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“I would have loved it, but I can genuinely say that I don’t waste one second on regret. I’m a great believer in fate, so I don’t look back saying, ‘I wish I’d had a child in my thirties’.
“But I hope that if that had happened, I would have been able to combine my career and family, as there are plenty of other women with children doing what I do.”
I’m chatting to celebrated designer Louise Kennedy over afternoon tea at The Restaurant at Brown Thomas and we’re taking a look back on her life and her stellar career in fashion.
This year she celebrates the 30th anniversary of the very first collection she designed, which went straight into Brown Thomas.
If ever one was to look for an Irish fashion success story, the cool and elegant Louise epitomises it. As well as her business and showrooms at 56 Merrion Square, she has a very successful store in Belgravia, London, that opened in 2000. She plans another in New York next year.
Not bad for a little ten-year-old girl who didn’t even realise that she was learning her craft in her parents’ drapery store in Thurles.
Louise is the middle child of the late Jimmy and Rita Kennedy’s five children, Her siblings are Rosemary, Susan, Caroline and Christopher.
She is particularly close to Caroline, the MD of Kennedy PR, who is younger by four years. She warns that if ever you hear Caroline shrieking at a party, it’s probably because someone has just asked her which sister is the oldest. “She is one of the funniest people I know, and I think she was born talking,” Louise laughs. “I would be much more reserved, but we’re extremely good together.”
Their dad was a well-known Tipperary hurler who won three All-Ireland medals, two for his county and one for Dublin when at UCD.
After he retired, he worked with Minch Norton Malting, a subsidiary of Guinness, which took the family to live in Kilkenny and Cork. When Louise was ten, the family returned to live in Thurles, as her mother had been left 50pc of her family’s drapery business, J.K. Moloney, and her parents decided to take it on.
“Mum got rheumatoid arthritis in her early twenties, but while she wasn’t well physically, she still took care of everything” she says.
“She must have been in chronic pain and had various operations, but she never complained. She was very fashionable. The reps used to go into her bedroom to show her the collections and she ran the business from there. Dad and Mum had a great relationship. I never remember them having a cross word between them and they were both fantastic people.”
Louise went to board at the Brigidine Convent in Abbeyleix when she was 12, which traumatised her as her older sisters were in the one in Mountrath. “The shock and horror when the nuns called and said that there wasn’t a place available for me for the full five years in Mountrath,” she recalls. “I probably wouldn’t have shared this if my parents were still alive, but I remember the loneliness and the unnaturalness of it all. All they wanted was the best for us. It got better when Caroline arrived a few years later – like a whirlwind!”
Louise didn’t know what she wanted to do for a career, so she went on to a year-long residential course at St Anne’s, a kind of Dublin finishing school where a lot of the curriculum was based around art. This is where her love of colours and textures was honed and where she discovered a leaning towards fashion. From there, she went to train in fashion design at the Grafton Academy, while helping out with the family business.
She planned to go to New York to gain experience after graduation, but got a lucky break when she was featured in a fashion showcase hosted by Eddie Shanahan. A Brown Thomas buyer, Marie McCarthy, came up to her afterwards and asked to see her collection. They met in the Westbury Hotel and Louise coaxed her friend Bernadette from home into modelling the clothes. “I was fortunate in that I had the lingo and knew what to do as I had been on buying trips for the store when Mum couldn’t travel,” she says.
“I could also use the family store’s credit facilities, so there was another lucky break, and my father went guarantor for the manufacturing side of things. He was fabulous and gave us all such support and was a real gentleman.”
Three months before the debut collection went into Brown Thomas, Louise’s mother passed away in her early fifties.
“John Redmond was the visual merchandiser at the time and he gave me two windows,” she recalls. “While I was thrilled, there was a great sadness there for me as Mum would have loved it.
“I worked from a studio at the top of the store in Thurles and while I knew there was going to be a lot of hard work involved and it was a bit daunting, maybe in a subliminal way I saw that there was a woman I greatly admired who managed a big fashion business from her bedroom, so why couldn’t I do it?”
Thirty years later, Louise feels like she doesn’t know where the time has gone. The business has grown incredibly and she has two thriving stores. She has also developed a reputation worldwide for her classic, flattering designs, constant innovation and love for colour and luxurious fabrics.
Highlights included winning the Late Late Show Fashion Awards, designing the Aer Lingus uniforms and dressing President Mary Robinson for her inauguration, along with many women of national and international standing. This includes Hollywood actress Meryl Streep who told Louise that her clothes cocooned her like a comfort blanket.
“There is no nicer compliment,” she says, warmly. “Like it or not, women are judged by what they wear and if we can enhance someone’s comfort as well as style, that ticks all of my boxes. Mary Robinson was charming too, and had a very definite idea of what she wanted for her inauguration. She knew that Dublin Castle would be a sea of men in grey or black, so we went for colour so it would really punch.”
While Louise is currently single and is not known for ever discussing her personal life, she has had several long-term relationships in the past, the most prominent of which was with the late Tony Ryan, founder of Ryanair. Tony passed away in 2007 aged 71 from pancreatic cancer and while they were no longer dating by then, he and Louise had remained friends.
“In all of the relationships I was in, I learned so much about myself,” she says. “And even when living with somebody else, I always retained my independence, and that happened with Tony.
“We ended up great friends and when I look at my very close set of friends now, a lot of them came from when I lived with Tony. I’m godmother to one of his grandchildren and my best girlfriend was his daughter-in-law. They’re very much part of my life, which is a great gift.
“Tony passed within two weeks of my dad, which left me shell-shocked. I knew he hadn’t been well, obviously, but I was more focused on how unwell my father was at that time.”
When it comes to fashion, Louise says that her English friends are always very complimentary about Irish women’s style and she thinks that some Irish girls are exquisite and have a fantastic passion for fashion.
The business has been a renowned success, but Louise says the last recession definitely affected it. While 2007 was a remarkable year, things started to slow down in 2008 and many of her biggest customers were affected.
She moved some of her manufacturing from Italy to Portugal, and with what she saved added a pure silk lining into the garments to make them even more luxurious. She was lucky that her clients stayed loyal, she says, and her bank manager, Peter, was supportive.
“I’m looking at selling equity in the business, because I want to open my store in New York as I feel the time is right and we already have a good base of customers there,” Louise adds. “It’s very challenging and exciting.”
As she is celebrating 30 years in business this year, Louise has diversified into two areas to mark the occasion.
The first is her gorgeous new bag, The Kennedy, which is available in jet black and Kerry blue – a nod to her dogs (Louise adores spending time with Caroline and her broadcaster husband Tom McGurk’s Kerry Blues, Gussie and Rosie.)
And having worked on the ingredients and scent for months, her eau de parfum, Louise Kennedy, launches next week. “It has an intense floral bouquet of white flowers and ylang ylang and has a lovely sensuality,” she says. “I knew I had hit on the right scent when a sommelier at a restaurant in London told me it was exquisite. Black cab drivers often compliment it.”
Louise loves to dine with friends and have spa days. Most of her close friends here are married with children, but the London ones are all single, so she can get a call from one at any minute to say a plan is afoot and they’ll all pack their bags and go off.
“I used to beat myself over taking a Sunday off, but now I see the importance of it,” she says. “When the recession hit, I hardly took a day off in over 18 months, but I came to realise that you won’t get inspired if you’re in your office the whole time. You need to get out and see things.
“My life hasn’t been all charmed, and there have been emotional upsets, but I think I’ve been very fortunate. And most of all, I feel so fortunate to be doing what I do and love doing it.”
The Louise Kennedy a/w 2013 and crystal collections, the Kennedy bag and the Louise Kennedy Eau de Parfum are all available from 56 Merrion Square, Dublin, and Brown Thomas, Grafton Street. Media
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