into event management, and handled the opening of Dublin’s Convention Centre.
Corcoran, a mother of young twins, runs the business with the help of her account manager Lynne McCormack and a staff of high-calibre folk, both at home and abroad. From a farming and horse-breeding background in Tipperary, she’s an experienced player in the industry, was the former head of marketing at Eircom, spent some time with Statoil, and before that she worked with advertising agencies.
“Our business is all about ideas and good ideas come from good people. We have captured the freelance creative community and brought it together. We get things done quickly and have a varied range of clients. So you have to have a very flexible wardrobe to allow you to do board presentations one day and shoot TV commercials the next,” she says.
Her solution is to stick to one colour, even when travelling. “I have a couple of key pieces and grey is my colour, so I will accessorise pieces and make sure that everything mixes in and then I’ll team them with boots or stilettos.” A petite size eight, Corcoran is wearing high black suede Carvela stilettos on the day we meet. “Flats? Never. The last time I wore them was when I was 12.”
Corcoran is a dedicated online shopper and sales hound. “Because of my size I generally pick up pieces. I’m the queen of wholesale and always look for good value. Most of her clothes come from All Saints, Asos and occasionally Net-a-porter. “I can scan a shop in two seconds and I think you have to go to smaller shops for something different.”
Coats, from Massimo Dutti, Joseph or Alice Temperley, are key buys and “if I was putting money into anything it would be a coat. You are instantly dressed and coats are statement pieces and good investments. You could call my style edgy elegance because I like to funk things up.”
She says she meets many professional women in male-dominated worlds eager but unable to assert their individuality through their clothes. “I would hate to wear a black suit and black court shoes for the rest of my working life, but I know lawyers who spend a fortune on suits that don’t fit even from top brands and yet they all look the same. There’s room for change.”
Zara dress, Carvela boots, jewellery by Tiffany and Links, ring by Rebecca Kahn
A high flier in every sense, Beatrice Cosgrove, originally from Claremorris, Co Mayo, is the Northern Europe general manager of Etihad Airways, the flag carrier of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Responsible for commercial operations in five European countries including Ireland, Cosgrove has been with Etihad for nearly four years, having been promoted from country manager in September last year.
“I have two different types of day,” she says. “When I am in the office [in Dublin], it is administration, planning and conference calling and I’m normally office-bound that day. The other is when I am up at 5am in the airport and flying somewhere, either to Abu Dhabi or one of the European cities, so that’s a day I’m at meetings.”
Having started in the industry with Continental Airlines in 1998, her work has always involved travel “so you become good at adapting and packing very lightly because ideally you want your bag with you in the aircraft. I make packing decisions based on the size of the bag, so quite often shoes come first – heels for meetings and pumps for running through airports.”
A petite woman with size two-and-a-half feet, she loves shoes, especially from Gina, “because I’m a little on the short side”. The day we meet she is wearing a pair of suede stilettos from Marks Spencer, “one of the few places where shoes fit me”.
Although the company dress code is “business attire”, she says it’s a little more relaxed for women than for men who if not in a suit are considered not at work. “Dresses have become a bigger part of my wardrobe than before and they are so easy and make packing easier too. I still do trouser suits and in Abu Dhabi will always have a jacket as well – usually Jaeger. I always respect the culture of the country I’m in, but we work there mostly with expats. It can be 50 degrees in the summer, so I wear a light, airy dress that’s not too fitted. You also need layers for the air conditioning.”
Favourite brands include Whistles, LK Bennett (for dresses), Hobbs “and Crave in Naas has been my downfall”. She rarely shops online and hates sales shopping “as I’m no good at rooting”. As for jewellery, she tends to stick to smaller, investment pieces rather than lots of costume jewellery. “Abu Dhabi started off as a pearling village, so you can get wonderful pearls there, and diamonds of course.”
Her suits tend to be black, navy or grey – she likes Ted Baker’s fit – and although she wears a lot of black, she has got “a bit braver” with colour. “I think as more and more females have entered the workplace, the whole concept of female dressing has become much wider and we have more scope once you’re smart and look the part.”
Red dress by LK Bennett, shoes by Manolo Blahnik, pearl necklace and bracelet were bought in a boutique in Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia
Stylingby Aisling Farinella, assisted by Kieran Kilgallon
Hairby Gary Kavanagh of Peter Mark
Make-upby Julianna Grogan
Special thanks toThe Gibson Hotel, thegibsonhotel.ie
*This article was edited on April 29th 2015