Paul Galvin needs no introduction as a celebrated sportsman, one of Ireland’s greatest Gaelic football players. Since his retirement, however, he has made another career as a menswear designer, creating 15 collections for Dunnes Stores since 2015.
His new book, Threads, displays yet another talent as a writer and storyteller, and makes a forceful case for the deep connection between sport and design. In his opening salvo, for example, he argues that GAA groundsmen in their care of the pitches “are multidisciplinary experts in biology, horticulture, climate, nature and design”.
Galvin has certainly done his homework. He outlines how sportsmen like Tinker Hatfield, the US athlete and architect, influenced the footwear industry, and how Hatfield’s coach Bill Bowerman became co-founder of Nike and designer of the brand’s most famous shoes. Other reference points are varied and impressive; from the French Syrian scaffolding billionaire Mohed Altrad, to artist and set designer Es Devlin and architect Neri Oxman, and those who have inspired his own collections, including Harry Boland, Tom de Paor, Samuel Beckett and Luke Kelly.
Galvin’s career as a designer began with prodigious preparatory research studying marketing and communications around men’s sportswear, tackling the language of fashion “that guys in my local hurling and football clubs would understand”. Cultural storytelling was key to making sense of it. One of his first clothing experiments was cutting a traditional Arab dishdasha up to waist length to create a structured cotton shirt, as well as getting tailor Henry Dixon to reuse old fabrics to make new shirt styles, making him an early pioneer of sustainable fashion.
His first collection for Dunnes was called Vanguard. Taking its cue from the national anthem sung at Croke Park, it had slogans on t-shirts with translated lines from Amhrán na bhFiann, and camouflage print with military references.
Subsequent collections and their reference points are detailed chapter by chapter, each a fascinating story in itself.
Push, a fusion of cycle and formal wear, tells a story through fashion of the Walker brothers, Olympic champions. Born Mad was based on the sartorial style of Sam Beckett and resulted in a collection of “athletic artwear”.
Mister made observations on the professional football manager and how the sideline “is a catwalk” with lucrative brand sponsorship, but also deals with the largely forgotten Dublin footballer Patrick O’Connell, who went on to become manager of FC Barcelona, but died alone in London after leaving Spain. The collection based its colours on FC Barcelona and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola’s sideline style.
Probably Galvin’s most successful collection was Shelby, named after the award-winning Netflix series Peaky Blinders and the history of the Sheldon gang, “a time when men’s clothing was linked to fighting”. The collection featured the key looks from the series – suits, waistcoats and even long johns.
An essay on boxing and inspirational boxers sparked design discussions on home gym accessories and workout apparel, leading to another collection. Bogman, a summer collection, was all about turf cutting and the associated spirit of community like Galvin’s own in north Kerry; it also drew inspiration from Tom de Paor’s Venice Biennale peat installation, German artist Joseph Beuys who found inspiration in Irish bogs, Seamus Heaney’s Tollund Man, and the Cashel Man discovery. The bog landscape informed the colour story with sleans printed on shirts.
Probably Galvin’s most successful collection was Shelby, named after the award-winning Netflix series Peaky Blinders, set in “a time when men’s clothing was linked to fighting”
Each chapter delves into these stories and illustrates Galvin’s wide interests, reading and extensive references. Others draw from figures like Luke Kelly, Christy Moore, Patrick Kavanagh and sporting champions like Sammy Miller, a motorbike rider and designer, and Mohed Altrad, who sparked the Scaffolder collection with its high-vis neons, padded jackets and gilets.
The section on GAA giant Harry Boland is a riveting chapter in itself: a politically involved tailor and sportsman who stood out for his style and who mainly wore suits. His cap became a print pattern for the collection, along with grandfather shirts and overcoats.
There are some remarkable histories and anecdotes. Irish Olympic gold medallist Pat O’Callaghan, a qualified doctor at 21, for instance, became a great hammer thrower, with ballet lessons helping to improve his footwork. The first athlete from Ireland to win an Olympic medal, success in the US followed – he was even offered the role of Tarzan by Louis B Mayer. Adolf Hitler was a secret fan. Galvin’s collection in response was Olympic-inspired sportwear based on the uniform O’Callaghan wore at his win in the 1932 Los Angeles Games.
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His latest collection, Jack, currently in Dunnes Stores and pictured here, draws from the artist Jack B Yeats. “He was sports mad, and sport is a constant theme of his paintings, from swimming to horse racing and especially boxing” Galvin writes. “Translating his love of sport into clothes means loose fitting shirts and trousers for the studio, sports jackets and sweatshirts for his sporting pursuits.” Some might find it hard to reconcile Yeats with Varsity jackets, but so what.
The book ends with a chapter describing how Galvin founded the Keohane Athletic Club sportswear brand “to service GAA clubs and other sporting organisations with meaning and a sense of themselves . . . a design and storytelling service that brings that local identity and spirit to life”.
Threads is a highly enjoyable read, out on its own decoding menswear for the ordinary guy in the street and, for those unfamiliar with Irish male sporting heroes, giving an insight into GAA culture’s passions, history and power. It is a measure of Galvin’s enviable talent that it has translated from the pitch to the page with consummate ease and honesty.
Threads: Clothes and the Irishman, A Woven History by Paul Galvin is published by Gill Books