In bed with… Irene O’Brien
Stylist, broadcaster, writer and podcaster Irene O’Brien stands out from the crowd for her vintage style, honed after scouring many a charity shop, flea market and preloved website or app.
Over her extensive career she has styled editorial shoots, commercial campaigns, ads, short films, brand ambassadors, celebrities, catwalk and street shows, and social media features – all while being a mum to two young sons (Arthur, 3.5 years and Freddie Valentine, 2).
To whom do you attribute your flair for fashion and style?
Flair, you say! That’s definitely the first time I’ve been told I’ve flair for anything…
My love for fashion and style definitely comes from my mum. She has always gotten great joy from clothes – hers and other peoples’ – the craftsmanship, the design, the way a garment moves. She has given me a huge appreciation for how clothes are made, for who makes them, for how well they last when cared for and loved. My mum has innate style; I’ve always loved seeing how she puts an outfit together – in person and in old photos. She’s my original Sixties Icon! And she has always admired individuality in others – she celebrates difference, which makes her someone with whom sharing a love of clothing is very fun.
Crucially, my mum buys me a gorgeous pair of new pyjamas every single Christmas and I look forward to opening them more than any other gift. We take loungewear pretty seriously.
When did you realise you could turn fashion into a career?
Relatively speaking I was pretty ‘late’ turning anything style-related into a career. I’d studied media and worked in various parts of that industry for years. At the same time I had an enduring love of vintage fashion which led me to writing blogs and getting involved in various vintage events and happenings, which in turn led organically to some TV contributions, which in turn led to styling jobs… which in turn led to me working at that full time. There was a lot of winging it. Now, my favourite job is one that combines media and styling. It’s what I buzz off the most.
You’re an advocate of mindful shopping, of only buying what we consciously love (or need) rather than what we want. Were you always so self-aware – and sustainable – when it comes to fashion?
For some reason I just always felt that you should love, love, love something before you buy it. If I coveted something, I’d make multiple visits to it over a period of time – I would dream about how and where I’d wear it, I’d think of the pieces I already owned that would complement it. I would save for it and almost hold my breath in fear that it would be gone by the time I had raised the funds! The final trip in to make that purchase was such a rush. I think there’s real value in delayed gratification.
And I think if you’ve considered a purchase, fallen in love with a garment, chosen it over the myriad other ways you could have spent that money, then it just follows you’re more likely to be invested in its care and its place in your sartorial life. I know I sound OTT. I can’t help it; I think of clothes as friends. And even with all the mindful purchasing, I still have too many ‘friends’ in my wardrobe. Emotional attachment is an issue for me: “but I wore it the first time I…” I’m working on letting go.
You work with personal clients but also brands big and indie too, from BT and Harvey Nichols to Parfois, Om Diva, Oxfam, lifestyle publishers and broadcasters. How important is it for a stylist to bring their own individual style to projects?
I think it’s either the best thing you can do or the worst thing you can do. You need to be aware of why a brand or client has engaged with you – people mostly book you on your previous work, or portfolio. The important thing to establish is what it is they liked about those projects and what it is they hope you will bring to their campaign, segment or project.
Sometimes it’s that your energy fits and they simply want that brought to their new vision. Dressing every person and set like we’re in 1960s Carnaby Street might be fun for me, but it’s not necessarily going to work for a broadband commercial. Mood boards and communication usually make sure you get the balance right. That, and a little more communication.
How would you describe your relaunched podcast The Gilded Thread?
The Gilded Thread is a series of conversations with people who have either influenced me or whom I have admired from afar. They share with me stories from their lives over the decades as recalled through style, clothing, or fashion memories.
Every guest has life experience and that’s what makes me drawn to them. I have friends of every age; young, old, and everything in-between. I think that keeps life colourful. I do really believe that we fetishise youth and I think that can be at the cost of wisdom and experience. And in a time when social sharing is not just commonplace but part of daily life, there are entire generations of people who aren’t on social media but have these incredible stories that we don’t always necessarily hear. I want to capture those memories.
I’m always drawn to people with a few decades on the clock, people who can transport us to previous decades and, on reflection, share what it meant to live, work and love during those different times. And to hear what chapters of their lives left the biggest imprint, to see if those learnings remain as important a few years on. Honestly, I adore these chats. They’re long for podcast episodes, but I really feel they need that space. And personally, I love a long podcast episode to keep me company on my travels.
What made you decide to put the podcast to bed – and later dust it off?
Baby – Pandemic – Pandemic Baby.
Life got busy, and chaotic, and overwhelming, if I’m honest. I never, ever meant to leave it so long. Being self-employed is tricky at the best of times but never more so than during and after massive life changes. I needed to get into a work groove again in order to give myself the luxury of finding space for it. Even when Cassie at Tall Tales took on the podcast, we were still at the mercy of Covid surges, etc, so there were multiple delays getting episodes recorded and ultimately getting the series out.
But none of that deterred me because I think what the past few years have taught me, and so many of us, is that human connection is the most important thing there is. Hearing from others about their joys, challenges, and memories, particularly through the lens of style, make for evergreen conversations. It has been a massive privilege recording with these guests.
Your restyle posts on Insta prove that the ideal outfit is often just a seamstress away – an expert who can transform a piece just by adding a few darts, moving a zip or changing a hem length or sleeve. Will good, old-fashioned make and mend become a necessity over the coming decades or is there ever any going back after fast fashion?
I enjoy the restyling process and the collaboration with my tailors (The Zip Yard, Bray) so much. There has been such a shift in how we view and engage with fashion. And it’s a shift that is gathering pace. People want to be more considered. They also want to be creative in their approach and in their dress.
When the recession happened in 2008 I witnessed lots of collectives and workshops popping up. People were keen to look beyond how it has always been, to find more interesting ways to engage with everything about their lifestyle. I really feel that again now, but on a much more palpable level in relation to fashion. The disconnect from what we buy or wear that previously existed is disappearing; every age of person is expressing a desire to be more mindful. Sewing workshops and classes seem to be on the rise once again which is cool on so many levels.
The one piece of advice that I give every single personal client of mine is to find and get to know their local tailor. It’s the best style decision you’ll ever make. The tiniest tweaks make our clothes look 40 times better. And the opportunity to love once again something that is in our wardrobe but is no longer fit for purpose, in its current form, is extremely satisfying.
We’re enjoying how the pyjamas as daywear trend seems to have become a mainstay for relaxed summer dressing. How would you style up a Moon + Mellow set?
The addition of a Moon + Mellow set to my wardrobe is essentially the addition of three potential new outfits. The shirts are the most beautiful cut, ideal for wearing tucked into high-waisted leather skirts, under dungarees, or open over denim shorts for summer. The wide trousers are gorgeous with a fine knit and slip-on clogs. And then each set together just looks rock-star cool, especially with a red lip and a gold block mule. Gotta love multifunctional clothing!
Any strong or fond nightwear memories growing up?
When I was about six or seven, my mum took my next elder sister and I into Arnotts where she bought us each what we would now call onesies. Back then they were not at all commonplace, so excitement was high at owning this completely unique design. They were a manmade fabric and had padded feet which combined to cause great sweating, especially by the open fire, but we wore those rompers day and night for our play and downtime.
I do remember always dying to get mine on but equally dreading the awful need for the toilet as I would absolutely freeze taking it half-way down to do my business in the cold tiled bathroom! Also, the zips were metal, and it wasn’t unusual for me to catch my skin in it in my haste to get warm again. I thought the payoff was worth it, though. Matching with my sister in these groundbreaking designs: magic!
Has your style changed since being a mum?
Naturally there’s more running around and bending down to pick up child/lost food/trod-on Lego so the minis probably don’t get the regular outings they once did. I guess day-to-day I probably lean more towards trousers than I once did… I definitely reach for dungarees, rompers and boilers suits. And hey, if all three of us happen to end up matching when I wear my overgrown babygrows, well, I guess that’s just a happy accident.
Where and when was your last truly mellow moment?
Last month I travelled to Bali with a few pals (leaving my own crew behind) for our great friends’ wedding. It was hectic fun from start to finish, but in between the craic and chaos there were little nuggets of downtime.
I would get ready for dinner in my room, sometimes with my pal chilling on the other bed – robe on, Fleetwood Mac playing, a little cocktail on the go, breaks for moments on the balcony, and just taking it easy while doing my makeup or choosing an outfit. I know that probably doesn’t sound mellow but it was the most peaceful space I’d had in ages. That, combined with the belly-aching laughter, left me energised about everything when I returned home. Sometimes the mellow comes from the change of scene.
What book(s) are on your nightstand?
Dear Dolly by Dolly Alderton, a Kris Kindle gift from my bestie. It’s basically a collection of the advice she has given through her Sunday Times column since it started. I thoroughly enjoy reading it but I tend to fall asleep so quickly due to prolonged sleep deprivation (see boys’ ages above) that I’m still not through it all these months later. It’s kind of perfect for dipping in and out of though, as chapters are self-contained. I love Alderton’s writing and I’m also very nosey about people’s lives, so it’s perfect evening consumption for me.
Alongside that is Seamus Heaney: 100 poems. Seamus Heaney is my mum’s favourite poet. She and I brought my sister to Paris for a special birthday at the start of his year and at the top of our wish-list was to visit Shakespeare and Company which we did early on the Friday morning. We were in heaven. I can still smell the delicious character of the bookshop now. Mum wanted to buy each of us a book from there to remember the trip by, so I chose this, as it reminds me of her too.
I also love his poetry, although almost every time I pick it up and choose a random poem, I end up bawling. That could be something to do with the aforementioned sleep deprivation, of course. But let’s give him the credit with his magnificent words.
Imagine a much-anticipated Friday night in on your own. Your Moon + Mellow PJs are on and you have the TV – and couch – entirely to yourself. What is your go-to feel-good film, snack and refreshment and why?
I love time travel in my movies, either modern ones that are set in past eras, or older movies. I absolutely love 1980s films, especially those featuring any of the Brat Pack. Can’t Buy Me Love is a firm favourite. Coming of age story + a great soundtrack = heaven. That, or a binge of Interior Design Masters.
Snack is going to be savoury (to start): soft cheese and crunchy seeded crackers. And I always love the idea of a delicious glass of wine with that, but when I’m alone I tend to choose a sparkling water and a green tea (with nutty chocolate to finish, thank you very much).
Who would be your top three celebrity pyjama party guests and what would your playlist include?
Dolly Parton for the tunes and tales. Stanley Tucci for the cocktails and tales. Iris Apfel for the style and tales. Playlist will be a mix of country bangers and 1990s R&B bops. We’d know every word and sing our collective hearts out. I think we’d have a ball… just imagine how good they’d all look in their pyjamas?
Non-pervy outro: what will you be wearing when you slip between the sheets later?
Between the sheets, around the house, in the garden, at the shops, on a night out, the Nomad Housecoat is the stuff of dreams. As it happens, housecoats are my ultimate vintage treasures. I constantly look for them and feel absolute delight when I discover one in great condition.
The Nomad Housecoat is so beautifully made, its padding and the print are both dreamy. It’s the kind of piece that I consider a future collectable. Beautiful in its brand-new form for wearing and enjoying now as both loungewear and as part of your contemporary wardrobe. Then a joy to pass on in years to come, in just as perfect condition as it is today. The craftsmanship is exquisite. And it helps that it’s an absolute head-turner.