WILLIAM DOYLE’S wife was flicking through a magazine when she saw an article that caught her eye. Audrey Hepburn’s iconic black dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s was about to go to auction. Her husband was intrigued.
As CEO of Newbridge Silverware, he had been searching for something worthy, aspirational — an association that would really put his company on the map. That dress, he was convinced, was it.
“I had my name on it,” Doyle says. “I was intrigued by the idea of owning something like that, of Newbridge owning something like that. I loved the association of Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
And so, on December 5, 2006, he found himself at Christie’s in London, surrounded by over 200 international investors, about to attend one of the most cut-throat vintage dress sales the auction world had ever seen. It was quite the debut into the brave new world of celebrity memorabilia.
“I was naive,” Doyle laughs with significant understatement, eight years later. “I had my PA with me so I wouldn’t go over the top. Within seconds I was caught up in the frenzy.
“I’ve never felt anything like it before. The sweat was down my neck, my heart was thumping, and my PA was beside me, saying ‘Go again’. She knew my budget.”
In the end it was just Doyle and an unknown telephone bidder. The price kept rising and when it hit €650,000, he knew it was time to admit defeat.
Later he learned he had gone head-to-head with the design house, Givenchy. The original creators of the dress wanted it back. No matter what the price. Doyle would never have succeeded.
What he did achieve, though, was to drive up the price of the dress, raising additional funds for an orphanage in Sri Lanka.
The next lot was another Hepburn dress — and another Givenchy creation. “I got that one though,” says Doyle.
He returned home to Newbridge with a black ensemble from the 1963 film, Charade, a design often credited with the creation of the ‘little black dress’. He paid €250,000 for it — but the publicity at home was priceless.
That Christie’s auction turned out to be one of the most famous vintage dress sales in history, and that Breakfast at Tiffany’s outfit is still regarded as one of the most iconic dresses in Hollywood history. It broke all records for movie memorabilia.
That would have marked the end of Doyle’s dabbling in the world of celebrity style, but then came a phone call came from Julien’s Auction House in LA.
“They thought they knew everyone in the business,” Doyle recalls. “And they were curious.”
The executive director of Julien’s, Martin Nolan, just so happens to be a native of Athlone. So the two men met in Dublin.
Nolan told Doyle about a collection of Marilyn Monroe garments that was about to go for auction. But first the clothes would be toured.
Nolan couldn’t resist the idea of bringing the garments to Ireland.
“They asked me if I had a museum. Of course I said yes.”
“So we had two months to build one.”
On the first floor of the Newbridge Silverware showroom, in the unassuming surrounds of Kildare’s industrial park, the Museum Of Style Icons was built — in just eight weeks.
“The staircase was going in an hour before the gala event,” Doyle recalls.
The museum was full every day of the exhibition — and when it left, Newbridge was left with just one solitary Audrey Hepburn dress.
“I felt obliged to source more,” Doyle says, admitting his museum really started by accident.
At that stage, though, he had been bitten by the bug.
He turned to three auction houses: Julien's, Christies and a more niche dealer, Kerry Taylor.
The museum was stocked with costumes worn by the Hollywood greats — Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo (the only known garment worn by the actress in one of her 33 films, Camille), Rita Hayworth. And the dress that started it all, the little black number worn by Audrey Hepburn, no longer stands alone. Today, Newbridge has the largest known collection of Hepburn items in the world. And William finally got his hands on a little piece of Tiffany’s — Holly Golightly’s hot pink cocktail dress takes pride of place.
Behind the glass screens, you marvel at Hepburn’s fragile frame, her doll-sized waist. But it is Marilyn Monroe that really surprises. The pink Pucci number reveals her to be nothing like the size 16 we associate her with. With her tiny 26 inch waist, Monroe was in fact a size 10. There’s also her costume from The Prince and the Showgirl, the umbrella she posed with on the beach in an early photo shoot (our cover shot) — and even the camera that captured the moment.
The stories behind the clothes, and what Doyle went through to secure them, are most fascinating at all.
There was the Grace Kelly dress from High Society, her last movie before she turned her back on Hollywood for a life of royalty. If Doyle hadn’t bought it, it would have become a debs dress.
The Princess Grace Foundation was indebted to Doyle for saving it and his museum became part of the 2011 anniversary tour of Ireland, when Prince Albert recreated his parents’ Irish visit. His then bride-to-be spent hours at Newbridge. Later, in an unusual move, the foundation gave Doyle permission to create a range of jewellery inspired by the actress.
As part of that rare Grace Kelly sale, where just two outfits were sold to raise money for charity, Doyle also picked up the dress she wore for her visit to Ireland. It was also the princess’s outfit of choice on an official meeting with JFK.
Of course, Hollywood isn’t the only home of the world’s style icons. Doyle branches out from film and there are pieces worn by Michael Jackson and the Beatles (the only known complete collection of Fab Four matching suits) — there are even very identifiable garments worn by Princess Diana.
There is the delicate Emanuel high-collared, chiffon blouse she chose for her Vogue cover shortly before her engagement to Charles. From Kerry Taylor, Doyle secured the calico toile of her wedding dress. And there, right beside the white virginal blouse, is the dress Diana wore in India when the world finally realised the marriage was doomed — and the daring black ‘revenge dress’ she stepped out in when Charles publicly confessed his infidelity.
What began as a sense is obligation to fill an empty museum, says Doyle, has become a very valuable investment.
“It’s a good deal more valuable now than when we bought it,” he says. “Investors are only realising the value of these garments now. We got in there early.
“And I am fascinated by it all now.”
Today Doyle is quite the expert, but he acknowledges it was a steep learning curve. Mistakes were made.
In the early days he received a “very cross” email from a visitor to the museum.
Her name was Rachel Phelan and she just so happened to have been trained at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in textile conservation.
It was crime, she told the CEO in no uncertain terms, to have the clothes displayed in such harsh, bright conditions — they would end up a pile of dust, destroyed and worthless. Phelan was recruited and today Doyle says she treats the collection as her own.
The process of preservation is long, time-consuming and expensive.
The clothes are kept in air conditioned cabinets, with low level lighting. Mannequins are specifically made for each dress to retain their shape.
Today, Doyle still hosts visiting exhibitions, from The Wizard of Oz, to the current temporary installation — David Hasselhoff’s auction pieces, including KITT from Knight Rider. Doyle also sends his pieces on tour.
One of his favourite pieces, Tippi Hedren’s dress from The Birds, is currently on a worldwide exhibit with the V&A.
Hedren was another visitor to Newbridge.
“She was a lovely person,” Doyle recalls.
“She spoke about her dreadful relationship with Alfred Hitchcock.”
And the dress that got away? Tiffany’s aside, it was the sheer dress then-student Kate Middleton wore at a fashion show when she caught the prince’s eye.
Doyle was set to bid from his desk in Newbridge — but left his phone on silent.
He missed the call.
“It went for a very reasonable price too,” says Doyle. “And anything from Kate from now will be very rare.”
Doyle can afford to have one regret in a career that has seen him transform the 80-year-old company from a name synonymous with quality cutlery to one of Ireland’s leading jewellery and lifestyle products.
He repositioned the brand, brought Irish faces like Amy Huberman to the forefront of advertising campaigns — and all the while somehow found the time to create the country’s Museum of Style Icons.
Not only that, but Doyle has chosen to share the collection with the public for free — there is no entry charge.
His “great eye” for vintage garments has been lauded by those in the design and auction world.
But the down to earth Doyle brushes off the compliment.
“Ah,” he says breezily, “I’m a bit of a chancer really.”