Philip Treacy wants Marilyn Monroe’s eyelashes. The fake ones, of course. "She used them to great effect," says the Irish milliner, who has adorned both heads of state (Queen Elizabeth II) and head cases (Marilyn Manson). "They come up for auction every now and then."
Recently, however, after splurging on a $45,000 Irving Penn photograph of fifties "it" girl Jean Patchett at Christie’s London during an art-acquisition spree for the new G hotel in Galway, Treacy wavered, and another fan nabbed the lashes. "Did you know she came to Galway?" Smiling, he points out that during her visit to this medieval city on the west coast of Ireland no one recognized her. "She was having a day off from being Marilyn Monroe."
The morning sun lifts the sea fog obscuring Galway Bay. We’re in a taxi van on a hunt for the 37-year-old designer’s favorite landmarks, some of which influenced his first hotel project. The blinkered fashion world might speculate about why he has chosen to expand his brand via a boutique property in an Irish backwater. But exploring his home turf with him makes it evident that this was a nostalgic move by the reserved couturier, who is encamped here with his two Jack Russell puppies, on his own break from being Philip Treacy.
Born in the isolated village of Ahascragh, an hour east of Galway City, Treacy left Ireland to study fashion at the Royal College of Art in London. In 1994, he opened a small hat shop in Belgravia’s Elizabeth Street and quickly became famous for his fanciful collaborations with Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino, and Alexander McQueen. He rarely has time to spare for visits home, and he’s only in town now for business: bringing his witty, provocative aesthetic to the G, a steel-and-glass complex overlooking Lough Atalia, in partnership with the local architectural firm of Douglas Wallace and the Irish group Monogram Hotels. Treacy’s return to his formative stomping ground is timely. Galway has been gaining attention as a seaside bolt-hole for euro-flush Dubliners and as a gateway to Connemara for nostalgic Celts on the other side of the Atlantic. And whether the small city is ready or not, the G is about to pull it into the 21st century and permanently alter notions about Irish style.
Visual references at the G include Versailles, the Ziegfeld Follies, and Andy Warhol. A long public gallery punctuated by a catwalk carpet in raspberry red opens onto drawing rooms that would titillate Marie Antoinette. The silver-toned Grand Salon is Treacy’s own Hall of Mirrors: more than 300 bubble lights designed by Tom Dixon cascade from the ceiling, and Swarovski crystals stud Plexiglas cocktail tables positioned to catch the light from floor-to-ceiling windows. The Pink Salon, where Treacy has placed both the Penn portrait and an informal snapshot of Monroe that she bequeathed to her secretary, is defined by hot-pink camouflage-print sofas. "I didn’t want the G to be souvenir Irish,’" Treacy explains. As we walk down Quay Street, Galway’s pedestrian artery, Treacy points to a row of vivid Georgian shops festooned with hanging baskets of fuchsia and petunias. "Maybe it’s the grim weather. We’re not afraid of color," he says of the Irish affection for a boisterous palette. "I had an aunt who used to paint her house a different shade—orange, green, wine red—every month. That’s why there’s a lot of color in the hotel. It showcases my taste.
Treacy’s taste also embraces iconic women beyond Monroe, including his 96-year-old London neighbor, actress Luise Rainer, who starred in The Great Ziegfeld, and clients such as Angelica Huston, Madonna, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. Linda Evangelista, who modeled the twisted birdcage hat that landed him his first cover for British Vogue, has lent her name to a suite at the G. Treacy frequently collaborates with other artists, and he invited some friends to enhance the hotel’s vibe. E’SPA guru Susan Harmsworth created treatments for the G’s rooftop spa. Fashion illustrator David Downton contributed sketches for the guest rooms. For the public areas, rock musician Dan Donovan curated "sound zones" ranging from moody Brian Eno ambient to Groove Armada techno dub. Yes, there’s Irish music, but in keeping with Treacy’s avoid-the-obvious credo, Donovan sampled symphonic compositions by John Reynolds, Sinéad O’Connor’s producer.
"Let’s visit the swans...They’re beautiful," Treacy urges. We head to the canal basin near Nimmo’s Pier and he plops down on a quay spattered with gull droppings. A bevy of greedy swans snatches at bread scraps. Treacy’s mother raised chickens, geese, and ducks: he has had a fascination with feathers since childhood. One of his most remarkable hats is a ship shaped from quills and pearl buttons, which he fashioned after reading about a naval battle in historian Olivier Bernier’s Pleasure and Privilege: Life in France, Naples, and America, 1770-1790. Treacy channels ideas from "whatever is in the wind," he says. His breezy sources have included a TV documentary on UFO’s in Roswell, New Mexico, and the horns of an English Soay ram owned by his bohemian patron and mentor Isabella Blow. Analyze his wildest constructions—a shiver of monarch butterflies, a lurid orchid, a nest of hungry crows—and you’ll be persuaded that Treacy is an engineer miscast as a milliner. "He thinks in 3-D," says the G’s Irish architect, Hugh Wallace, who sought Treacy as the hotel’s genius loci. "He understands space. Most designers can’t do this. But he gets it." Monogram Hotels owner Gerry Barrett sums up why he tapped Treacy to art direct his Galway flagship: "He’s the only Irish designer with international recognition." Across the Atlantic, that profile is about to be elevated further. Although Treacy’s capricious headdresses have been exhibited at the Victoria & Albert, Milan’s Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, their first fashion-art acknowledgments in the United States will come this month, at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and again this summer, at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Michigan.