Don’t be surprised if in April you see a lone kayaker canoeing along the Dublin coast from Monkstown to Greystones. It could be fashion designer Helen Steele who, if she is not paddle boarding, hiking, diving, running or playing tennis, will be spending the day in her canoe or in her studio in Clonskeagh working on her collections.
It comes as no surprise that both her seasonal sportswear collections for Dunnes Stores, called Flow, and her womenswear line for Costume, called Purple Wave, draw their inspiration from the sea and from moving house from the countryside in Monaghan to Dublin during the first lockdown.
“I had been landlocked for so long in both Monaghan and Maynooth where I grew up, but now [being so near the sea] is so therapeutic,” she says. “Though it’s a pain getting the canoe onto the rack. I don’t think I could work without the energy generated from workouts because they help to focus the brain”. Members of her Dunnes team are also athletic – one being a triathlon and Iron Woman competitor and the others yoga and Pilates enthusiasts –“so you get great feedback”, she says.
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Steele works on her main collection from a small shed in her Dublin home, a smaller studio than the one in Emyvale, “but more cost-effective”. It is here that she designs the dizzying prints and patterns that capture the energy of the sea by “running and pouring multilayers of paint and recreating the swirling incoming tides by razor-blading shades of purple, blue, pink, white and red”.
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After creating the artwork, the patterns are then digitally printed in the Netherlands on luxury eco-friendly fabrics called Ecovero Challis made from wood pulp along with silk crepe and stretch silk satins. A heavier fabric made from bamboo and coated with silk is used for padded biker jackets. Her Purple Wave collection for 2023 introduces new shapes, a voluminous skirt called the RaRa and a slightly asymmetric strapped dress called Didi, inspired by fairytales of the sea.
Everything is made in Ireland by a Romanian team with whom she has been working for 10 years, says this mother of three grown-up children (one of whom, Halle, is the busy and successful plus size-model who appears in some of these photographs). It is all very labour-intensive, which explains the prices. “I work seven days a week for half a month, but I eat, sleep, breathe it and absolutely love it,” says Steele.
The coming year will be a busy one for the designer supporting charities like the Scoop Foundation’s Art Auction for which she provides artwork and participating in the Jack and Jill Foundation’s Incognito fundraising initiative where she is one of the leading artists. She will also be showing her collection in New York in September followed by Paris in October. In April, she’s staging a fashion show at the Irish Embassy in the Netherlands courtesy of Irish ambassador Brendan Rogers and his wife Brenda, originally planned for St Bridget’s Day. She also presented a collection at the Irish Embassy in Bangkok when Rogers was the Irish ambassador to Thailand.
In the meantime, she can occasionally be seen in her Clonskeagh studio in her working gear, a Chicago County Jail orange jumpsuit “now encrusted with eighteen years of paint. I break into it from time to time” she says with a laugh.
Helen Steele’s Flow collection for Dunnes Stores will be on sale from mid to late March. Her collection Purple Wave will be sold exclusively in Costume and online at www.helensteele.com