Steeley Determination | Helen Steele
Stylist Mark Andrew Kelly interviews Helen Steele.
Mark Andrew Kellyspeaks to artist and fashion designer Helen Steele about her move into fashion, her influences and her plans to build a brand like no other in Ireland…
Helen Steele is a woman who takes you by surprise. Petite and rather shy, the award-winning artist’s demeanor is in stark contrast to her colourful style. At first glance she seems at odds with the woman whose art consists of paint splattered canvases. But then you notice her outfit – print on print and colours that remind you of your childhood kaleidoscope. She manages to look both chic and street all at once with a flair that escapes most of us mere mortals. Her eyes are bright and vivid, her skin is as luminescent as her shaved-on-one-side ash blonde hair but it’s her clothes that really set her apart from, well, everyone. She looks like a celebrity. She has an air of the familiar; when you meet her, you know you’ve seen her in the pages of a high-end glossy. She is recognisable, oddly because she looks so unique and you know she is of importance before she has even opened her mouth.
The Helen Steele you meet, however, is as down to earth as they come. She’s a print ambassador, a self-proclaimed colour addict and now a fashion designer. She has created a new brand that is rapidly going global. And when I meet her she has plenty to say about her move into fashion, her influences and her plans to build a brand like no other in Ireland.
Q. When did you launch the brand and how did it come about?
A. I studied fashion and art in college and when I graduated my dream was to create a fashion label based on action – art brought to life through the medium of clothing. I wanted to create walking canvases and I think I’m well on the way. I launched Helen Steele S/S 12 at London Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week in September/October 2011, after doing a collaborative print collection with Joanne Hynes at the Vauxhall Fashion Scout for A/W 11. I’ve now gone from 12 international stockists in S/S 12 to 18 for A/W 12 (Helen is now stocked in boutiques in Russia, Spain, Italy, South Korea, China, Japan and Costume on Castle Market here in Dublin). I thank God/Buddha/The Universe everyday for letting me work at something I adore.
Q. How did you make the transition from artist to fashion designer?
A. Fashion was always the plan but I had a minor detour for a while when I was in a thrash metal band. I feel that all of the experiences life brings you through influence how and what you create, so I am thankful for those three years on the road. I suppose fashion is one of those things where you’re either born an addict or it gets you along the way. For me, I was always obsessed with colour, painting, drawing, making clothes, changing my own and my sisters clothes with the kitchen scissors which drove my mum mental.
My grandmother was a seamstress and I would lose myself in her workroom for days as a child. My other grandmother was and still is a very elegant woman, I have great pics of her in the most wonderful Hermès scarves and Irish tweed jackets. She was a big fan of IB Jorgensen and Pat Crowley. My mum and two aunts were demons for John Rocha and Michael Mortell, Katharine Hamnett and Galliano in the ’80s. So I think that all had an influence on me. I made the transition from artist to designer quite easily as my heart has never left fashion. It was always the plan to put into practice what I do in the studio and on canvas, to translate that onto fabric and print and to end up on the ultimate canvas of all – the human body.
Q. What inspires you as a designer? Is it different to what inspires you as an artist?
A. What inspires me as a designer is the same thing that inspires me as an artist and that is colour, an image, a spectacular field of rape (the plant that produces rapeseed oil in case you’re getting worried) set against a blue sky, you can’t help but look at that view and think of what you could create from that one idea. What I love is that in fashion nothing is constant, it changes all the time. The pursuit of perfection and of the new is endless.
Q. What was it like being involved in London Fashion Week? How did you feel seeing your clothes walk down that infamous catwalk?
A. Great. Very, very expensive though, I would not recommend it to a young label.
It’s a costly affair! My advice would be to put your money into your product and getting sales. However, it was a real eye-opener – all of that blood, sweat and tears for what only lasts a few minutes. But it was amazing seeing the collection from creating the prints and the designs to seeing the finished pieces walk down the catwalk!
Q. What’s involved in the design process for you? How does something go from being an idea to actually becoming a garment? What is in the Helen Steele brand DNA?
A. The process always starts in the studio with paint. Myself and my team of two (Karen – design assistant and Zara – print assistant) will get layers of multi-coloured paint and propel them into the air with the aid of wind machines, leaf-blowers and chainsaws. This makes the paint move fast. I pick each colour with colour therapy in mind, I use colours to help balance your mood and lift your spirits. We then film the process taking stills from the footage and create our prints from this. When it comes to design we look at each design being a blank canvas, the print dictates the shape of each garment.
Q. For the new collection A/W 12, you have expanded the range with the introduction of some leather pieces and it looks as though the brand image is strengthening. What other brands or designers influence or inspire you? And what do you see in the future for brand Helen Steele?
A. For A/W 12 we introduced some leather boxer shorts and down jackets and capes. It was always part of the plan to make use of my husbands beautiful down (Helen’s husband is a second generation duck producer and owns Silverhill Foods, who breed and produce “the perfect Peking duck” according to Chef Heston Blumenthal and the BBC!).
For winter we created waterproof, windproof and breathable coats and jackets to shield and protect from the weather. They keep the wet and wind away but also let the skin breath. We spent a year researching and sourcing the perfect outer shell for our jackets and capes. I thought the idea of a “compactable” cape was a good idea as it would be good for early winter over a leather or canvas jacket for cold nights and early mornings. Our jackets compact so easily and can roll very simply into your handbag. For S/S 13 our down jackets will all have our print on them – we’ve just gotten our samples back and they are super!
Q. Being so very stylish yourself, do you see a lot of your personal style in your collections? Victoria Beckham is famous for saying that “if it’s not right for me, then its not right for the collection”, does the same apply for you?
A. I think it’s a bit arsey for me to say I am stylish but I do have a certain sense of style and I am quite anal when it comes to styling our look-books. But thank you for saying so!
I would agree with Victoria Beckham, I remember hearing her speak at the International Hearld Tribune conference on Luxury Brands – she was really down to earth and very focused. Every woman in the room was listening intently to what she was saying. I think there was more attention and reaction from the room when she spoke than when Paul Smith, Christopher Bailey or even when the Missoni family where on stage. It was really interesting hearing what they all had to say about building a brand in today’s world. I think you need to know your product inside out. I test and wear every sample and if it’s not right then it’s back to the drawing board.
Punkrocker sheep by Helen Steele.
Q. Staying with your personal style for a moment, can you describe your perfect outfit? What celebrities or non-celebrities do you admire for their personal style?
A. Perfect outfit for me would be (due to lifestyle): our hot robot printed tee and leggings from A/W 12 with a leather jacket. It can take you anywhere. I admire some of the Russian mega bloggers, such as Miroslava Duma and Elin Kling. I admire Vivienne Westwood’s style and Jessie J too (she is a fearless dresser and has an amazing body). Erika Badu is pretty cool as is Charlotte Gainsbourg and Greyson Perry. I really like Japanese street style too.
Q. Who would you love to dress or see in Helen Steele designs?
A. Rihanna, Greyson Perry, Michael Fassbender, Kirsten Dunst, Dree Hemingway, Vanessa Paradis, Solange Knowles, Peaches Geldof, Bjork, Beth Ditto, Kate Bosworth, Lisa Hannigan, Sara Jane Wai O’Flynn from The Dirty Epics… God, the list could go on forever.
Q. What is the future of the Helen Steele brand?
A. The future is upwards and onwards! It’s all hands on deck for A/W 12 which lands in Costume in September – they sold out of our collection about a month ago. We are also sold out in three of our stockists in Japan and all of our three stockists in Seoul in South Korea. We are just finishing up on the samples for S/S 13 which is so exciting – watch this space.
Fallopian Tubes by Helen Steele.
Q. And lastly (because I have to ask really) what advice would you give to someone starting out in the fashion industry?
A. Never mind the bollox!
Mark Andrew Kelly for stylesiren.ie
Mark Andrew Kelly has been a personal shopper and stylist for over six years. In that short space of time, he has clocked up a healthy resume working closely with one of Ireland’s newest and largest department stores as well as nurturing a growing freelance client base. His career has gone from strength to strength in recent years and he is listed as one of WGSN’s most influential stylists in Ireland. Check out his blog here.