Career Advice from Shelly Corkery of Brown Thomas

Fashion director and creator of The Marvel Room at Brown Thomas, SHELLY CORKERY believes in the magic of Christmas. Here we look at her DAZZLING CAREER in fashion retail.

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Shelly Corkery is the most powerful woman in Irish fashion: a style icon who knows what we will all be wearing over the next three seasons. I am a self-confessed fashion addict. Therefore, the green-eyed monster might reasonably be my persona for an encounter with her. But right now, the thing I rate highest in the Brown Thomas Group fashion director’s list of achievements is the decision to allow Christmas to sparkle right up to close of business on Christmas Eve.

The world is divided into Christmas lovers and Christmas curmudgeons. For some, Christmas is the annual visit, not just to a world of nostalgia, but to a moral myth in which we are allowed to believe the best of ourselves. Giving is de rigueur, receiving the essence of grace, and as we spend we really do think of others. The department store is its centre in the city. How sad for us then, the department store habit of removing all festive signs on Christmas Eve in preparation for the sale: the lights literally going out before the great
day dawns. 

No longer, however, is the Christmas myth shattered at Brown Thomas. Shelly Corkery is no Christmas curmudgeon –  she created the Marvel Room in the Dublin store, dedicated solely to Christmas gifts, many of them limited editions specially created at her behest. “The store suits the mood of Christmas. I love it. It is never more fully dressed than at Christmas. It’s like a beautiful woman. When you walk through a department store at Christmas, you feel the energy.”

Emotion is heightened too. Christmas tragedies are never quite forgotten, but as Corkery points out, they also provide the relief map for happiness: “It makes you appreciate what you have.” Her mother died at Christmas 19 years ago. “She died of a broken heart. She was only 59. I felt very alone.” Six months earlier, Corkery’s father had dropped dead at her side at the races at the Curragh. “I was very close to my Dad. I was actually speaking to him when he died.”

In The Restaurant on the third floor of Brown Thomas Dublin, Corkery talks of her father’s passion for race meetings, especially the point-to-point, beloved by Cork people. Like the show, fashion must go on. Besides, you can’t dwell too much on the past, when “You have to think ahead all the time.”

In fashion, as in life, change is the only certainty. And the big change for Brown Thomas right now is the take-over of Arnotts. How will that affect Corkery? “It’s an entirely separate store,” she says. But instantly, the optimism of the fashionista kicks in. “It means I will see more of Paul.” Paul Kelly, her partner and father of her teenage daughter Cameron, is CEO of Selfridges, Brown Thomas and now Arnotts and lives part of the week in London. “He’s always home from Thursday through to Sunday. But now he’ll be here more often,” she says happily. The commuting relationship must be hard, I venture. “The recipe for a successful relationship,” she counters, firmly. Besides, as leader of Brown Thomas’ formidable buying team, she herself is “in London, Paris, New York, ten weeks every single season”.

Although she carries the subtle scent of many cities, she is a quintessential Cork girl. And Cork people, to paraphrase F Scott Fitzgerald, are different. Theirs is a civic pride that permeates everything: dressing down is not a Cork concept. “Cork girls love glamour. Cork shoppers are dedicated and committed to value, because they go out – they are at everything. They are intensely social.” Her conversation is peppered with observations that show how the nuances of fashion are signs and symbols of cultural life, something the French philosopher Roland Barthes defined as “meaning-making,” in his seminal work Système de la Mode. Like how Brown Thomas has adjusted its “buy” to accommodate the new Irish and the new tourists: a big increase in Chinese shoppers means “more smaller sizes and more accessories.” And how the long dress disappeared in the seven years of recession.

Fashion is in her blood – her mother had two boutiques in Cork, “JeanShells, called after my sister and I” – and she served her time during two incarnations of the Design Centre in Dublin’s Powerscourt Centre, the second as part owner; and at the beginning of Nikki Creedon’s groundbreaking Donnybrook boutique, Havana. But there’s a disarming humility to her account of beginning the dream job. “When I came here, I thought I knew about fashion. But they kept talking about things like adjacencies.” Retail is a science – adjacencies, by the way, is the crucial issue of designer compatibility in merchandising – with a forensic attention to detail. “It’s also showbiz,” deploying spectacle, talent, teamwork and negotiating designers’ fragile egos.

The day we meet, she and daughter Cameron have just returned from their annual London pre-Christmas weekend of musicals and ice skating with Kelly: “You have to have a zest for life and the ability to move on immediately from the last thing. You have to make things happen.” As she repeats fashion’s mantras, the aura she exudes is Christmas. I can see why those lights will stay on.

Illustration by Lauren O’Neill

Anne Harris

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our January issue, out Thursday January 7.

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