Without even knowing, I first met Helen some years ago when we both happened to be living in NYC.  At the time, I worked for a television series that was filmed at NBC Studios in 30 Rockefeller Center.  After a long day of shooting, some of the crew + many other tv/film/casting people would head downtown to The Scratcher, the tiniest, yet most charming Irish pub in Manhattan. Helen would often be there with her rocker beau, (now husband) Mark Geary. The place was always abuzz; flowing equally with creative conversation and the Black Stuff.

Fast forward, Helen leaves behind the big fashion houses of New York and returns home to Ireland to design her own line of stunning clothing & accessories {her headpieces are absolutely priceless} and to start a family.  Later, I inadvertently reconnect with her via the extraordinary Eilis Boyle, whom I had met through the blogosphere. Turns out they are the best of friends. {For the record, I find this fantastically uncanny and delightful at once}

Very quickly I discovered that Helen is one of the most talented designers in Ireland. Not only is she a talented designer, but she has been a shepherd and mentor to young creatives and an avid supporter of local artistic enterprises as well as the Slow Food Movement. She has made remarkable contributions to the Irish creative community at large and her work has been nationally recognized by top Irish newpapers and magazines on a regular basis.

Helen recently made the decision to move back to New York and is currently designing for Donna Karan Home, utilizing yet another dimension of her imaginative and romantic eye. As is clear through the breadth of her work as well as the trappings of her blog­­­­­­, Helen has vision that reaches great lengths. In an interview for the Irish Sunday Business Post, she exclaimed,  “As long as my eyes are open, I’m working”. Clearly this statement applies to wherever she may find herself, from Ireland to just about anywhere in the world.

I asked Helen if she would share a little about herself and life back in the Big Apple to which she very politely and generously obliged.

So, with great pleasure, I give you, Helen James.

Hi Helen, can you please tell us where you are from originally….as in where/how did you spend your childhood days? And where do you reside now? Many Irish people who emigrate imagine themselves back in Ireland in later years, will you come back “home” to live here again?

I am from Dublin. I grew up on the grounds of the Chester Beatty Library when it was located at Shrewsbury Road. My Father was the Islamic Curator there. I remember, from a very young age, walking around the collection studying the Chinese wedding Robes and little carved snuff bottles. I am sure my love of textiles is born from this experience. My mother had (and still has ) impeccable taste. She was a flea market junkie long before it was fashionable. I can remember hiding in the car while she went through a skip, feeling absolutely mortified, but the scavenger gene rubbed off and now my kids are cowering while their mother rummages through other people’s detrius!  I lived in NY before for 10 yrs and returned to Ireland full of sentimental dreams…… now I am back in NY. Who knows where I will retire, I can’t really see myself growing old in NYC, but it depends on my family, wherever my 3 boys are I guess that’s where I’ll be too.

What do you see as the main differences between the Irish and American fashion industry?

I feel I do not have the authority to broadly compare the industry in Ireland and NY as my experiences were so different in the two places. In NY I worked for big fashion houses, I was mainly a freelancer, I devised textile works for them and then developed them into products, I also worked in the inspiration part of the business. I was involved purely in the creative area. When I returned to Ireland I had my own line……. anyone who owns their own business knows that this is a whole different scenario, so I cannot really compare my experience in one place with the other. I will say Ireland is an extremely difficult place to have your own fashion business! The market is small, and even though I sold internationally to places like Harvey Nichols you are relying on your local customer to keep the business ticking over. As far as I can see, there seems to be so much more support for designers in NY , through the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and other organisations.

You worked for Donna Karan before and now again. How is your experience different this time around? You certainly have an eye for interiors and garden, do you prefer homeware design to clothing?

This time I am more involved in the whole picture, the whole process from a spark of an idea scribbled on a napkin through to a finished bed with all the acoutrements, I am involved in every stitch, button and bead. I am loving working in home, as you know I have always been drawn to interiors and I am finally getting to express that. I have a lot to learn about the business but I work with a great team and they are helping me figure it all out.

Which Irish designers do you admire?

So many…

Tim Ryan knitwear.- such innovation, . I have known Tim for a long time and seen his work evolve. I believe he is only at the beginning of his journey.

Lucy Downes of Sphere One- Beautiful cashmere pieces that are classic but with a real edge. Lucy is a head down and get on with it girl and has a serious international business, but does not covet press and publicity. Her pieces are real investments

Peter O’Brien, Ireland should be so proud of this man and what he has achieved. I truly admire the work he has done with A-wear and now with Arnott-. It is easy (easier) to make an elegant collection with an unlimited budget but far more challenging when funds are finite

Eilis Boyle, simplicity, elegance and focus. I not only admire her work which is breathtaking but also very wearable, but she is one of my dearest friends and a constant inspiration

Who or what inspires you?

The truth is I am constantly inspired. Most creative people I know draw inspiration from everything around them. That is why we carry notebooks. Being in a city like NY is hugely inspiring, there is creativity all around you, the way people dress, shops, theatre. I realise that being around creative people is what truly inspires me.

Do you wear your own designs? How would you describe your personal style?

I do. My personal style?  I am very drawn to menswear for women, in my own style, I have always been a bit of a tomboy at heart, so, I will wear a little quilted silk bedjacket from my collection but with boy-cut suit pants and brogues.

Your clothing and accessory designs have been worn by many celebrities and models, do you design with a certain muse in mind?

No, I design mainly by draping and evolving the collection, so, last seasons top will evolve to next seasons dress, then there may be a new wrap the following season which has evolved from that. So each season begins where the last one left off. I constantly battled with the whole concept of “seasons” in Fashion.  For me creativity is a constant flow, it doesn’t stop and get thrown out and the slate wiped clean every 6 months.

What type of profession would you pursue if you weren’t a designer?

I am visual so if I wasn’t a designer I think I may have pursued photography or styling. Doing the shoots was always such a highlight for me I could have done one a week, had budget permitted

If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be?

If I could, I would divide my time between New York, Paris and Dublin, with a home in each!

What things do you miss about Ireland?

Family and Friends, Friends, Friends

What career advice would you give to young students currently studying fashion?

Work for someone else for at least 5 years before even considering setting up your own line. Believe in yourself, be prepared to work really really hard. Get involved because you love the work not the applause. If you are interested in making money become an investment banker.

Coffee or Tea?

Both:
coffee in the morning,
tea in the afternoon

You can keep up with Helen James here.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

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