Forget trends –Sonya Lennon and Brendan Courtney just want to dress real women, says Vickie Maye.
Brendan Courtney is telling me how he began working with Sonya Lennon. The duo have a way of reeling you into a story.
There’s an ease with them — comfortable momentary silences, bursts of throaty laughter, an ability to trail off while the other picks up and finishes the sentence — that you only feel between real friends.
They are deep in the story when Sonya’s eyes dart to the model on the other side of the room. She’s trying on the Lennon Courtney jumpsuit, the must-have from their new collection.
The assistant is trying to hoist the jumpsuit from the shoulders and pin the back.
“That waist is supposed to be dropped,” Sonya says, still smiling mid-anecdote.
“I think she needs an...” the assistant begins and before the words are out of her mouth, Sonya has seamlessly jumped to her feet, reached into the bag on the bed beside us, and hands an identical jumpsuit to the model.
“There’s an eight. Have you heels?” The model nods. “Amazing.”
And, without missing a beat, still beaming, she’s back to me and Brendan, and we return to the story of Lennon Courtney, the beginning.
The whole exchange takes a matter of seconds and it’s so subtle, so natural, so fluid, I barely notice it sitting in the Clayton penthouse.
When I play the interview back that evening, I realise that little aside, those few seconds of tape, sum up Lennon and Courtney.
The pair are utterly professional, always with one eye on business. Yet there isn’t an ego between them.
There was no hint of the authority Sonya could have delivered in her exchange with the model, and I, meanwhile, was barely aware of the break in conversation.
Perhaps this down-to-earth demeanour is part of the reason why Lennon Courtney do fashion differently. They aren’t fixated on trends. Their focus is entirely on the woman they are dressing.
They always wanted a line that was affordable and democratic — and their collaboration with Dunnes has achieved all that and more.
“A lot of designers would use trend forecasting. We don’t, we go on gut. We amuse ourselves, we go to the far reaches of amusement and bring it back. We take that flight of fancy and take it back to the woman,” says Sonya. The key? It has to be wearable.
They have life experience, says Brendan, and it translates to their designs.
“I always say it’s like Adele getting her label contract at 45.”
Brendan and Sonya are just as accessible as their designs. They are in Cork today to do a showcase in the Patrick St store, but first there’s an intimate gathering in the Clayton penthouse, organised by Lockdown Fashion PR and Cork Fashion Week, promoting Irish design.
Anyone who is anyone in fashion in Cork is there. And Brendan and Sonya work the room. There’s a sense of comradery and encouragement in a gathering that you might anticipate would generate competitiveness and oneupmanship.
Brendan and Sonya are taking this type of intimate roadshow around the country.
They want to meet the women who wear their clothes in intimate surrounds, just as some of the great designers did back in the day. The same applies online.
Earlier, Sonya talked to me about Twitter.
“We take client feedback all the time. We have two-way contact on social all the time. There’s no team, just us — Philippa in Dunnes would schedule content — but in terms of conversation it’s me and Brendan,” she says.
“Last week a woman wanted a jacket, it was very limited edition and sold out online, but Brendan responded saying ‘I’ll make it my mission’.”
I’m stunned by their hands-on approach. Sonya just shrugs. It’s what they do, what they’ve always done.
The collaboration with Dunnes is going from strength to strength — they work with the same manufacturer they always have in Hong Kong and present their designs to Yvonne, the Dunnes buyer. It’s rare a piece isn’t snapped up.
“Dunnes are really pushing it,” says Sonya, referring to the Joanne Hynes collections and the food lines with the likes of Neven Maguire.
“They wanted to differentiate themselves with product excellence and those alignments with designers, with food icons, is kind of amazing.”
Their union with Dunnes was the result of a “chance meeting that snowballed” and it gave them a chance to reach wider audiences.
“We have been presented with amazing opportunities but we worked hard to get those opportunities. It’s about preparation and timing, and being open to the opportunities, and open to change. You can close yourself off if you have too planned a trajectory.”
The pair have a strict way of working. There are regular design meetings. The collections are created in the same way a writer might meet a book deadline.
It’s a structured working day. It’s what you’d expect from a duo that worked to strict TV production schedules for years together on Off The Rails. And then there was the discipline involved in writing two spinoff books.
“For me I always seem to end up doing what I want to do,” says Brendan.
“Now I can pick and choose. TV doesn’t pay rent all year round. I’m TV through and through, I still love it, but how we broadcast has changed,” he says, referring to Facebook and social media feeds.
“I have respect for TV, it’s my alma mater, but it would never fulfil me creatively. Fashion, it changes all the time.”
Right now they are putting the final touches to the A/W collection. Brendan admits he’d already rather be on S/S.
Their years of working together in a TV studio made the transition to design team pretty seamless.
“We were in a design meeting and while I’m normally perceived as articulate I wasn’t using my words very well. He knew what was in my head and he said it,” says Sonya.
“I’m the mad head,” she continues.
“I have flights of fancy, and someone will say, ‘it’s real Sonya isn’t it’. You need a little bit of madness, to push it gently. That’s the jacquard in this collection, it’s a bit nuts but it’s fabulous and very limited.
"The challenging pieces are very limited, maybe just 20 pieces, but that’s for the fashion customer, it’s not broad appeal.”
So what will the big sellers be in this collection?
The two break into laughter.
“We never know.”
This season the white dress they took a punt on (“White is never easy as you can’t wear it to a wedding or Communion but it was very Sonya”) has sold out.
There’s no such thing as an Irish style either, insists Brendan.
“It’s a tribal thing, you find your tribe, your niche — ladies’ day, goth, whatever it is. It’s the same in London or Cork or Dublin.”
Brendan took a very brave and personal step away from fashion with his RTÉ documentary, We Need To Talk About Dad.
Allowing cameras into his family home, as he, his mum, and sisters try to come to terms and make plans in the wake of his father’s second and debilitating stroke, it highlighted the serious shortcomings in the Fair Deal system.
“We hate age and we really hate illness,” says Brendan, happy his documentary got us talking about important issues to which we usually try to turn a blind eye.
“Dad’s in palliative care now and he’s comfortable. He goes to sleep around 7pm and he looks really comfortable when he’s asleep; we can’t wake him but in the morning he’s rejuvenated so it’s great.
“He’s as comfortable as he can be, and we have a routine.”
And with that, the two stand up to MC a fashion show of their new collection. And all I can do as I watch the models showcase yet another stunning line is thank the two RTÉ producers who first put them on air together.
And we’re back to that anecdote of how they first met. The story goes they were paired by one very savvy producer. Brendan corrects me. There were two producers — “one wanted me, one wanted her”.
They burst into laughter.
Brendan was used to TV, Sonya wasn’t.
“Early on it was tough for me, I’d never worked in environment like that. But a couple of things happened and I knew I had his back.”
No bitchiness then?
“That’s lack of experience, if you’re going to be sharing a studio with somebody you better get on. It will become apparent there’s no chemistry. Selfishly I knew we had to get on,” says Brendan.
“Ah but it happened so naturally too,” says Sonya.
“We have a great laugh.”
“We do,” Brendan says.
And there’s more of that laughter again.
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