By Ruth O'Connor
‘ieStyle Live’ will bring cutting-edge trends to Cork in an unmissable fashion show next month, hosted by design duo Brendan Courtney and Sonya Lennon. Ruth O’Connor finds out more, joining them as they put the finishing touches to their new collection.
Despite knowing them for years, I approached the meeting with Ireland’s most style-savvy duo — Sonya Lennon and Brendan Courtney — with something akin to a kind of fashion fear if you will. After all, what do you wear to meet two of this country’s most stylish people?
My fears are unfounded, however, as the pair approach me with no look of sartorial judgement or sniff of style superiority — simply their customary beaming smiles and a friendly embrace — on shoot day, at Dunnes Stores’ head office in Dublin.
The backdrops are rolled up and ready, the lighting is set, and Sonya and Brendan are having a bite to eat between shooting new season looks for the Dunnes Stores website. This season, their trademark vibrant colour and cuts are all there, as well as beautiful prints, designed in-house, and that slight 1970s influence we’ve come to expect from the pair who celebrated the 10th anniversary of their brand last year.
“There is always something a little ’70s as well as a little bit of glamour about our collection,” Brendan begins to explain before Sonya jumps in:
“There’s also a clean aesthetic, and it’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek. We certainly don’t take ourselves too seriously and there has to be room for humour, fun and joy in clothes,” she says.
This conversational table tennis is something that becomes apparent throughout the interview — a familiarity between them that results, not quite in the finishing of each other’s sentences, but in providing the listener with a real sense of just how in sync these two are, both in terms of their friendship and their working relationship.
There’s a warmth and respect between them that is obvious to even the most casual observer, but also a dynamism and a shared sense of humour that makes them easy, fun company to be around.
Indeed, this characteristic warmth and openness is something that visitors to our Irish Examiner ‘ieStyle Live’ event can expect from Sonya and Brendan on October 17.
The latest trends will showcased in a cutting edge fashion show curated by Style Editor Annmarie O’Connor, with an inspirational talk from Weekend columnist and best-selling author Louise O’Neill – all to be enjoyed over a seasonal three course dinner at City Hall, Cork.
It promises to bring the Lennon Courtney combination of intelligence, confidence, fun, humour and a whole lot of fabulous fashion, to Cork City Hall next month.
“Our brand stands for confidence, empowerment and equality, and that is at the core of everything we do,” says Brendan.
“There is a dearth of networking opportunities for smart women, and this is an opportunity to have an intersection of intelligence, humour, support, and discussion — alongside great fashion of course,” says Sonya. “That’s our natural habitat and where we feel most at ease so we are really looking forward to it.”
With more public appearances under her fashionable belt than you can wave a stick at, Sonya says that networking is a tool for empowerment.
“The important thing to realise is that networking is the way to empower yourself — to realise that you are not alone and to take the taboo away from whatever the subject is, whether that is your salary scale or managing aspects of your life such as wellness, and realising everyone is in the same boat.”
Sonya’s conversation with acclaimed author Louise O’Neill on the night promises to be a fascinating one, as both women are strong advocates for female empowerment, whether that is in social or professional terms.
“Louise O’Neill is breaking open that sealed box of guilt and secrecy and talking about it. Any campaign and any change that you want to initiate has to start with awareness. Unless people start talking about issues there can be no change,” she says.
And here’s the thing about Sonya Lennon and Brendan Courtney — dismiss this pair as fashion fluff at your peril — they are insightful, intuitive, intelligent and totally in tune with the now — socially aware, and determined to create positive change when and where they can. They also share a love of Cork and its “fashion forward” people.
“Cork is such a welcoming place. We have very strong roots there, as do Dunnes. The warmest reception we get anywhere in the country is in Cork,” says Sonya.
“Apparently my ancestors were Huguenots who fled France and landed in Cork, they married two sisters and told people they were Catholics because they knew they would be persecuted if not,” says Brendan. “When I say the name ‘Brendan Courtney’ people always ask me ‘Are you the Courtneys of West Cork?’”
But back to fashion. What’s the key to dressing for AW19?
“Fashion used to be a dictatorship— you were told ‘this is your palette, this is your silhouette, this is your theme’... It doesn’t work that way any more,” says Sonya, who is dressed in the stunning new season Lennon Courtney at Dunnes Stores co-ord trousers and blouse you see on our cover.
“I think the best tip is to understand your needs, how you want to look, how you want to be perceived, what you want your wardrobe to do for you and then you can make clear decisions and buy things that work for you,” she says.
“I was experimenting for years but now everything I put on, I like, because I got rid of stuff that didn’t suit me.” Both of them believe in dressing for who you are now rather than deferring that satisfaction until something else happens (like losing weight). “It’s about staying in the present, not harking back to a dress that you wore to your friend’s wedding eight years ago that doesn’t fit you any more,” says Brendan.
“This filters down into the clothes we design at Lennon Courtney at Dunnes Stores — it should be about clothes that are easy to wear, easy to wash, that fit into your busy life without dominating your life or being a pile of dry cleaning at the end of your bed,” he says.
“We design for that feeling of being powerful when you wear our clothes whether that is to an interview or a work trip. Women who present — whether that is in a boardroom, on a stage or whatever it is — we like to think we create that armour to tick the box for them,” says Sonya.
As the founder of Dress for Success Dublin, Sonya knows the power that clothes have. Dress for Success is a non-profit organisation which works to empower women by providing professional clothing, mentoring and interview preparation skills.
She’s also a founding board member of Leading Ireland’s Future Together (LIFT) and presents The Architects of Business podcast on Joe.ie where she interviews “the brightest stars talking about what makes them tick and why they are who they are”.
Thus ensues a conversation about the politics of dress and whether things have changed in terms of what people deem acceptable professional attire for women.
“I’ve just finished Becoming by Michelle Obama and was struck by her frustration about the complete obsession people have with her clothing despite her being a law graduate and so on... It’s still unequal and events like ieStyle Live in Cork are, in a way, about finding that middle ground, that space where people can exist as women, but also be taken seriously in business.
"Look at the extreme decision of Angela Merkel to wear the same suit in a different colour every day in order to side step that kind of conversation,” says Sonya. “It is unbelievable that a woman has to do that so that people discuss how she looks at work.”
And with that, the model’s back, my time is up, and the pair swoop back into action at the clothes rail — but not before first asking how my family is doing, and a chat on everything from dementia to supervised injection centres to the value, or otherwise, of a university education. Because that’s the way these two roll — stylish, savvy and with big hearts to boot.