IFD Spotlight: The Life & Design Journey of Irish Couture Designer Helen Cody

Updated: May 9

March 10, 2020

Dear Friends, we are thrilled to feature for our Designer Spotlight Irish Couture Designer Helen Cody. Helenis a proud Irish-woman and even more proud cancer survivor. While going through treatment, she reached out to ARC Cancer Support Center, who gave her the coping skills to get through the very emotional, physical and mental challenges she faced. Below, learn about why she became and ambassador for ARC Cancer Support Center, her involvement in their annual fashion show and how she is filled with gratitude!

From Helen: Did you know that March is by far the most popular time of year for proposals and engagements ? Whether you are just engaged or simply doing your research my studio is the perfect place to find your dream dress . As everything is made in my harolds Cross studio the lead times are shorter. We like to collaborate with every bride to make sure all her wedding dress dreams come true 👰🏼we are taking appointments now for our 2020 brides DM for appointments or email .

I was considering this dress from my collection for my own wedding last year ❤️

"My cancer diagnosis affected every aspect of my life. My work, my physicality, my home-life, my plans. First, there was debilitating fear, that word Cancer is such a frightening word. One I didn't think I would come back from. Then there was the enormity of the surgery. Losing my breasts affected the core of my femininity. Losing my hair became a much bigger loss than I had mentally prepared myself for.

Ironically I coped much better with the physical changes than the mental and emotional ones. The biggest loss was any sense of control, I had to let go, fall into the system, and trust that it would fix me and bring me back to normality.

I had been aware of Arc's existence for many years but became particularly aware of their work through the annual ARC fashion show, in which I have taken part, along with many other Irish fashion designers. During my chemotherapy, I became so unwell in every sense. I was so weak from the drugs that I went to my Oncologist after the 4th round and told her I simply couldn't go on. I wanted to quit, not something I do easily. She immediately suggested counselling at ARC for both myself and my husband. I don't know why I hadn't thought of it myself, maybe because I thought that was for other people, preferring to cope privately, but miserably failing.

Through several sessions I was given the tools to cope, to separate myself from what the drugs were doing, to rationalise that this wasn't me, but the drugs affecting me. My husband also got counselling, finding a place where he could express himself openly and feel very safe in doing so.

I also found reflexology very calming and helpful. I decided during my treatment that I couldn't go through what I'd been through, experiencing so much love, care and kindness from so many people, without finding a way to say thank you. The enormous gratitude I feel for the ARC team for the help they gave me at a time when I've never felt more vulnerable, made me want to support them, and in so doing, know that I would be helping others going through cancer.

I am very proud to be a brand ambassador for ARC." (from ARC Cancer Support Center website)

Helen Cody, Photo from ARC Cancer Support Center

"We have so many exceptionally talented designers taking part in our ARC Fashion this year ARC ambassador Helen Cody. Helen's experience in the world of fashion spans almost 3 decades. Graduating in fashion and textiles from NCAD and then moving to Paris to work for French Vogue and Azzedine Alaia, she developed her skills as a leading stylist for fashion magazines, music videos, TV Commercials and Celebrities." (ARC Cancer Support Center website)

ARC's Fashion Show takes place April 21, 2022 at 7pm.

Click here for further info

We spoke with Helen Cody about her journey to the top of the design world, and the pivots and challenges she faced along the way. Read on for her words of advice to young designers, as well as her unique career experience!

After studying fashion and textiles in Ireland, Cody initially worked as a stylist for celebrities, fashion magazines, music videos, and commercials. Her work took her to London, Paris and New York before she returned home. Now she works in her Dublin studio, specializing in unique or limited edition pieces that often take months to create and use the finest silks, organzas, cashmere and lace.

You studied at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin. Tell us about your studies there and how your education prepared you for the industry.

I was so naive entering NCAD. I had always been good at art and home economics in school, but nothing prepared me for the incredibly competitive and overwhelming environment of Ireland National College.There was a rumour going around that there was a clerical error student in 1st year and I spent the entire first year thinking that it was me!

College was a bubble and didn’t prepare me in any structured way for industry, but what it did do was stretch my mind to creative possibilities. The Fashion Department was a very competitive environment—with the likes of Philip Treacy and Darryl K in my class we were always vying off each other and constantly raising the bar. I look back now and really value my time in NCAD.

What was your design career path after graduation?

I left college determined to make it as a stylist: a career path very unfamiliar to most back in the late 80s. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to French Vogue in Paris straight out of college and so landed in the middle of the fashion capital of the world at 21. It was an incredible introduction to how things should be done. While in Paris, I also interned with Azzedine Alaia, an experience I will never forget. At French Vogue I was a styling assistant in the fashion editorial dept. In Azzedine’s I sat with Olivier Picasso (yes, his grandson) doing everything from picking up pins to drilling holes in tiny shells for hours so that they could be beaded into his twine-like knits.

I returned to Ireland and developed my career as one of the leading stylists for fashion, commercial and editorial shoots, building up a strong portfolio which after 8 years got me an agent in New York, Bryan Bantry.

I spent 2 years living in NYC while all the time creating my own work and selling it in the Union Square Craft Market. Ireland called again and I came home in 2000 and set up my own label. It went from strength to strength, winning me various awards and ultimately creating a diffusion line which sold into 40 stores in its 4th season.

Tragedy overtook when my baby son died, and couldn’t continue. Eventually, I retreated back into the anonymous world of tv commercial styling. The draw to create and honor my son was such that in 2006 I launched my couture line in his honor, I have been working as a couturier ever since. Helen Cody

It’s so impactful to know you work in honour of your son. You most recently were challenged with breast cancer. How did your health and recovery affect your work?

My diagnosis of bilateral breast cancer in January 2018 was, as you can imagine, life crushing. As I caught up with the devastating news which seemed to get worse as the weeks passed, I employed several people and also had a shop in the center of Dublin. Due to the nature of my work and how personal it is, I had no choice but to close my shop, but, determined to keep the studio going, I managed to juggle treatment and appointments on the good days. I never stopped working.

I’m so grateful to my staff for keeping going in very uncertain times and to my clients who came and supported me knowing I was unwell.

Did working as a stylist better help you prepare to have your own line and business?

My formative years were styling. I’ve worked with so many international brands from The Foo Fighters to Harvey Keitel, Eric Cantona, The Corrs, The Cranberries, Anton Corbijn, Perry Ogden and the then President Mary McAleese.

You have worked in London, Paris and New York — How was your experience working internationally? Do you have favorite city, other than home?

My biggest love is Paris, even though New York inspired me most creatively. The experience of how structured it is in THE GRID in New York Magazines was such an eye-opener. I had experienced such creative freedom in Dublin and I was introduced to so much commercial structure in NY. Vogue in Paris was all about the best, OF EVERYTHING!

Do you have any words of advice for someone wanting to work abroad?

I tell all my interns that its vital to get proper international industry training if they want to survive. That, and persisting and never giving up.

In 2015 you were selected for the Critical Portfolio Project as the first fashion designer to be included. You were also named Kerry Fashion Week & IMAGE Magazine’s Irish Fashion Designer of the Year. How did those honors and others affect you?

I’m privileged that I’ve won many awards over the years, but although they are nice ego-boosting things at the time, I’m only ever as good as my next idea. Everything I have done in my career has come from passion, and a drive to do better. I’ve never had a commercial plan but I have always been driven by the next creative idea and goal. The critical selection was quite an honor as I’m the only fashion designer to make the cut — something I’m very proud of.

What were some of the challenges of launching your own collection? What kind of support did you have?

Sadly in Ireland there is no indigenous manufacturing or HELP for small independents. It was and is a struggle to keep standards high, and function in the very niche market that is bespoke clothing. There is no fashion week in Ireland, so I stage my own shows when I can.

Can you tell us about your design process?

The market in Ireland for high end couture is very limited, so I’m constantly having to find ways to promote my business, market my brand and stay visible and relevant. I find inspiration from everything , there is no one source for me, my mother’s attic as child was a treasure trove of vintage clothes that I would play dress up in, I think that’s been a constant inspiration. That and art: Brocante’s in France and my library of vintage and historic fashion refs.

Do you travel to events, trade shows, fabric show- how do you research and find new ideas, textiles, etc? Do you shop locally for fabrics, import of around Europe?

All my fabrics are imported from France and Italy. Ribbons come from Japan and buttons from a favourite supplier in Spain and even zips are from Germany. I travel twice yearly Premier Vision in Paris, the biggest trade fair in Europe, for fabric and tri