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Celebrity stylist Sinéad McKeefry: ‘The trick is to be organised... I always have backup outfits’

Informed by her Irish roots, McKeefry delivered a contemporary take on heritage chic dressing Claudia Winkleman on The Traitors

There is one subject I promise celebrity stylist Sinéad McKeefry I will not touch on during our phone interview, and that is Spanx leggings. Since the second series of BBC One’s The Traitors ended in January, McKeefry, who is the creative mind behind presenter Claudia Winkleman’s coveted country-meets-punk wardrobe, reveals she has been asked about little else.

“There’s only so many ways you can jolly up a conversation about leggings,” laughs the 49-year-old in her robust Brummie accent, which betrays little of her Irish roots.

Over the course of the 12-week series, the humble legging was elevated from a lockdown leftover to cool-girl essential courtesy of the “Claudia effect”. McKeefry styled Winkleman in several pairs throughout the series – from glam rock velvet Spanx to urban stretch-jersey from Wardrobe NYC – and it has prompted a shopping frenzy as women across Britain and Ireland try to recreate McKeefry’s contemporary take on heritage chic.

Within a week of Winkleman’s first Spanx-wearing appearance on the show, Marks & Spencer sold out of its black sculpted leggings, McKeefry says in astonishment.


It may be dubbed the Claudia effect, but at the heart of this fashion phenomenon is the McKeefry magic touch. She says that styling The Traitors came naturally to her as it reflects her own aesthetic. “When I’m not being a stylist, I love to go camping, to be outside,” she says.

Though born and bred in Tamworth, just outside Birmingham, McKeefry’s late father James was from Carrickfergus in Co Antrim and her mum Tina is from Belfast. In the summers as a child, McKeefry would travel with her parents to the seaside village of Downings in Co Donegal.

“My parents had a mini bus instead of a car, which was mortifying as a teenager,” McKeefry recalls. “There was always a gang of us – me and my four siblings and whichever cousins or stragglers might be tagging along. Every summer, we’d clamber on to the bus, drive to the ferry, be seasick on the crossing to Belfast, then drive to Donegal to stay with our relatives, the Malones, in an amazing house, which had floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.”

It is here that McKeefry first came across one of her favourite Irish brands, McNutt of Donegal. “Their mill was just beside where we stayed and I remember John McNutt telling me one day that they were weaving tweeds for Christian Lacroix. I nearly died,” she says.

McKeefry is also a big fan of Dubarry, and she recently discovered contemporary knitwear designer Colin Burke, hinting that his sculptural sweaters could be a great fit for The Traitors. She knows her knits. McKeefry has a master’s degree in womenswear, specialising in knitwear, from Central Saint Martins in London. She was awarded a bursary to study there by the late Professor of Fashion Louise Wilson, who mentored the likes of Alexander McQueen, Phoebe Philo and Stella McCartney.

Although many of her classmates, including Roksanda Ilincic, launched their own labels on graduating, McKeefry’s career took a serendipitous turn when the model and stylist Charlotte Stockdale walked into the clothing store McKeefry was working at part-time.

Stockdale was borrowing clothes for noughties girl band All Saints – the combat-clad foursome who pitched themselves as the streetwise alternative to the Spice Girls – and McKeefry offered her services as an assistant. Within a week she was on the set of a Dazed & Confused photo shoot with make-up artist Val Garland. This led to a fashion assistant role at The Face magazine, where she worked with teen-pop queen Billie Piper, and the beginning of an eight-year relationship with Virgin Records, during which time she travelled the world with girl band Atomic Kitten, styled Mel B, Emma Bunton and Dannii Minogue, and spent two months in Fiji dressing Fearne Cotton for the original Celebrity Love Island, which Cotton co-hosted with current Late Late Show presenter Patrick Kielty.

“It was a riot,” recalls McKeefry nostalgically, “but during those years I worked every day except Christmas Day.” Her schedule can still be gruelling. For the first series of The Traitors, she had just two weeks to pull together 32 looks for Winkleman. On Strictly Come Dancing, which McKeefry has worked on for a decade, her Saturdays usually finish about midnight.

“It’s a live show so there’s always a lot of juggling. You can’t lock everything down. Tess [Daly – Winkleman’s co-presenter] might have a last-minute change of mind, which may have a knock-on effect for Claudia. I always have two or three backup outfits ready. The trick is to be prepped and organised,” she explains. “I have a very old-fashioned way of working. I still like moodboarding with polaroids and putting together looks on my own.”

McKeefry’s work ethic was cultivated in the Leicestershire pub her paternal grandparents owned – they moved to the UK with McKeefry’s parents in 1973 – just 20 minutes from where she grew up. Her job was to clean ashtrays, for which she was rewarded with tokens for the jukebox.

In a room above the pub, her granny and auntie Eileen had a sewing room and there they would make the young fashion fanatic outfits just like those worn by the bands belting out tunes from the jukebox downstairs – Bananarama, Wham, Soul2Soul. “It might have been a puffball skirt I saw on Pepsi & Shirlie,” McKeefry laughs. “I remember specifically describing for my granny the orange trousers Caron Wheeler wore in the video for Back to Life.”

McKeefry’s childhood was filled with fashion and music. She and her siblings each played an instrument and performed with their dad at Irish clubs. Though headmaster at McKeefry’s primary school, he also had a sideline in broadcasting, presenting a radio show on BBC called Celtic Fringe two evenings a week. McKeefry says this fostered a close Irish community in the midlands and prompted her parents to establish the annual McKeefry Irish Music Festival, a three-day event with live music from midday to midnight, which has been running for almost 20 years.

McKeefry admits she has retired her flute – it is in the shebeen they built for her dad’s 70th birthday in the back garden of their family home. Her focus is already firmly fixed on the next series of The Traitors. “Claudia and I only caught up after the show finale last night and she was saying, ‘How the hell are we going to top this season?!’.”

It is a good question. Winkleman’s penultimate outfit on the series – a show-stopping full-length Saint Laurent fringed coat – caused a social media storm (if you are in the money, it will be auctioned for Comic Relief in March). McKeefry teasingly reveals that she already knows the sartorial direction she will take next year. Given that this season’s inspiration was Amanda Harlech-meets-The Pogues-meets-the Malones (McKeefry’s cousins), your guess is as good as mine.