From café worker to couturier

As part of the unfolding artwork that is this site, I have decided to write about part of the journey from life as a young adult, through to starting up and growing a business in fashion and couture leading to the place I find myself today. Such a journey has left me searching for my authentic life, it is as much to do with the one I have lead up until now as it has with the one I wish to continue.

After spending a year in my father´s village in the Irish countryside, helping cousins set-up and run a cafe, I returned to the UK and found a job in London as a trainee manager for a chain of traditional wine-bars and restaurants in central London. I had spent almost all of my teenage years working in restaurants and then bars that it was an easy option for me, and although I say it myself, I proved quite successful at it. Within months, I was covering for other managers holidays and by eight months was given a brand new wine bar and restaurant to manage, in St Katherine´s Docks, Tower Bridge. 

I had such a baby face at that age, I found it a little tricky being ´Mr Brennan´, the manager of ten employees, that I grew a moustache in a feeble attempt to look older. 

I can hear the giggles from here !! You must remember that this was 1985/6 and having a mullet was quite the norm. Check out those eye brows though !!

Anyway, this period was relatively short lived but one I believed served me well just a year or so later when I applied to go back to university. As a ´mature student´ having good work references would have made a difference as I doubt my diploma in electrical and mechanical engineering, gained as a late teen, counted enough.  

I was fortunate to be accepted to a reputable business school which was part of the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, and so my life took a new direction.

I´m not going to expand too much on the uni days. I think most that have been to third level education will know how much potential we have to grow both in terms of subjects studied but just as importantly in the way we look at the world, and back then, we learnt important critical thinking and problem solving skills. Such that I would carry these through and use my entire working life, regardless of the profession I was in. 

 In addition to my courses and studies, I found two part-time jobs. The first in a local village pub as bar-man and the other as a care assistant in a home for adults with learning difficulties. The latter, I would work as many shifts as I could not just during holidays but during term times, weekends and night shifts. It was a very special time for me and I learnt so much more about life from the clients (residents) as well as my fellow carers. I would go as far to say, that my experience there changed me (for the better) in ways I am still discovering all these years later.

My third year at university was a placement year and I was fortunate to find an internship at the European HQ for IBM in Paris. Despite not knowing much about computers or IT I managed to either blag my way through the year or persuade the support team to teach me what I needed to know. I also had the most amazing boss I have ever had. He was a wise older man, who mentored effortless. Mr Leonard Naroski, a Swedish director on secondment. He had the ability to treat all his subordinates with unbelievable respect (over and above what was expected of him) and in doing so passed on his knowledge and wisdom and they in turn gave him 120% loyalty and hard work .  

The photo above on the left is me with two of my French colleagues. Whilst the photo on the right is a couple of years later when I returned to Paris, found work first as an English teacher and then as a marketing assistant but most importantly .... lost the mullet !!!

In Paris, I  met a group of Irish people by chance one evening and we all bonded instantly. Niall Tyrrell was in that group and we became friends immediately. It was the start of a thirty year friendship and one that a few months later took us back to Ireland to explore setting up our own fashion design business.

From Paris back to Dublin

Niall had been working in leading fashion design companies, such as Pierre Balmain and Rochas in Paris having completed his honours degree in fashion design at the NCAD, Dublin and had also interned with the infamous Victor Edelstein couture house in London. When I met him, although I had no formal fashion background, we figured between us we had a chance of launching our own label. I had been using a sewing machine customising clothes from age of 11 but had SO much to learn and we assumed, my management and business background would come in handy in addition to Niall´s fashion expertise. We were young and hungry for success and together we would figure it out as we went along and boy did we have to do that !

Upon returning to Dublin, we set about doing market research the length and breadth of the country. We visited manufactures and fabric suppliers and we investigated start-up grants and our financial options. To be honest the research showed us many of the pitfalls in the fashion business in terms of financing , manufacturing and lead-times. Not to mention finding shops that would stock our future collections. So much so that we decided against pursuing the usual path into fashion and started a small studio where we offered a carefully edited range of tailoring in a small selection of fabrics that could be ´customed-to-order´ and in our studio space which we shared with a made-to measure shirt manufacturer, we had sample sizes which we used both to demonstrate the style options but also as fitting samples for our clients. Looking back it was genius. Lateral think and critical thinking at the same time.

We decided to use a generic brand, OAKES, rather than our names. it was a period when labels such as ´Ghost´were doing phenomenally well. A few years later as you will see below, we introduced our new label ´Tyrell & Brennan´.

Below I use some of our press cuttings to illustrate this journey plus some photos of celebrities and VIPs wearing Tyrrell & Brennan. There is also a link to a sample of looks from our past photos shoots and fashion shows by way of documenting the evolution of our style.

Limited fabric options

The first few seasons we offered the same collection as we presented them as classics. We also had bought bulk fabrics at a discount so our customers initially could order in Navy, Black or this gorgeous Irish tweed (Foxford) in spring green. Eventually we started introducing a few extra pieces such as silk tops and dresses in a limited selection of coloured silks. Again, we bought cut lengths of silks on demand which although hugely more expensive avoided guessing and stocking bulk.  This period allow us to ´cut our cloth according to our measure´ and only produce what we sold. Equally as important these first couple of years were an opportunity to start developing our media exposure. Limited as it was, it brought us some business as well as helping us ´learn the ropes´ vis-a-vis the world of fashion media. The first image above shows a selection of the type of coverage  we looked for, whether it was, inflight Aer Lingus magazines, business journals or local newspapers. 

Whenever, we needed photos, we relied on the generosity of friends. One in particular being Trevor Hart who despite being more of a product and advertising specialist did our first couple of shoots for free. On one occasion as we were finishing up in his studio, his next clients were arriving. A group of young inner city lads that were soon to be discovered as ´Boyzone´ .

Always on the move

One of the many challenges of running a small fashion business is not just finding the space for equipment and showrooms but keeping said space. Being a small player in terms of what we could afford in rents, you had to be creative about where you were going to set up shop. It wasn´t long before we were offered a larger space by our new landlord (they tended to buy and sell property with sitting tenants) and we went with the flow. We also managed to negotiate the second time around most of the rent as a percentage of our sales. It was the top floor on a double fronted Georgian town house being run as a furniture shop. So we convinced them that as our customers would have to come through their shop to reach us, we should have a discounted rent. It worked for about three years until a change of landlord moved us on again to a much more remote place just outside of town. We battled to keep going until finally moving back into town and taking over three huge floors of another gorgeous Georgian town house. That period lasted several years until yet again financial pressures moved us on to a smaller yet equally prestigious town house.  At this point however, we were also able to move our studios and workshops to a much more suitable but separate larger space. 

Branching out

In our new home, we increased the range from classic suits in three fabric options and started adding more occasional wear, some of which started to sell as alternative bridal ware. This would be something we would come back to a few years later. In 1998 we were asked to design and make the cabin crew uniforms for a small airline, Aran Air. Over the coming years, we would be commissioned from time to time either for a number of businesses for their front of house staff, Music videos, films and even The Irish Army´s female officers evening wear. Individual (one off) VIP commissions also included a total of six dresses that appeared on the red carpet at the Oscars and several more for celebrity red-carpet events. Finally, a few years before I stepped-down from the business, we had the great honour to dress one of our regular clients, The Irish President, Mary McAleese, for the historic state visit of the late Queen Elizabeth and  a short time later, President Barack Obama´s , see below photos.

Other lines, RTW, export,  bridal, menswear, VIP weddings and Oscar dresses

When we were not doing fashion shoots or other PR activities such as TV appearances,  radio interviews and ´Best Dressed´ judges we were looking for new ways to develop our collections. It wasn´t long before evening wear became a big part of our collections which ultimately lead to alternative bridal wear.  We started a line of ready-to-wear (RTW) which we took to trade fairs in London and Paris and for a while were selling to a couple of shops in Ireland, as well as in the UK, Spain and even in New York (USA). The challenges of not only designing, selling, producing and shipping were unimaginable to us but as we had a ´can do´or rather ´we´ll figure it out ´attitude, which served us well, we got through it and learnt more skills in the process. Needless to say, with a small company such as ours, the costs far exceeded the benefits and we over time dropped the ready-to-wear exports. However, we did have some UK clients that would travel to Ireland for their appointments so we on a number of occasions went to them instead and held trunk shows in swanky soho hotels. It was all a learning curve. 

Around 2002 we decided to introduce a range of men´s tailoring. We designed a basic range in conjunction with company that made Savile Row handmade suits. In-house we offered the usual selection of fabrics plus a few extra less classic ones. In addition to the classic cuts we also offered additional details such as contrasting stitching (fuchsia for example) colourful silk linings, cuffs as well as styling options such as lower waists and bootleg cut on trousers. We designed and fitted and the Savile Row tailors manufactured. We would ship back and forth to the UK until the order was complete.  

The menswear attracted mainly men that wanted something special for their weddings although we had a few businessmen plus a couple of Irish singers too. In 2003 we were commissioned to do the men´s tailoring for the Westlife singer, Nicky Byrne and his handful of groomsmen. We designed a 3 piece cream suit; frock coat length jacket with monograms embroidered on the pocket flaps, Edwardian cuffs, bootleg cut trousers with a cream silk damask waistcoat, styled with a shirt with pleated cuffs and white tie. He looked and felt, he told us, like a prince. Later he changed into a lilac silk duchess 2-piece suit (appropriately very pop star)  His groomsmen had similar styling but paired down and in a purple ´shot´(two contrasting yarns that create a two-toned colour effect)  lightweight wool. Niall and I were invited to the wedding in France which was a grand affair (Á la Hello magazine) as you can imagine, though we were dressed very simply in black and navy I recall!

Backtracking a moment. 2002 was a busy year for us because not only were we working on different collections such as the menswear as mentioned above but also bridal, some in-house ready to wear and of course the couture collection. It was also the year the Enya and Roma Ryan had been nominated for an Oscar for their song ´May it be´ from the film ´Lord of the Rings´. As they had  been clients with us for while at that point we were ask to design the dresses for the event. Which we were delighted to do. Enya had a long red silk off the shoulder with texture detail on the bodice and silk chiffon ruffle with sleeves. Roma had black column dress with a trope l´Oeil ´contrasting wrap detail. Enya also had another dress for her performance at the Kodak theatre that night of a long sparkling silver velvet dress with mandarin collar, cerise piping and pleated cuffs. The inspiration coming from the film itself. Later we were asked to produce another dress for the song´s offical video which was also inspired by the film and was I guess kind of ´maid Marian, with long bell sleeves and navy velvet.

In the years that followed we were commissioned to design other Oscar dresses. In 2004 Kirsty Sheridan, her sister Naomi and their father Jim Sheridan were nominated for best screen play for their film ´In America´. Kirsty, her younger sister and mother all wore Tyrrell & Brennan on the red carpet. Later the short film ´New Boy´ was nominated for best short so it´s producer, Tomara Anghie, had a dress designed for her too.

Time moved on and circumstance changed and we continued to accept the offers and challenges.

Enya (and Roma Ryan) wore Tyrrell & Brennan at the Oscars (Best song -Lord of the rings) and at the Golden Globes. She also wore another of our dresses (the one in the video above) for her performance on the night and another for the music video that was made for the song, May It Be.

Tomara Anghie (left) , wearing Tyrrell & Brennan for her short film (New Boy) nomination

Jim Sheridan and his family at the Academy awards

Two of the many red carpet Tyrrell & Brennan dresses (Above left: Rosanna Davison, right: Sara Morrissey)

Irish president Mary McAleese, wore Tyrrell & Brennan on so many of her state visits but none so historic as when the late Queen Elizabeth came to Ireland and a couple of weeks later when President Barak Obama visited too.

A new chapter beckoned .....

The fashion business not least the luxury end of the market is often the victim of financial crisis and when when in 2008 the world experienced a financial crash, we felt it! For a number of reasons, the years that followed, our business went from growing to slowing. As a quality couture house it was imperative to maintain our quality of work and high standards so bit by bit we cut back on the number of different collections. We once again relocated but his time to downsize and to my greatest chagrin we started to loose staff. The wonderful men and woman that were the backbone of our business and without whom we couldn´t have achieved any of the success or created the amazing work that we had throughout our career. I think of them all so very often and will be grateful to them for the rest of my life.

A few years on and I became aware that my mother´s health was in decline. We were told she would not be around for much longer and she was struggling to cope. I needed no convincing to step down from Tyrrell & Brennan and go to her for what was to be the most profound three years of my life. It was an honour and privilege. It was also to pave the way to the next chapter of my life.

I am delighted to say that Niall soldiered on and now successfully operates under his full name, Niall Tyrrell Couture.

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