Matthew O'Brien - Chester's catwalk king
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 September 2019
Chester has its very own couturier. Meet Matthew O'Brien, fashion designer, beloved friend of brides and elegant women across the county.
It's relatively easy to set yourself up as a fashion designer. It's not remotely easy to then grow a business that brings clients from across the UK to your very elegant door, yet Matthew O'Brien has accomplished this - and he's only 29-years-old.
Matthew is sweet and funny and just too easy to spend time with. We have to keep reminding ourselves that we are there to talk about him, not pretty much every other subject under the sun. He has an energy that acts as a magnetic force, drawing you to him and along with him; it's not really surprising therefore that his clients, once they discover him, just keep coming back.
We meet in his new Chester shop, his third in three years, each bigger than the last to meet increasing demand. On Chester's iconic Rows, it is an elegant yet welcoming spot with a ground floor dedicated to Matthew's ready-to-wear line and a first floor bridal boutique and bespoke menswear lounge. There's a second floor too, with busy seamstresses leaning over sewing machines, cutters and pattern-makers - and all the talent necessary to deliver Matthew's stunning designs to his grateful clients.
It wasn't always like this though; at first, he did it all - every pencil stroke, snip of fabric and stitch - himself.
'I was always that child who took everything apart and then put it back together again. At school I studied Fine Art, IT and Product Design for my A levels. I never studied Textiles; I was aware of it, but it was too female dominated. I was curious though, so dug out an ancient sewing machine from under the stairs - I couldn't even thread it! My mother couldn't even thread it; we had to wait for the occasional visits of an older relative to come and do it for us. I started designing and making hoodies, T-shirts, board shorts… I didn't categorise it as 'fashion', though, they were just clothes. I launched my own brand - Mang Clothing - and started selling them online. I would ask my family for equipment for my birthday or Christmas - a screen printer, an overlocker, a new sewing machine. By the time I was 18 it was quite a thriving business, but nobody knew! I would see friends in sixth form wearing my clothes, made by me in my bedroom, and not say a word. At the same time, I was applying for Electronics and Robotics courses at university, but when the time came to actually go, I decided to give it a year and see what happened with Mang.'
At 18, Matthew was delivering lectures to third year business students at Chester College, having learned not only how to design and make clothes, but how to market, sell and distribute his wares. In that same year he won a local scholarship award, funding to attend a fashion design course in London.
'I applied for a grant, from a local law firm, to attend the Institute of Maringoni in London. I'd only heard of it from watching TV's Project Runway. It was my first exposure to studying fashion. I thought I have nothing to lose, so went for it. Graduates tended to find entry-level work with big brands, but that wasn't for me, I didn't have time! I started a foundation course at Chester College, but was quickly invited to join the fashion course at Liverpool Sir John Moores University, where I was given a full fees scholarship and the title of Entrepreneurial Fellow, as I had already proven my business skills. At first I was infuriated by the very relaxed atmosphere; I was told that it was to let the students settle into the course, but I had no need to ease myself in, I just wanted to work!'
This sense of urgency, a need to keep moving and do things for himself, is a recurring theme it seems with Matthew, who apparently doesn't know the meaning of the phrase 'easy does it.' It works for him though: his drive to push himself, to stretch himself and reach for the stars has resulted in success at every chance he takes.
'I decided I needed to do something drastic, so entered the TV show Style to Rock, with Rhihanna. It was really only for designers who were already established, with a brand of their own, but I got through to the finals. They then told me I couldn't actually compete because I wasn't qualified, and sidelined me as a stand-by competitor. That was frustrating.'
Matthew wasn't prepared to hang around, so then entered himself for Britain's Top Designer, an award aimed at final year students or a nascent brand with a collection ready to show at London Fashion Week. He won (of course) and very quickly had to design a 20 piece collection for the catwalk, which was then featured in a fashion shoot in Vogue Italia.
'All this gave me great exposure and work started coming in,' he says, almost in passing, although perhaps for Matthew it was never in doubt. 'I say to everyone, it's all about the work you put in.'
After graduating, he took the role of Head of Design for The Giant Manufacturing Company, creating giants to walk through the streets of Chester in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II becoming our longest reigning monarch. At the same time, he was growing his own couturier business and already employed six people. After the Giant project was complete, he decided it was time to take the leap and open his own shop, in his hometown.
I am curious that he pursues so many fashion interests, rather than focussing on a single discipline. He has a ready-to-wear collection that I can easily see gracing the decks of the most luxurious of yachts, turning heads at the polo and making wedding guests very smug indeed. His prêt-a-porter bridal collection is just breathtakingly pretty. He offers the full couture service - bespoke anything, from mother-of-the-bride outfits to wedding gowns. He makes shirts and suits and beautiful blazers, with his very own emblem stitched on the pocket. And hats; beautiful, beautiful hats!
'I can do it, so why wouldn't I?' he says. 'I just thought that everyone was like that. I just want to be imaginative, constantly.
'I am exposed to so many people, wanting so many things, that inspiration is an ongoing thing. I don't just sit down twice a year and think "what shall I do for my next collection?" It just constantly evolves. I am heavily inspired by colour and materials. I tour the big fabric expos every year. I will spot something and just spontaneously buy it, I never go seeking anything specific. There's always a client for it!'
Matthew's personal design aesthetic is quite structured, quite architectural. Does he find that this attracts a certain kind of client, or does he bend them to his will?
'For private clients it's all about understanding what they want - and why,' he says. 'I like to design clothes that are comfortable, but not unstructured. I can design a dress that negates the need for Spanx, for example. If a client comes in and wants something…ordinary, I will tweak and suggest and ease the client into something I am happy for them to wear - it's still their idea, but given the Matthew O'Brien aesthetic.
'Brides can try on dresses from the collection, or we can make something totally bespoke. What never happens is people leaving with something I personally dislike. I have been known to agree to a ruffle, then rip it off the dress the moment the customer puts it on!'
At last - a designer-y moment! I suspect they are few and far between though. After all, this is the man who gets people coming back to see him with photos, full of joy at the confidence their dress gave them and the compliments they received.
'I can't afford to make mistakes,' says Matthew the businessman. 'I am not in a design bubble, all my designs must be wearable, with ease.'