Michael Mortell tells Carolyn Moore he was surprised how easy it was to tap back into his fashion brain after a decade in interiors.
There’s a charming clip in the RTÉ archives of Cork-born designer Michael Mortell accepting The Late Late Fashion Show’s Designer of the Year award for the third consecutive year in 1984.
“Waterford Glass are beginning to ask if we know how to spell anyone else’s name,” quips Gay Byrne, in his very Gaybo way, as Mortell gives a smile and a shrug before thanking his family and friends.
Watching it now online, it’s a timely reminder of the trailblazing fashion force Michael Mortell once was.
When I meet him to view his new collection for Dunnes Stores — his first in over a decade — I find the distinctive mop of red curls may be gone, but his soft Mallow lilt and endearing modesty remain intact 33 years later.
Small but perfectly formed, the collection hangs alongside us as we chat in a sunny meeting room at Dunnes’ HQ.
As Michael offers to “play mammy” and pour the coffee, he tells me he’s fresh off an early morning flight from Paris.
Given that he’s been blazing a different kind of trail through the world of interiors for the last decade, I assume he was away buying for his eponymous mid-century furniture store on Dublin’s Francis Street, but in fact he’s been at a fabric fair.
“It had been a while,” he says, evidently pleased that such trips are set to become a regular occurrence again.
It’s a return that’s come “very much out of the blue, he explains.
“I was designing the interior of an apartment and I came into Dunnes to look at some bed linen. I bumped into Mrs Heffernan; we sat down for coffee, and she asked would I do a range.”
Mrs Heffernan is, of course, Margaret, the driving force behind Dunnes’ stable of Irish fashion luminaries. She might well have requested a homewares range — and indeed, she might still — but instead the pair plotted a return to fashion for Mortell, via the garment he was once so renowned for: the trench coat.
“It’s a bit like a polo neck or a white shirt,” he says of the classic style. “It’s a staple piece; always a keeper, always elegant.”
Revisiting it now, Mortell has produced four exquisitely made contemporary classics. Imbued with his handwriting, they nonetheless carry both nods to current styling (a beautifully proportioned bell sleeve and dropped shoulder on the single breasted style), and thoughtful details (a removable brushed cotton half-lining that carries the double breasted style into winter). Coming in at €195 and €220 respectively, they’re a value proposition.
“We made it a very tight launch,” he says of the initial drop. Doing anything small might seem anathema to the high street approach, but the thinking, he says, was, “let’s run it up the flagpole and see how it performs”.
Having begun the design process late in the season, keeping it small also kept it manageable.
“It kept things very precise and meant the production was very good,” he says.
“There was a lot of work in fittings and fabric sourcing; the fabric is a similar quality to Burberry. What I’m especially happy with is the quality.”
‘Happy’ is a word he hears a lot in Dunnes; or more specifically, ‘Michael are you happy?’
“You don’t expect anything in business to be pleasant,” he says, alluding to the bumpy road he navigated throughout the 90s, as the Irish manufacturing sector he was so reliant on disappeared around him. “But there’s a great team of people here, and they’re backing me, so if what I’m doing gets too diluted, it’s not me anymore.”
Case in point, three new additions to the range dropping this week: a coat featuring a signature Michael Mortell collar design, and two cosy, double gauge cashmere knits showcasing a motif he once used for a vase design. “I wanted to do something with the pattern from the vase,” he says of his foray into knitwear.
“I felt they should be identifiable as Michael Mortell knits. Nowadays there’s so much clothing out there, so it goes back to what Mrs Heffernan said that first day: it’s you we want.
"That motif is an expression that signifies it’s mine.”
It also represents a merging of his design influences, and I wonder if he found it easy to tap back into his fashion brain after a decade focused on interiors?
“I’ll let you be the judge of that,” he smiles, “but I did find it easy. I was surprised that it was still very much there.” Anyone who watched his stellar progression through the 80s and 90s will be less surprised.
The son of a fishmonger, Mortell initially wanted to be an artist, though he admits “I think I was more in thrall of the lifestyle”.
Recalling trips to Cork City with his father, he says: “We’d see students outside Crawford College and I liked their look; I thought it seemed like an interesting lifestyle.
“At that time, your goal would have been to get a job in a bank — no one was saying get a job as an artist because that seemed like it would lead to ruination.
My parents made a deal with me: ‘Try the College of Commerce in Cork for three months, and if you don’t like it, you can go to art school. It was incredible of them to say that.” Try it, he did; like it, he did not, and a stint at Crawford ensued.
“I don’t get down to Cork much now,” he says, “but I love the city; I loved going to college there, living in a flat up the hill from McCurtain Street. I keep saying to my girlfriend, Oonagh, we must get down there.
Maybe next summer.” From Cork, a scholarship took him to Manchester, where his interest in and talent for fashion was unearthed. An internship with the legendary couturier Ib Jorgensen followed — “an amazing experience for a boy from Mallow” — and then he went out on his own.
“Just one machinist and me in a top floor room on Ormond Quay — it was a pretty basic set-up.” Nonetheless, he soon had buyers from Mirror Mirror and Switzers, then Bloomingdales and Harrods, knocking on his door. “I remember the buyer from Switzers saying, ‘Wow, this is as good as anything I see abroad,” he recalls.
“Quality was the cornerstone of everything we did. When the manufacture of clothing was imploding in Ireland, that was a big worry because I no longer had control over that aspect of the business.”
Of those heady early years, he says: “It was chaotic. To an extent I never capitalised on that success — I wasn’t a great one for blowing the trumpet; I was more, head down, get the work done. I wouldn’t complain about the journey,” he says philosophically, “but if I could go back I would have built up the corporate side of the business.
“I mean, look at what they’ve done here,” he says, gesturing at the vast headquarters around us.
“This started as a shop in Cork.” ‘This’ is also somewhere he already seems right at home, and perhaps ironically for someone who’s fashioned a new career out of revisiting the past, his focus is now firmly on the future. “I don’t cater to regrets,” he says. “For me it’s up and forward.”
Already working on his spring range, in Dunnes he has found the support system he lacked back in his hay day.
If the collapse of the Irish manufacturing sector and the difficulties in procuring quality manufacturing abroad drove him out of fashion, then the ease with which he could tap into the Dunnes’ supply chain was what lured him back.
“I knew there’d be a great support system here,” he agrees. “And it was also very good timing, because I’d gotten enough of a distance from fashion to be able to approach it again in a fresh way.”
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