Monday 23rd November 2015: Celia Holman Lee is synonymous with Limerick. A businesswoman, a model, a fashionista and ambassador for the city, Holman Lee has experienced her own fair share of highs and lows throughout a career that goes right back to Limerick in the 1960’s.
Publish Date: Monday 23rd November 2015
Written by Nigel Dugdale on behalf of Limerick 2020
Celia Holman Lee is synonymous with Limerick. A businesswoman, a model, a fashionista and ambassador for the city, Holman Lee has experienced her own fair share of highs and lows throughout a career that goes right back to Limerick in the 1960’s. The energy she exudes is akin to the River Shannon after the gates at Ardnacrusha have been opened wide.
As Celia prepares for a celebration of fashion in Limerick over the Christmas season she took time out to talk with Nigel Dugdale about her fascinating life.
Celia Holman Lee started modelling at the age of 15 and quickly rose to the very top of the Irish industry. At the time Limerick was experiencing that 1960’s fashion renaissance that saw the emergence of local fashion boutiques and designers.
“In the early 1960s I was working in Roches Stores”, she tells me. “In a sense the place was Limerick’s first ever boutique. We were working in what I can only describe as a series of caves. It was a crazy time. There was a sense that everything was new. It felt like Carnaby Street in London”.
It was around this time that Celia was approached by businessman Dermot Farrell who asked if she would be interested in opening Limerick’s first ever independent boutique in the city. After some negotiations Celia took Farrell up on his offer and opened Trudy’s Boutique in the basement of a Georgian House on O’Connell St.
An early photograph from Celia's modelling days
“Dermot then opened a series of boutiques across Ireland and I used to manage them”, Celia says. “I also did some work with Sean Barron who went on to be the founder of the Pamela Scott fashion chain. Tragedy then hit us when Dermot was killed in a car accident at the age of just 33 years of age. Dermot’s death took the magic out of the business for me. I lost interest in being a part of it”.
The tragedy of Dermot Farrell’s death came as a shock but didn’t dampen Celia’s entrepreneurial zest. She quickly made the decision to go out on her own opening her own boutique, Celia Lee’s, on Thomas Street in Limerick city. The success of this boutique, which she ran for almost 19 years, saw Holman Lee introduce new brands Monsoon, Kelly Coates and Pepe Jeans into Ireland.
“I was stone mad at the time”, Celia remembers. “I travelled a lot and felt the world was my oyster. I was constantly on the lookout for new fashion trends”.
Around that time Celia’s husband Ger, who she considers the brains behind the business, was approached to set up a clothing manufacturing business.
“We dabbled in this for some time and then went on to open a factory in the old Tait’s factory. We employed over 80 people and produced Husky jackets. Business was booming. We used to see queues out the door of people who wanted to buy our product. These were our own designs which we supplied to major chains like Dunnes Stores and Penneys”.
The petrol strike of 1981 and the heavy recession of the 1980s had a huge impact on the couple’s business and ultimately saw them lose everything they had worked for. It was period of her life that Celia describes as a very difficult time.
Ger Lee and Celia Holman on their wedding day
Throughout her business career Celia had also managed to forge out a successful career in the modelling industry so much so that the Daily Mail newspaper described her as the “most sought after face in the seventies and eighties”.
“With the business booming modelling was always something I treated as part-time but I was certainly in demand”, she tells me.
“I was part of so many fascinating events in Limerick at the time and particularly remember the celebrations when the first jumbo jet arrived in Shannon Airport. I was photographed in the propeller of the jet. It was unbelievably glamorous!”
With the decline of their business Celia decided it was time to focus on the modelling side in order to make ends meet. Celia also was beginning to work with and train other models. Gradually the couple worked themselves out of their debts and transformed the Celia Holman Lee agency into what it is today - the longest running agency in Ireland.
“I believe that all of my experiences in those days – the successes and the failures – gave me a huge insight into the business of the fashion industry”, she says.
“I understood design, sales, merchandising and buying. Ger was with me throughout all of this period. I was the creative one and Ger was the grounded business mind”.
Ger and Celia pictured together at a Valentines Day fashion shoot
Celia believes that Limerick owes a lot its many family-owned indigenous fashion businesses for putting the city on the map.
“Limerick has always had a very good name when it came to fashion”, she says. “The city has boasted many independent stores over the years. You had the likes of Helene Modes, Amee’s, In Vogue, O’Donnell’s, Tony Connolly and Irish Handcrafts. This was unusual for an Irish city of its size. You had generations of families working in these businesses”.
“There was a concept of buying at the time that was particularly individual. Every store had its own unique stock. You would never find the same dress in Helene Modes as you would in O’Donnell’s. The influence of the high street brands had yet to hit Limerick. In fact the only big name retailer we had was Roches Stores. You could attend a thousand events in Limerick and probably would find you would be dressed differently to everybody else. The wide variety of design found in Limerick was what put us on the map in a national context. We have also always been blessed with the modelling talent Limerick has had to offer. I have never struggled to find talent here in Limerick and continue to credit the success of my agency on that fact”.
The recent launch of the Limerick Fashion Incubation Hub at Limerick School of Art and Design brings back memories for Celia who speaks of Limerick as a leader when it comes to nurturing design talent down through the years.
“Going back a long time we had the former Workspace which was located just beside the Granary on Michael Street”, she tells me. “Then we had a cluster of design spaces in the Tait Business Centre on Dominick Street. These incredible spaces produced the likes of Caroline Mitchell, Miss Muff, Margaret Ryan and many other independent fashion designers. We were producing quality designers in the areas of jewellery, bags, clothing and craft”.
Celia is a strong advocate for promoting local and national design talent. Her recent exhibition at the Hunt Museum showcased a personal collection of fashion by Irish Designers. Her collection included pieces by the likes of Marion Murphy Cooney, Katherine Keane, Vonnie Reynolds, Michelina Stacpoole, Paul Costelloe, Alison Cowper, Richard Lewis, Matt O’Donohoe, and Don O’Neill. That particular event was tinged with sadness as it coincided with the death of Celia’s friend and long-term collaborator John McNamara.
Celia and her late dear friend John McNamara
Holman Lee believes the world of fashion retail is changing and that the days of the mass high street stores no longer have the power they once had.
“We have all feared the dotcom effect on the fashion industry and how easy it was becoming to buy cheap products online”, she says.
“Trends are now thankfully moving back into the sphere of individuality and recognition of quality craft. Shoppers want to have a sense that they are buying something that has been designed and crafted by hand. They want to support local designers and want to feel some form of connection with the heritage of Irish design. From jewellery to wraps to knitwear Ireland is now once again coming to the fore when it comes to the quality of its fashion produce”.
Celia gives great credit to the team behind the Limerick Craft Hub on Cecil Street and particularly to Clare Jordan who manages the space who Celia describes as a “real driving force”.
“There you have a person who is a designer and a manufacturer herself. She has design in her bones and is driving a space full of creative people and managing to make it work”, Celia notes.
“The Craft Hub is ticking all the boxes at the moment. Not only have we designers working in the space but we have an outlet that is allowing our local design talent to showcase their work. This is something I see as fundamentally different from the likes of other ‘hubs’ we have seen developed down through the years. The Craft Hub allow locals to support our local designer but also, more importantly, provides a space for tourists to get an understanding of what is happening in the world of Limerick and Irish design. The space has many dimensions and deserves to be supported”.
Celia admires Clare Jordan and her team at Limerick's Craft Hub for work they are doing
Holman Lee sees City of Culture in 2014 as an initiative that forced all those involved in various creative industries to start thinking outside the box.
“Sometimes if we are left to our own devices and not challenged we can become lethargic. What 2014 did was enable so many creatives to try something new without having the fear of failure. Even if a project didn’t necessarily work we had a platform from which to understand where it went wrong and to fix those issues going forward. The bid for European Capital of Culture comes at a great time in that sense. Everybody in Limerick learned so much last year and we are now in a much stronger position from which to prepare for this important designation”.
Celia Holman Lee is passionate about Limerick. During the interview she refers to the “wide open, magnificent Georgian city” and to what she describes as “the magnificent River Shannon flowing through it”.
“We are not a pokey city”, she says. “Our people are embracing the city more than ever before. My own models constantly tell me of the walks they take along the riverside on our new boardwalks. The city is transforming. Things are so much more positive that they ever were before. Of course we still have some mountains to climb but the pieces are starting to come together."
Celia is a strong advocate for Limerick’s thriving coffee culture, something she believes can really help retail in the city centre.
“I love it. We need more. The fact is that people want to meet and socialise in town. When they do that they are also taking in everything retailers in the city are offering. Even if they don’t buy that day they will return. What the city needs is people coming in, wandering about, sipping coffee and experiencing the atmosphere of the city. That is how a city works. We need to embrace the culture of people coming in to spend time in our city and make the environment such that gives them a reason to come in”.
Celia is behind this year's Celebrating Christmas in Limerick - the City of Fashion campaign
Over recent years Celia has been involved in organising the International Student Fashion Awards here in Limerick, an event that has seen many up and coming young designers showcase their work here in Limerick. She also considers herself a great believer in celebrating local fashion particularly at a time like Christmas.
“The late Jim Kemmy once said to me that I should get involved in the idea of competition design and I have always tried to take that advice on board. 25 years ago Limerick was doing fashion festivals when no one else was doing it in Ireland. We were doing window design competitions at Christmas. One of the legacies of City of Culture has been the great number of positive people with great ideas all wanted to do their bit for their city”.
Celia has once again got involved in the Limerick at Christmas experience this year, a year where much of the focus is placed on supporting the great fashion offer the city has to offer. She recently approached the local authority with an idea to create a theme called ‘Celebrating Christmas in Limerick – The City of Fashion 2015’.
“They immediately were supportive of the idea”, she says. “Christmas is a great time to have a festival like this. Quite often fashion festivals are held around September. At Christmas you have a time when people are wanted to buy gifts, to treat themselves and are more aware of what is available in stores around the city. Shops are trying to move their stock. So Limerick is now taking this perfect time for retail to create a fashion festival that will involve and support all the local businesses in the city centre”.
The events will kick off on Monday 23rd November with a design and style event at Limerick Craft Hub which aims to showcase very best unique and local Irish design. Other events will include a festive fashion show, a fashion road trail and the Limerick Festive Window Display competition 2015.
For full details of the Celebrating Christmas in Limerick – the City of Fashion check out www.Limerick.ie/Christmas