Fashion: Cutting a dash

Next time you admire Cherie Blair's clothes, it might be your first glimpse of Louise Kennedy's work.
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The Independent Culture
I've long held this view about certain fashion labels and trends: I just can't be doing with them. It's my fault really, probably my age, but I have no real longing to be wearing a name that just everybody would kill for. And by the time I get round to thinking that bootleg trousers "look OK, I suppose", the fickle finger of fashion points to clam diggers or some similarly iffy idea that's equally unforgiving on the chunkyish calf.

On the odd occasion that a rush to the head sees me rifling through a rail of designer frocks, I find myself drawn to something restrained, or at least something passed over by anyone in search of a "must-have". It's one reason (aside from innate meanness) that I'm a familiar face in my local charity shops and vintage clothing emporiums.

It also explains a predilection for little, out-of-town independent shops and particular department stores. Careful buying by women who know their customers very well, throws up not only the expected Nicole Farhis and Betty Jacksons (great as they are of course - love all that grey for this winter) but also a few less obviously popular ones. Anne Storey is one such recent find, but the latest is the relatively unsung Irish seamstress, Louise Kennedy.

She may be an unknown to you, but Louise Kennedy is the name on Cherie Blair's lips. She is also the label inside the latest uniforms of the Aer Lingus cabin crew.

Her renown has not (as yet) reached Prada-esque proportions. But that isn't to say that she's scraping a living. As I write this she's probably on the phone to someone dead famous like Enya or Dervla Kirwan (Ballykissangel's Assumpta) discussing new hemlines or the cut of a lapel. She has just finished putting the final touches on her latest purchase - a five-story listed town house in a particularly posh part of Dublin.

And while all that's going on, in the back of her mind there might be the question of what the British PM's wife might fancy in her winter wardrobe.It would seem that Cherie Blair has discovered Louise Kennedy. Very discreet, naturally, about her latest eminent client, the ebullient Ms Kennedy is nonetheless tickled pink (or, more appropriately, a muted dusty rose) at wresting our first lady away from ladies-who-lunch favourite, Ronit Zilkha.

Dressing celebrities brings with it hazards, of course. The media love nothing more than a good bitch about the dress sense of public figures and poor Cherie has suffered her fair share of sniping. (Well, who does look her best in a tracksuit, for heaven's sake?) Which is the great thing about a Louise Kennedy outfit - it would be very hard to go wrong. And if it seemed as though you were about to, the no-nonsense Ms Kennedy would be sure to steer you tactfully back in the right direction. Having been the number one fashion choice of the former Irish Prime Minister, Mary Robinson, as well as countless embassy women, she's clued-up as to the requirements of one whose legs may suddenly be exposed to a hundred flash bulbs.

"I know what these women need," she explains, "how and where they'll be sitting, standing or walking and how they'll be photographed. It's important that they forget about what they're wearing. Mary Robinson once told me that my clothes were a comfort blanket to her, which was a great compliment."

Not that Louise Kennedy's clothes are predictably safe - they're not, just carefully considered. For "safe" can be a problem, because just as a luminary can be berated for going (Cher-like) over the top, she can also land in it for being prim and cheerless.

"You win some, you lose some - you can't please everyone all the time," says Ms Kennedy breezily.

You'd be hard-pressed to point an accusing finger at her collection of beautifully-cut tailoring; softly structured, hand-painted silks; and sumptuous velvet wraps and declare them either "too much" or "not enough".

True, if you like your suits to have some tricky twists and fit snugly where they touch, you may be better off with a number by John Galliano or Alexander McQueen. Kennedy's though, are more about luxurious understatement, and balance of proportions. If they must be compared to anything else, think Donna Karan or Calvin Klein.

"Uncluttered, clean and with a contemporary twist," is how she sums up her style. "I take away rather than embellish.Quality is very important, I want a garment to have longevity and be cherished. And at around pounds 350 for a jacket, my average customer is not a transient type."

Indeed not, no one could ever accuse Meryl Streep or Emma Freud of that.

So, Cherie Blair - what's she like? Is she picky, or bossy, or easily persuaded? Ms Kennedy won't be drawn on anything remotely salacious, never mind point out Mrs Blair's weaker points and sartorial foibles.

Ms Kennedy will only say that Cherie Blair said lots of nice things about her designs when she visited her stand at London Fashion Week earlier this year.

"She's a woman who knows what she wants," reveals Louise.

Which is just as you'd expect.