A tale of two cities

I WANT Shelly Corkery to be a bitch: even just a bitch off the record.

Shelly is anything but.

She has the most covetable job in Irish fashion — a job that means that every month, starry-eyed teenagers and their mothers fill up her inbox with emails wondering how they could end up doing what she does.

Last night as she ate dinner in a fashion pack restaurant in Paris, she spotted Kate Moss and Grace Coddington deep in conversation across the room from her. Does Kate look wrecked these days, I ask? “She looked great to me,” she smiles.

Shelly’s daily grind demands she flies regularly to the world’s fashion capitals to catch the latest shows at which, on behalf of the country’s most discerning shoppers, she is contractually bound to spot that potentially gigantic trend, those shoes that will make fashion editors swoon or that dress which will bewitch a 20-something into blowing her entire month’s salary in five minutes. And, as a side note, she must do all that while looking as impeccable and on trend as Gwyneth Paltrow or Victoria Beckham. It’s a dog’s life. Not.

Weekend caught up with the Brown Thomas Fashion Director to talk about how, in this little country of ours, Irish women’s styles differ from city to city. Because as any seasoned BT shopper will tell you, BTs in Cork are a whole lot different to BTs in the capital and even though the same brands may be available, very often the selection of clothes are poles apart. And that’s where being a bitch comes in — or rather could come in.

Cork and Dublin women couldn’t be more different when it comes to fashion and the difference is that Cork women, I suggest, don’t do the ‘less is more’ principle? Shelly won’t bite. She is unfalteringly gracious.

“In Dublin,” she says diplomatically, “it’s not as full on. In Cork, it’s high glamour.

“Cork women like to dress up a lot. They like beads, sequins, the silks, taffetas, paillette. They’re fashion conscious. They love sparkle, the iridescent. Really, there is such an appetite for dressing up. They love lip gloss. There seems to be much more functions than Dublin and at day functions, they really love the glamour. Also compared to Dublin, they really get really dressed up for weddings,” says Shelly, who is from Cork originally.

In Cork, DVF dresses are hugely successful. Phase 8, Max Mara and Armani will sell well in the evening wear section. Gina shoes do well, as do Montcler, Tod’s, Cos, Maje, Sandro. [Moschino] Cheap and Chic also sells well, Shelly says.

“You really have to be really aware of who bought what when you’re buying and you really have to think about what sells in each of the stores… We brought in a lot of top and trophy brands in Cork in the past year and we need to develop them and then designer brand them,” she says.

So if Cork is about being as glamorous as you possibly can be, the BT shopper in Dublin is less about sequins and more about rich cottons, wools, the architecture of the clothes — it’s a cleaner fashion with greater emphasis on fabric, tailoring.

“It’s more Stella, they want a cleaner look, more minimalistic, more tailoring, stiff rigid cottons, soft wools, Stella loose trousers will do well, cocoon shapes, Balenciaga does well, Prada and Victoria Beckham are huge, Dolce & Gabbana are huge, also Max Mara, Valentino and Kouples.”

An unblinkered understanding of what will make the country’s men and women part with their cash is vital to any retail buying team, never more so than in a recession which has made people terrified to spend. And that is why every week, Dublin-based Shelly and her buying director, Paul O’Connor, will talk to the Cork, Limerick and Galway fashion teams via conference call about “what brands are working and what’s not and what we should be looking for”.

In Limerick, it seems personal shoppers are huge. Limerick women will take a trip to the Grafton St store, use a personal shopper to update their look for this season and then have the clothes sent to the Midwest so they can buy them on O’Connell St, Limerick.

Again, Max Mara is big among the Limerick ladies as well as DKNY, Cheap and Chic, Bastyan and Pucini.

“In Limerick, the women like soft dressing, loose unstructured fabrics, soft dresses, fluid layering, they’re more relaxed. They like easy dresses like Sarah Pacini,” Shelly says.

In Galway, in contrast, the BT shopper tends towards more contemporary, often being a younger customer. Cosmetics do very well in the West, she says, adding that in Cork, accessories are “on fire”.

“They love their cosmetics in Galway. It’s a smaller store but they love Bastyan, Karen Millen, DKNY LK Bennett, Cos. We sell a lot of casual wear in Galway. You can see that a lot of men and women buy their everyday clothes with us rather than evening wear.”

Across the stores, in spite of the recession, handbags are still big sellers, says Shelly; cross-body bags and hang bags but especially Celine bags.

Bags are very important to girls, she says. They’re “like a girl’s toy”. “I think bags are very personal to a woman. It’s where she keeps everything: Her wallet, her keys, her cards, her phone, make-up, all her personal items,” she says.

Shelly, who was born in Rochestown in Cork City, has an innate grasp for retail, a deep understanding of fashion and its psychology. But she is also a Duracell bunny who admits to being “addicted” to her job.

“There is no doubt you need to be a grafter and adore fashion,” she says. Weekend hooked up with Shelly on a Friday evening just after she flew back into Dublin from Paris where she had spent most of the week. On Sunday evening, she was due to board another plane, this time for Milan. This week sees the start of the fashion markets and will see her zip between London, Milan, Paris and New York for seven weeks while keeping up continuous communications with the BT teams in Ireland. As Fashion Director, she’s responsible for not only men’s and women’s fashion but kids’ fashion, accessories and shoes.

“It is very tiring,” she says, sounding exhausted. “You have absolutely no free time. When you’re away, you’re up at 7am and then you’re on the go until 7pm and then there’s dinners at night.”

Shelly also has a nine-year-old daughter that she has to juggle in the midst of all this.

“It is all very time consuming but it is utterly addictive. I get great satisfaction out of my work. I adore fashion and the catwalk is so inspirational. You have to be prepared to give up all of your time and all of your energy and ability,” she says. Attitude is vital.

Shelly says a good buyer must “understand the movement of fashion”.

“I will feel a trend before it comes. I can see a change coming,” she says. Among the celebrities whose style she admires are Alexa Chung, Olivia Palermo and Victoria Beckham, who she says “does a great job” these days. Kate Middleton also impresses her. “She holds herself beautifully. She’s very classical,” Shelly says.

Anyone who dreams of a career as fashion buyer is advised by Shelly to first have three or four years’ experience as a sales assistant.You can enter buying after college where you could join the office staff, but talking to Shelly, it seems the best education for future buyers is the shop floor, where you can learn all about the clothes and the customer.

“We’re all about buying fantastic products and having fantastic people selling them. It’s as simple as that. That’s how it works,” she says.


Shelly Corkery studied French in Paris after leaving school in Regina Mundi in Cork. While she always loved art and architecture, it’s there that the girl “who loved jeans and a T-shirt” fell in love with fashion.

After a year in Paris, she returned to Ireland to work at the Design Centre in Dublin.

After years at the Design Centre, which had been established with the aim of giving an exclusive space to young Irish designers, she moved to the famed Havana Boutique in Donnybrook where Nikki Creedon taught her all she knew about fashion buying. “She was amazing,” said Shelly.

She returned to the Design Centre for a number of years before joining BT as a buyer. At the start of her stint at Brown Thomas she spent three months on the shop floor learning all about customer needs.

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