A week has passed since the launch of the Helen Steele X Dunnes Stores collection when we meet, and Instagram is awash with pictures of women posing in the fashion designer, print maker and artist’s new gym range.
She went to the gym at home in Monaghan for the first time in ages, she says, and women everywhere were wearing it. The line has all her trademarks; dramatic prints, beautiful colour combinations, and is bold but comfortable. Usually Helen’s designs are only available in the most high-end boutiques. This has been a chance for her legions of fans to get a piece of Steele’s magic at high-street prices.
Nobody wears Helen Steele better than the woman herself. She arrives in the paint splatter print leggings and hoodie from the new range which she is wearing in our portrait, looking like the frontwoman of a band. Now 44, she actually was such a thing in her early 20s. To this day she has the inimitable cool of a Debbie Harry.
Helen’s main fashion line has been worn by everyone from Saoirse Ronan, to Laura Whitmore, Louise McSharry, Cara Delevingne, Vogue Williams, Louise O’Neill, Amy Huberman, Rachel Allen and Rita Ora.
They have one thing in common -personality, something Helen herself has in bucket loads. She is fun, warm, with an infectious laugh, hugely talented but not at all precious about herself or her work.
The idea for the range was hers; she approached Dunnes with the proposal. The range is not about paying homage to some intimidatingly honed gym-body aesthetic.
“It’s not about beating yourself up in the gym. It’s about being happy, whatever kind of movement you’re doing. If you’re going to the gym, brilliant. But if you’re not, don’t beat yourself up. I have back problems, so I go to a trainer when I can, and I do Pilates, but mostly it’s walking. I love running, but my body is like ‘Helen f**k off. Your back can’t take it’.”
Her 16-year-old daughter Halle – a model – stars in the ad campaign. She’s the middle child of Helen and ex-husband Stuart Steele of Silver Hill Farm. The couple separated in 2014, with the legal separation occurring last year – Helen’s 44th birthday. Her work, and her three children, Chloe (22), Halle (16), and son Ronnie (14), are what got her through, she says.
“It wasn’t like I was leaning on my kids,” she points out. Children, the sheer love and fun and enjoyment of them, can help get you through the roughest of times. To listen to her chat about outings, holidays, banter between them, Helen and her gang of three have a ball together.
Deciding to end a marriage when there are children involved is an excruciating decision.
“Sometimes it just gets to the point where you’ve tried absolutely everything. I remember my sister saying to me ‘Only when you know you’ve tried absolutely everything you possibly can have done, then you can walk away from it’.
“When you’ve kids it’s not just your decision. I think that’s a guilt I still carry with me, to this day. And the guilt that my children don’t have the same lifestyle they used to. Everyone under the same roof. And you know what, that’s just the way it is.”
The pair still both live in Monaghan. “Four years later, he lives across the lawn from me with his girlfriend, right next to my studio. His girlfriend is so lovely. He’s happy. It’s a lot better. And we have a job to do, regardless, and that’s to be parents to our kids, and that’s the most important job for both of us. So we have to work as a team, and he’s good at that.”
Her advice to anyone currently going through something similar?
“Find one person that you trust with your life, and talk to them. Do not speak to anyone else. Because you’re going to get so many different opinions, and that just clouds your judgment. Don’t be dictated to by solicitors,” she says, shaking her head.
“None of it is easy. Absolutely golden rule; regardless of what your feelings are, how cross you feel with the other person, you never let your kids know that. Ever. Because you’re not always going to feel that way about that person, and you don’t want to cloud your kids’ judgment. Four years later, and we are co-parenting.”
Having weathered the storm, she feels immeasurably stronger person now, she says, which is “a great thing”. You can see it – she has that air of a woman who has hit her stride again.
Of late, she is living on her own; Chloe lives in Dublin, and Ronnie and Halle started boarding school last September.
“The house was so quiet. When we dropped Ronnie off, I was in the car with my ex-husband, trying to hold it together. I had to ask him to pull over; I had to vomit at the side of the road because I was so upset. The two of them gone; it was really, really tough. Work was my saviour.”
She travels up to Dublin each week and stays for a few nights with her sister in South Dublin. “It’s nice to go back home to Monaghan and be surrounded by nature.”
Such an appreciation wasn’t always the case. When Helen first met Stuart, she had just graduated from the Barbara Bourke College of Fashion, also alma mater to designer Don O’Neill. She was toying with the idea of setting up her own fashion label.
Introduced by an ex-girlfriend of his who was also a school friend of Helen’s, he proposed after they had been going out for six weeks. It was 1996, and she was 23. Three months later they were married.
“F**king mental stuff. Insane,” she says now with her throaty laugh. “All my friends were like ‘you are f**king mental’. I was like ‘oh when you know you know’. Not at 23. No you f**king don’t,” she bursts out laughing.
Chloe was born the following year. Leaving her family and friends and moving to Monaghan was “the biggest culture shock of my life. My entire network was pulled from me. His family was brilliant, they were really, really good, and still are, I’m very close to them. But I have never felt so alone as when I had kids. You feel totally alone, and everything is on you as the mother. Not the father. If a baby starts crying, everyone looks at you – not the father.”
At the time, Helen was suffering severely from an eating disorder. The problem had started when she was 17. Having grown up in Maynooth, beside the family business, a mill, she attended a Catholic girl’s boarding school.
“Oh, I was obnoxious,” she smiles of her teenage self. “The loudest, most annoying person in the room.” She loved school, but in fifth year the school started weighing the girls – she’s still not sure exactly why.
“There was a lot of pressure for exams. For me, the anxiety started getting much worse. I couldn’t control my brain to learn in that rote way, so this was my way of controlling something small. I wasn’t happy with my body.”
The anxiety Helen is referring to was caused by her ADHD, something which was not diagnosed until well into adulthood. “It wasn’t a shock, it was actually a relief,” she says of the diagnosis. “I had thought ‘I’m actually a bit mental. Just put it down to that. Mad as a box of frogs. And there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s just the way I am. Now I own it, it’s part of me. Just like the anxiety.”
It affected her in school, damaging her self-esteem, causing her to act out in order to mask problems she was having.
“All along I knew that there was something really different. Everyone else had some level of control of their behaviour, and attention. When I was younger, if I was feeling a bit hyper, I’d ask to go to the bathroom, and I wouldn’t go, I’d just end up running around the yard.
“I suppose maybe that’s why running was such a great therapy for me. A great way of helping think things through. Your body and brain are moving at the same time. You’re in unison,” she says, likening it to a form of meditation.
Such fast-paced brain activity inevitably led to anxiety, which worsened in secondary school. “I actually just thought I was bloody stupid.” She would intentionally get herself thrown out of the class in order to avoid answering questions she did not know the answer to. “That was my way of not being embarrassed in front of my peers.”
As it happens, her art teacher spotted Helen’s potential. “She said to me you need to develop your own personal style of how you want to execute your ideas. My drawing wasn’t amazing, but she said my ideas were really good, and my use of colour. She was amazing.”
After the birth of Chloe, when Helen was 24, the eating disorder worsened.
“Before I was pregnant, it was quite bad. I was told that because I was so underweight I wouldn’t be able to have children. Then I ended up getting pregnant. I couldn’t live with the guilt of making myself ill then, so I ate for Ireland. It got much worse after she was born,” she recalls now of her oldest daughter’s birth. “You know when they’re handed to you for the first time? And she was the most beautiful little thing. She didn’t even cry, her whole body just turned towards me.
“And I was like ‘oh my god you’re the most perfect thing on earth’. I remember thinking ‘God help you, I’m your mother. You poor little thing.’ Kids make you want to be a better person. They were kind of my saving grace in a way.”
Helen eventually sought treatment successfully, in an eating disorder clinic in Cavan hospital. She has osteopenia in her back and wrist as a result of lack of calcium when she was unwell, but is managing the condition with diet and heavy calcium supplementation.
After her first child was born, she started working with South African artist Pat O’Connor, spending a few days a week in Dublin working with him. Her mother would mind Chloe, and Helen would stay with her.
“Pat taught me to develop my own style. Because I was really paranoid; it was that perfectionism. ‘My drawing isn’t perfect. I want it to be precise’. And he told me ‘That’s not you. It’s not your personality. Why are you trying to confine yourself to this?'”
Her art gathered a strong following, taken on by galleries in Miami, London and Berlin. Fashion design had always been the ultimate plan; from a young age Helen, whose maternal grandmother was a dressmaker, had made clothes for her dolls, getting in trouble with her mother for cutting up items intended to be handed down to younger siblings.
Attending the Abu Dhabi Art Fair in 2009, she had had some dresses made up of fabrics featuring her own prints, simply in order to have something culturally appropriate to wear. Essentially, she was wearing her own art. A buyer from Boutique 1 spotted her outfits, and expressed an interest. Thus began the fashion line. To this day, her work only features prints she creates. Helen’s own favourite artists include Jackson Pollock and Wassily Kandinsky. Music is a big influence, too. The lead singer and songwriter of a thrash metal band at age 22, she was offered a contract along with 11 others from Polygram to be in Girlzone, turning it down when her father threatened to evict her if she signed the contract.
Life has a way of working out in the end. “To be honest, if four years ago someone had shown me what my life would be like today, how happy our kids would be, where my work would take me, I would have been shocked,” Helen says. “When you’re in the thick of it, you can’t see a way out, all you are doing is getting your head down and ploughing through. But things do get better.”
Helen Steele X Dunnes Stores is available at dunnesstores.com and in selected stores nationwide
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