Ah Leona O’Sullivan Breen, is there a more perfect contradiction in all the land? A thoroughly modern life lived in the most nostalgic of manners. I first met this Vintage-donned, red-lipstick-rocking ball of beautiful energy in a Cork pub a few years back. The rendezvous was prearranged (as far as I know neither of us have a habit of picking up chicks in bars). She came in all smiles and fabulousness, tripping over her own words as she tried to get three excited sentences out in the space of one. She was delightful and I was hooked. I crossed my fingers and hoped she had no friends. I could fill the void. Soon after we were joined by her brilliant business partner, Jill. Annoyingly I could see they already had a friendship, actually quite a nice one. She alluded to other friends too. Still, I could persevere.
Irene: Leona, you are well known on the Irish Vintage scene, having produced hugely successful projects and events over the past few years. Much of your original inspiration began during the time you were planning your wedding. Your now business partner Jill (of Wild Floral Couture fame) was in fact your florist. Why is it, do you think, that this planning process brings out such creativity in those involved, particularly the brides?
Leona: I think that for many it can be the first time in your life that you are part of a creative process. The minute you start researching / planning a wedding it can trigger something creative in you that you didn’t know was there. Well that was certainly the case for me anyway! I was always into fashion, photography and interior design but from an appreciation point of view. I was never particularly arty or creative in school – in actual fact I was awful at art. This was way back in the day before the concept of styling was created (its all about styling these days!) When I met Jill for the first time five years ago for what was supposed to be a quick meeting about wedding bouquets it turned into a three hour conversation about flowers, weddings and life in general, I left completely inspired. Little did I know that day that we would end up as close friends and business partners! *Wipes tear away*
I: You guys! You make me believe in love… So what is it about Vintage in particular that captures your imagination?
L: The vintage pieces I lean towards, whether it be clothing, accessories or interiors, are the ones that have already lived a life and have a story. More often than not, these are well made, classic pieces and even though they may come from a specific era they are completely original one off pieces. You just can’t beat the detailing and craftsmanship of authentic vintage clothing. If you don’t believe me spend an hour browsing through the rails in Miss Daisy Blue in Cork and you will see what I mean; they just don’t make clothes these days like they used to! I used to be a dedicated follower of fashion and trends but since I started wearing more and more vintage it gave me a feeling of originality and individuality that is far more empowering than just being a sheep. When you buy a vintage dress or coat you can be confident that you are wearing a classic, something that hasn’t been mass-produced, that you are guaranteed nobody else will have.
I: We first met, along with your aforementioned Le Chat Noir partner in crime, Jill Wild, ahead of your inaugural Vintage show for Cork Fashion Week. For me that seems like both a lifetime ago and as if it were yesterday! What had brought you and Jill to that point?
L: Emer O’Mahony, Director of Lockdown Models and Cork Fashion week is a friend of mine who always helped us out with advice in the early days when we started out with planning Le Chat Noir Vintage fairs. We were always huge fans of Cork Fashion Week and when we pitched our first idea for a vintage show to be a part of Cork Fashion week in 2011 we were so thrilled that they embraced it and included our production in the line up of events. We wanted to try our hand at producing other events outside of Fairs, and Cork Fashion week proved to be a fantastic platform to help us do this. Plus at the time there was a thriving vintage scene in Cork and we knew that the shows would be very popular. We have since gone on to produce and host 2 more vintage themed fashion shows as part of Cork Fashion Weeks 2012 and 2013.
I: I am always struck by the incredible synergy that you ladies have through your partnership. I previously referred to you as perfect ying and yang; I am still struck by that every time we meet. Considering your apparent different personalities, what was it that gave you the confidence to go forward as a team?
L: I know everyone says that about Jill and I; we are quite different in many ways but that to me is our unique selling point. We each have strengths in different areas that compliment each other and in actual fact it makes working on events and projects together very easy as we know instinctively what we will be good at and what part of the process we each should drive. Since Cathy joined our team last year she too has brought another dimension. We are quite a force to be reckoned with now (smiley face!).
I: I well believe it! Since then you have produced beautiful and memorable events under that Le Chat Noir umbrella. Of those, what has been your highlight and why?
L: Oh there have been so many that I see as highlights but three events stick out in mind as being particularly memorable.
The first Vintage Fair we held in the Flying Enterprise was pretty special. It was over the May Bank Holiday in 2011 and there had never been anything like it Cork before, it was our first experience of event planning and it was also the first time we met a lot of people who were to become good friends.
In 2013 we produced the finale show for Cork Fashion Week and it will always stick out in my mind as one of the most special events we ever created. It was one of those crazy ideas that petrified the life out of us but also one that we knew if we could it pull off it would blow everyone’s socks off. It was entitled “ A Chronicle of Cinematic fashion” and we held it a beautiful old disused Church in Sunday’s Well Cork City. The fashion show – chronicling vintage fashion looks from different cinematic eras – was the main event, however the theatrical feel was enhanced with a two amazing performances: a burlesque act by Susan Cox and an outstanding vocal performance by Gemma Sugrue. Jill styled the venue to perfection (no mean feat considering how vast it was), the lighting gave an eerie but intimate feel to the whole production, and the models (from Lockdown model agency) were styled in the most beautiful vintage looks from some of the finest vintage stores in the city . Finally our host (that’s you ya know) did an amazing job of keeping a professional fluidity to the entire evening. The feedback was outstanding, people couldn’t believe that a show of this standard was happening in our wee city. The best compliment we got was that someone felt we had transported them to some top secret event in New York or Paris!
Finally, another highlight for me was when we put together our first styled photo-shoot entitled “Birds of a Feather” last summer. Since establishing Le Chat Noir Vintage Events in May 2011 we have worked with a huge network of talented, like-minded and inspiring women on a host of creative projects. We wanted a way of thanking them for their support and also wanted to highlight them to the industry, as they are normally the ones behind the scenes at events. We had a pretty extensive list of local female talent to choose from but we thought it would be cool to bring together a bunch of women who have all crossed paths creatively on projects via Le Chat Noir Vintage Events, and to celebrate them in a beautiful setting. We settled on eight women who perfectly represented girl power Lee side! The photo shoot took place in the newly renovated Deep South Bar on Grande Parade in Cork City. The backdrop of the shoot itself was a gorgeous old exposed brick wall in the beer garden of Deep South. Jill designed the most gorgeous brunch setting which was in tune with the styling and colour palette of the looks each women wore. The story of the shoot essentially was a fun gathering of strong creative women in a pretty setting, with hints of vintage decor, flowers, greenery, wood; we stuck to natural base colour palate of gold, white, cream with hints of turquoise and green… and of course birds! It was the most fun day ever and we were thrilled with the how the pictures turned out!
I: And that’s just the top three! Then, in the past year you have created Oh Me, Oh My, DIY! Workshops, making your duo a trio, with Cathy of Turquoise Flamingo completing the team. How did this project come about and is it the end of Le Chat Noir or the latest incarnation?
L: Last summer Cathy came to us with the idea of doing a workshop and over copious cups of coffee and cake the concept of Oh Me, Oh My DIY Workshops was born. We knew there was nothing like this happening in Cork or Ireland at the time and honestly we were so excited about putting all our ideas in motion that I don’t think we would have even cared if anyone booked a place (we are weird like that – I dare you to show us a stripy straw without us squealing in delight) The initial interest was slow but we kept slogging away with the details and plans for our first workshop as we knew we were on to something. It was really our first batch of attendees who made us believe we had created something special. Their feedback blew us away and when the pictures of our first workshop went up online, we were inundated with enquires about when the next workshop would be. That was really a great feeling, shortly afterwards we launched our website and sold out our autumn workshop in a matter of days and our winter workshop in under 3 hours! It’s definitely not the end of Le Chat Noir Vintage Events rather another string to our bow – we will still continue to host fairs, fashion shows and photoshoots alongside our schedule of Oh me oh my DIY workshops!
I: Glad to hear it. And the photos from the workshops really do look amazing so obviously the set up is working. When you think of your three varied backgrounds it makes perfect sense to merge your distinct talents to create a wholly rounding offering. On a practical level, how is it to work in a team of three rather than a 50/50 partnership? The good and the bad please!
L: Well we all have quite strong personalities which can be a good and a bad thing… mainly good though! Our weekly meetings are honestly so much fun because at the core of what we do we are great friends and we love what we do together with an unbridled passion. We encourage each other’s strengths but are not afraid to give an opinion where necessary. No one gets offended because any critical feedback is all for the greater good of our events and workshops. Each of us wants our workshops and events to grow and develop – making mistakes along the way is part of the journey, plus a three-person team is great as someone always brings cake!
I: Mmmm… cake. On a personal level, you work full time in the corporate world as well as running the aforementioned projects. You’re also Mama to the ever-stylish Archie. Seeing as I know Archie has a Papa I won’t ask how you do it all (or who’s ‘babysitting’ when you’re working on the events!) but I am always interested in what keeps busy people motivated. What is your energy source when it comes to staying inspired and sharp?
L: I love the variety of what I do although it can bloody exhausting at times! Sadly I’ve no advice to give on how to stay sharp as I’m convinced that I am dehydrated most of the time, I drink wayyy to much coffee and haven’t had a full night sleep in two years! All the roles I have are important and inspiring to me. My role in the corporate world is challenging and rewarding (I project manage global recruitment events for the software company VMware); the small businesses on the side allow me to explore my creative side. But as cliché as its sounds my most important, fulfilling and energy-sapping job is being a mother to a crazy adorable two-year-old. Overall I just love being busy! I’m really motivated by the positive feedback we get after our events – it doesn’t feel like work when you love what you do and its a great feeling to know you were a part of creating an event that was really enjoyed.
I: From the looks of things you are surrounded by strong, intelligent, go-getter females. How important is this to your success?
L: It’s unbelievably important. There are so many talented and creative business women here in Cork and they all share the love and support in a very generous way. We really feel it when organising our events and workshops. The support, advice and encouragement this network of women has given us has 100% attributed to our success.
I: In your life, from where has your style inspiration come?
L: Oh everywhere really. I have a bunch of very stylish sisters and friends, they inspire me the most. I am a self-confessed pinner and Instagram-aholic I spend hours sourcing on both sites looking for divine style inspiration. I appreciate trends but try to put my own stamp on what I wear and I do like many others enjoy mixing Vintage pieces with High street. But since becoming a mother comfort and practicality have become my focus. I used to be able to work 8 hours a day in heels and continue on to a night out in them – now I’m literally dead on my feet after an hour in heels!
I: Speaking of Vintage, what are your favourite Vintage possessions?
L: I am a vintage tea dress hoarder. I have tonnes and try to pick a new one to add to my collection every summer. Think bored ‘50s housewife and that’s the look I usually go for (minus the chain smoking). I have a gorgeous teal and gold vintage compact holder that Jill gave me after my wedding when we decided to set up Le Chat Noir Vintage Events. I love it so much, to me it signifies the start of a new chapter in my life and the beginning of Jill and my friendship.
I: I have one hour in Cork and €100 to spend. Where am I going?
L: Ok start early in Liberty Grill on Washington Street and have a boozy breakfast. I recommend the Egg Florentine washed down with a Kir Royale. After that take a stroll through the English Market stopping at the world famous Miss Daisy Blue for a browse; pop next door to Peacock And Ruby for a gander at all the gorgeous accessories. Next, head to the Crawford Art Gallery for a look at the museum’s collection of modern and classical works. Have lunch here too, there’s a gorgeous café that is very reasonable on the ground floor. Mercury Goes Retrograde is a one-minute walk from the Crawford and one of my favorite vintage shops in the city so a visit is a must. Make your way down to Cork Vintage Quarter, which is on Henry Street. It has two floors of vintage treasures, retro, antiques, vinyl and loads more. By now you are probably thirsty so head to Dennehys bar on the Coal Quay – it’s one of the last few remaining authentic pubs in the city, you won’t want to leave!
I: I am saving that €100 and will be down for that exact day posthaste! Besides Cork, where are your favourite places to shop Vintage?
L: Edinburgh is pretty good for vintage; my sister lives there and I try to get over once a year. Also London! I love Camden Market for thrifting and I believe Beyond Retro is what heaven looks like. Also I’ve been to the Paris flea markets once, they we pretty amazing and go on for miles. I can’t wait to return there soon.
I: I’m coming too! That €100 is going to bring me far. So what else does 2015 hold for ‘Leona of the many projects’?
L: 2015 is already shaping up to be a good one! As well as hosting four seasonal Oh me, Oh my DIY workshops (with one to be taken on the road!), we will also have a selection of more themed DIY workshops throughout the year.
We are hoping to fit in some more shoots and at least one fashion show. We will also collaborate again with Castlemartyr Resort for the Annual Saul Picnic and Vintage Fair which is always a fabulous event.
I: I shall look forward to coming Cork way for as many of those events as possible. As you have just experienced some of the longest questions I have ever put to anyone, Leona, I shall make up for it with a quick fire round (minus buzzers or points). You’re welcome.
Favorite DIY project skill you have mastered? I’m pretty good at repurposing old glass jars into something pretty or useful. Jill, Cathy and I did a session on this at our last workshop. It helped that I practiced a lot in Jill’s studio beforehand and that I also made her stand beside me the whole time during the demo.
Instant stress-busting tune? I love Robyn – Dancing On My Own when I need to bust some stress
Must-visit brunch spot in Cork… Liberty Grill for-evs
Will Jill ever willingly pose for a photo, alone? It will be a cold day in hell – although it’s her new year’s resolution to not hate getting her photograph taken.
Did you initially dream up a role for Cathy so you could steal her Vintage clothes? Damn you figured it out, Just don’t tell her now!
Best post DIY workshop cocktail? Ohhh anything Prosecco based, I loved our winter workshop celebratory cocktail – Prosecco with a sprig of thyme and fresh cranberries.
One person in history that you would love to style? Hmmm how about Michael Collins? LOL!
Best way to win over your other half after an argie bargie? Just keep saying I’m right and you are wrong over and over until he can’t take any more, gives you his wallet and asks you to leave.
Can I move to Cork please? Com’on like just move here already!
Tip for removing red lipstick from everything? Ok so this is a problem I suffer from almost daily. I get red lippy on a lot of things including Archie, so I consulted our resident Vintage Hair and Make up guru Rosa Ospina for her advice on this one cos I just use baby wipes for everything these days and I know that’s wrong. Listen to her she’s the queen: “A tiny bit of fairy liquid on the yellow bit of a sponge is my go to! And that the sponge should be a little damp, the fairy liquid cuts through the waxy lipstick”
If I could walk in one persons shoes for a full day it would be… Probably Archie’s! I would love to be a two-year-old for a day… being unreasonable, staring a people and getting away with it, throwing my food around the place…heaven. Plus I miss him terribly when I’m at work and would just love to see what a day in playschool is like.
And there you have it, from the hazards red rouge to Super-Mama, in one fell swoop. I do believe this particular ’50s housewife’ could be anything but bored.
Follow Leona’s gloriously colourful life on Instagram… she gives great photo.
Also, lose an hour to the beautiful Oh Me, Oh My DIY website (and book upcoming workshops if you get in early enough).
Thanks for taking part, you utterly fabulous lady. Weak.
x Irene x
Disclaimer: most photos featured are in fact robbed. Leona was busy juggling her many roles and between us this interview had already taken about two months to get done so I took it upon myself to stalk and take. This is also why I pop up in them. Apologies if any images are yours and I haven’t credited you. You have a great eye though.