Irish Women of the World: Simone Rocha and eight other successes in style

To celebrate International Women's Day, we've found an outstanding bunch of Irish women whose influence is felt around the world. Meet the women who have risen to the top in international fashion

Emma O'Carroll

Textile specialist

From Roscommon, the daughter of architects and one of a family of 12, O'Carroll started making and selling Aran sweaters at the age of 12, "and that's how it started", she says. In 1995, she won a Fás scholarship to study textile technology in Leicester for five years and has not looked back since. Currently business unit manager of men's and women's ready-to-wear with Loewe, the Spanish luxury house, Paris-based O'Carroll has worked for some of the top houses in international fashion during the course of a successful career which began immediately after graduation when she left for Australia to work as a merchandising manager for Gucci. Returning to Europe, she was engaged by a weaving company in Paris, making fabrics for major brands such as Chanel, Prada and Donna Karan. From there, she was headhunted as menswear buyer at Le Bon Marché, Paris's premier department store and later went freelance before joining Balenciaga in 2002 where she was head of buying and product development. A period as director of production development for Chanel leather goods also followed. The mother of four children, she returns to Ireland regularly where she would love to reinvest her experience and expertise. What would she say now to someone at the start of their career? "You must love what you do. It is an industry of passion. It's no use otherwise."

Orla Kiely


The most successful Irish fashion designer on the planet, Kiely has built up a global empire from the company she founded with her husband and business partner Dermott Rowan in 1997, with flagship stores in London and New York. Winner of four UK Fashion Export Awards, her signature multi-stem print motif has been applied to an ever-growing range of products that includes handbags, luggage, furniture, carpets, wallpaper, stationery, shoes, ceramics, cars and more recently fragrance, watches and bed linen. An expert on print and colour, Kiely began her career at NCAD and at the RCA in London where she is a visiting professor of textiles and where she launched a scholarship last year to fund a student on an MA course. The mother of two teenage boys, she lives in a three-storey Victorian house in Clapham not far from her headquarters and regularly returns to Ireland. She is particularly proud that her stem print featured on a postage stamp in Ireland in 2010.


Is there a good piece of advice she received? “It was from my father in the early days when I was designing a range of hats for Liberty of London. Every woman has a bag, he said, not every woman has a hat. He was right.”

Breege O’Donoghue

Group director, Penneys/Primark

The dynamic board member and group director of Penneys/Primark, O’Donoghue has been central to the international transformation of the small Irish retailer to an international fashion brand.

The business has grown from 17 stores in the late ’70s to almost 300 in 10 countries today.

It has more than 58,000 employees, annual profits in 2014 of


808 million and directly contributes to the employment of more than 800,000 people across three continents with an estimated further two million supported indirectly. From a farming family in


, Co Clare, O’Donoghue started her career in Great

Southern Hotels

and having completed a commerce degree in UCD, joined


in 1979 to run its human resources department, becoming a board member in 1988.

Tireless, energetic, straight-talking and fluent in many languages, she inspires loyalty, respect and admiration in equal measure both at home and on her extensive travels abroad as director responsible for new markets.

She opened the first US Primark store in Boston last year and will launch the company's first Italian store in Milan in April. A further seven US outlets are also planned. Outside her Primark work, she has been a Government-appointed board member of An Post and Aer Rianta and also chair of the Labour Relations Commission and a trustee of Ibec. The recipient of many awards, she was honoured with the UCD Quinn School "Alumnus of the Year" in Dublin and New York last year.

What would she say to someone at the start of their career? “Be true to oneself; show courage, independence, initiative and appreciate the need to recognise, respect and value differences.”

Liz Kelsh

Max Factor Australia

A childhood spent playing at her mother’s dressing table paid off for the canny Dubliner, who got her first big break in the ’90s at fashion weeks in Paris and Milan.

With no formal training, Kelsh held her own against heavyweights in the industry like Pat McGrath and Val Garland, finally working her way into the shows of Roberto Cavalli, John Galliano and Stella McCartney. Now based in Sydney, she has worked on faces as diverse as Jennifer Aniston, Cate Blanchett and Kim Cattrall.

In between directing shows and working on editorial for Australian editions of Harpers Bazaar and Vanity Fair, she is also an ambassador for Max Factor Australia and has appeared on The Face Australia alongside Naomi Campbell.

Does a woman have to be more talented/work harder or be more ambitious than a man to succeed as a make-up artist in the fashion industry?

“Not necessarily but they usually are (only joking!). I’ve made the fashion industry my home for more than 20 years and one of the many things I love about it is its lack of prejudices regarding gender, sexuality or religion . . . but beware, you will, however, be judged on your shoes and handbags.

“To any budding make-up artists at the start of their career, I would say polish your craft and the rest will come. Test shoots with models who are trying to get a portfolio together will both help build your portfolio and fine-tune your skills.

“Never stop learning.”

Simone Rocha

Fashion designer

Simone Rocha's meteoric rise to international recognition in fashion – with her collections stocked in leading boutiques all over the world – is the envy of many young Irish designers today. Born in 1986, the daughter of veteran designer John Rocha and his wife Odette, her career began in earnest after a graduate collection at NCAD inspired by the artist Louise Bourgeois was followed by an MA in Central St Martins in London. Her collections ,with their hard-edged femininity, "romance with a bit of grit", as she says, have been drawn from her Celtic and Chinese roots, but have a strong vision that strikes a chord with modern women. Her conventionally girlish materials like tulle, pearls, feathers and frills have been combined with the innovative use of Perspex, leather and more recently neoprene. She has won two British fashion awards and last year opened her first shop on London's Mount Street that also sells her furniture and sculpture. She lives in Dalston and recently became a mother for the first time.

Does female solidarity exist and if so how has it helped her? “I feel solidarity with women because I make clothes for women from a female point of view.”

What is a good pathway into her field? “A good education in the field that interests you and if you can intern, it gives you real experience of the industry and teaches you to be positive and hardworking.”

Ciara Hunt

Managing editor, Net-a-Porter

A Dubliner and TCD graduate in French and philosophy, Hunt is currently managing editor of the Net-a-Porter group and began her magazine publishing career in London following an Ibec marketing programme in Paris and Madrid. Her first job with Condé Nast was on Tatler magazine followed by World of Interiors where she became managing editor at the age of 25. She then joined IPC for the relaunch of Nova but left to become managing editor of InStyle, where she remained for six years, during which time she met and married her husband Richard Francis, a top executive with Sandoz. When they moved to Toronto, she started working with TV star Jeanne Beker, but was subsequently appointed editor of Hello! for its Canadian debut in 2007. Within five years it was the country's best-selling magazine and she became a well known figure with her own CBC breakfast TV slot. Moving to Boston with her husband and two children, she took on the role of royal commentator for CBC for two years. Now living in Munich, she commutes to London every week and occasionally returns to Ireland to visit her parents in Kinsale. What would she say now to someone at the start of their career?" Make the most of work experience. No matter how mundane it is, fetching coffee or filing, it is a very good pathway into a sector. If you do it well and with good humour they will remember you later on."

Fiona Byrne

Journalist/room stylist, ‘Teen Vogue’, New York

Tullamore, Co Offaly-born Fiona always knew the bright lights of New York were for her, and once she got there as a young journalist in 2004, she wasted no time in making friends and influencing people. Bylines with the New York Times, New York Magazine, Elle and Nylon soon followed.

A former east-coast editor with and co-founder of, a website she co-founded with her friend Agyness Deyn, she founded her own websites and 'in addition to styling interiors for Teen Vogue magazine she hosted and styled the series My Room Makeover' which has been one of the online magazines most successful series.

Does a woman have to be more talented/work harder/be more ambitious than a man to succeed at the same job?

“I think working in magazines is so female-led anyway, your sex doesn’t matter as we are so used to working alongside other women and it feels like a very female-oriented business. On Wall Street, it’s a different story, for sure.”

Is there a good piece of advice she was given along the way?

“I get all my advice from self-help books. My favourite line is ‘90 per cent of what you worry about will never happen’, so worrying is a waste of energy.”

Helen Lambert

International trends expert

Helen Lambert, née Kennedy, is a dynamo in the high-fashion world. With offices in Paris, London, New York, Florence and Milan, Lambert's company, Helen Lambert + Associates, identifies trends and connects buyers from luxury retailers including Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, Holt Renfrew and Fenwick, with suppliers.

Although she came to France at the age of 20 in 1986, married a Frenchman and has two children, Lambert says she does not feel French at all. "I always loved fashion, from when I was growing up," she says. "I bring something earthy to it. I'm from a farm in Ireland and I keep my head on my shoulders. A lot of people in this industry can be quite frivolous."

Lambert also heads the Ireland Fund, France. “I like to share. Within sharing, we are giving back,” she says.

How does she spot fashion trends? “I travel a lot. From one continent or country to another, we see different things. It may be a colour. You see it once. You see it twice. The third time you see it, you know that’s it. It’s under way . . . We’re looking at Instagram, Pinterest. We’re eyes and ears outside all the time.”

Does a woman have to be more talented/work harder/be more ambitious than a man to succeed at the same job?

"In my company, we are 55 women and three guys. The hires I'm making now are guys. We need a little bit of masculine in here . . . We do have to work harder to succeed at the same job. Even in fashion. If you look at the fashion industry in France and in Italy, the heads of the companies are men for the most part. You would think that fashion is all about women, but it's not total."

Does female solidarity exist, and if so, how has it helpedher?

“It certainly does. I’ve met some amazing older women who shared their experiences. It helped me forge my way, to make a mistake or two less.”

What would she say now to someone at the start of their career in this sector?

“Professionalism, hard work and consistency make a solid structure. Take chances. We have to take risks if we want to get ahead.

“We cannot sit around and wait for things to come to us . . . Today, no matter what you do, you have to be passionate about it, because work is hard today and if we don’t love what we do, we won’t do it very well. And we’ll get bored.”

Freida Gormley

Founder, House of Hackney

A co-founder of the Hard Working Class Heroes festival in Dublin and former buyer at Dunnes Stores, Donnybrook native Freida departed to London in 2005. After landing a job as Topshop buyer there, she set up the influential House Of Hackney interiors brand with her husband Javvy M Royle in 2011. The brand that has been described as ‘Colefax and Fowler on acid’ became an instant word-of-mouth success and the pair opened their first retail store in Shoreditch, London, in 2013. They have two children, Javi (6) and Lila (3).

More recently, the label expanded its product range to include retail fashion after US concept store Opening Ceremony invited House of Hackney to create a clothing collection in the brand's signature prints. An and a permanent space in department store Liberty later, and House Of Hackney has been hailed as reinventing maximalism, and was recently voted third in a list of Time Out's top 100 stores (after Selfridges and Liberty). Michelle Ogundehin, editor of Elle Decoration, describes the label as "madcap and wonderful – their collections epitomise something that has been missing from interiors for quite a while". The store has also reported a turnover rise of 60-70 per cent year on year. Not bad for someone who won the 'Young Entrepreneur Of Ireland' award at the age of 13.

Does a woman have to be more talented/work harder/be more ambitious than a man to succeed at the same job?

“Thankfully, gender bias isn’t something I’ve noticed in my industry, which is creative design and buying. Women play an important role in the business and I’ve been lucky enough to have had strong inspirational women at the helm of the businesses I’ve previously worked in. These women have balanced creativity with entrepreneurial vision, and showed that it’s possible to do business in a gentle but nonetheless powerful style.”

What’s a good pathway into her sector?

“Although they should always be paid, don’t underestimate the power of good internship. We’ve often employed the best interns we’ve had. If you can sufficiently demonstrate how brilliant you are, no employer worth their salt will want to lose an intern who has shown potential.”