Matthew O'Brien - The designer shares his tips on bespoke gowns
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 September 2019
Katie Mulloy meets Chester fashion designer Matthew O'Brien to unpick the process of made-to-measure luxury.
Three minutes into our first consultation and I'm starting to fear I may be the trickiest customer fashion designer Matthew O'Brien has encountered in a while.
'Do you like lace?' he asks.
'How about pleats?'
'What about some sort of embellishment?'
Which begs the very reasonable question, what exactly do I want? It's just that rather frustratingly for him, I imagine, I don't really have the answer to that.
I'm rather hoping he does.
His patience apparently knows no bounds. It's okay, he assures me as he rubs out his latest sketch once again - that's his job. 'When someone has booked in for a consultation, they've come to me for a reason,' says Matthew, 29. 'I have to figure out what it is they're really looking for. I want them to end up with something that's beautiful and fits them perfectly but is also individual and looks like it's been made just for them.
'So they might ask for something simplistic,' he says referencing my vague brief of 'something long and black'.
'But I think it's important, during the design process to push that boundary a little. If it doesn't work, no problem, we'll start again. I'd rather put more on and then take it off.'
This is my first foray into the world of bespoke dress buying. It wasn't something I'd really considered, or even known about, until a recent search for an awards ceremony dress (you can read all about it in my editor's letter) led me to Matthew's showroom - a plush three-story shop-cum-bridal-studio-cum-design-house in the heart of the Chester Rows. If he'd had a little more time, he'd said, he could have made me one.
It turns out that the bespoke element accounts for more than 70% of Matthew's business; whether that's its bridal arm or otherwise.
'Often they're women wanting occasionwear,' he says. 'We have a lot of mothers-of-the-bride who come to me for something different because they don't like that old-fashioned notion of what a mother-of-the-bride is supposed to wear.'
'But I also do a lot of workwear: solicitors, CEOs, professional women who want a work wardrobe that's as fierce as their CV'
It is a process that, from beginning to end, is conducted entirely from his Chester store. It'll be just over a year since he opened his luxury flagship store, moving from far smaller premises on the other side of the city. On the ground floor is his ready-to-wear-collection, up the staircase his bridal and menswear showroom, and squirrelled away on the top floor his team of hardworking seamstresses.
'When I was looking for new premises, I knew manufacturing had to be in the same place,' he says. 'You have to be able to do the alterations on the spot but also I can't be in two places. The seamstress needs to be able to speak to me, I need to be there. If I left them to it for seven hours straight it wouldn't be a Matthew O'Brien dress.'
This is the problem when you are the keystone of a rapidly expanding eponymous business. It's hard to move forward when you are the brand - customers don't want anyone else but Matthew designing their dresses. 'My seamstresses are amazing but they're not me, they haven't got my eye,' he says.
And if that makes him sound like a slight control freak, he's okay with that.
'People feel quite secure in knowing that I'm like that. I'll go in [to a fitting] and start pulling things apart and I'll say, "Just bear with me". And then once they see what I could see they're like, "Oh god, you were right to take that off".
And so, as with all his bespoke clients, my initial consultation is Matthew himself. Because of the time he insists on spending with you, you're often queuing like buses to see him. Before me there is a mother-of-the-groom-to-be who is waiting for a second meeting with him about the fabric they've had to reorder for her coat. She tells me how she'd trawled boutiques for an outfit before a friend had suggested going bespoke. 'It really wasn't more expensive than the off-the-peg outfits I was looking at,' she says. 'This way I know nobody will be in the same outfit as me.'
Indeed, business is booming. 'It's non-stop,' Matthew says. 'And it's amazing that it is non-stop. When I used to have the old stores I used to see lulls and have periods where it's not so busy. Because we practice every discipline - bridal, ready-to-wear, menswear - we're just run off our feet because we're always catering for someone.'
It is interesting perhaps that he is succeeding in a space where Jaeger, once a huge player at the high-end of high-street fashion closed down. If people are paying a lot, then much like the mother-of-the-groom I talked to they want something more for the price tag.
Luckily for Matthew, his work ethic can cope with demand. He's been sewing since he was a child. 'We had a machine that used to sit under the stairs. But nobody knew how to thread it so I'd have to wait for my aunty to come and visit every couple of months as she was the only one who could do it,' he laughs.
By 15 he'd launched his own label; a cool, casual t-shirts-and-hoodies collection under the name MANG. He was running it from his bedroom, 'although on all my emails I made it sound like it was some huge business'.
And yet he still wasn't convinced fashion was his calling. 'I've always been that kid who took things apart and put them back together so, for a long time, I assumed I'd do electronics and engineering. It's still the manufacturing side of fashion that fascinates me the most,' he says.
He put himself through university, first pursuing a short course at London's Institutio Marangoni, a respected, international fashion school, and then securing a full scholarship to Liverpool John Moores University where he studied fashion design during the day and did extra courses in robotics and electronics in the evening. By 25 he'd won Britain's Top Designer, Young Designer of the Year. Incorporating his love of all things technical, he's even spent time developing materials for the Ministry of Defence.
With the backing of a silent partner he opened this shop and now has a two-year plan to open stores in Liverpool and Manchester.
'I work seven days a week,' he says. 'I love what I do. There isn't a second I'm not thinking about work.'
His eyes are firmly on the future: 'I've never taken anything from the business. Every penny from day dot, even from when I was young, has gone back into building the business. Everything. I'm all about growth.
Does he have any time for himself? 'I went on holiday last month and I ended up ordering material from the pool,' he says as an answer to that.
And yet for someone who's constantly looking forward he has the skill, in the time that he is with you, to focus on you entirely. He knows how important it is to listen to what the customer is saying and then somehow walk the tightrope of merging his expertise, his vision, with your comfort levels.
And so, for me, I get my 'long and black' crepe gown but Matthew gently persuades me towards a side split as well as a ruched tulle embellishment that sweeps up from my hip, across the opposite shoulder.
I am unsure but go along with it since I figure he knows what he's doing and I need to work on my trust issues.
By the first fitting, the gown is made, the embellishment still just tacked on. I slip into the dress - it fits perfectly. I got married last year and it took seven fittings to get my designers silk-crepe dress to fit as it should - Matthew and his genius seamstress, Baiba, have nailed it first time. I am still sceptical of the limp tulle. And then Matthew starts doing his thing - tacking it to the dress, adjusting its placement on my shoulders by millimetres. And suddenly it all starts to work, becoming something that sweeps the eye up, giving the whole thing shape and elegance.
It takes two more fittings to get it right but I can't believe how much I love the end result. Something that I would never have chosen myself and yet love all the more because of it.
'That's what it's all about,' says Matthew. 'I always want to think, What can I do that will make this a Matthew O'Brien dress? Is it the neckline? Is it the sleeves? Is it the split? What difference can I add to that item so people know this is an individual piece they've had made? I want people to feel special.'
Thanks Matthew, you've definitely done that.