Celebrating Jean O'Reilly Barlow
February 7th holds significance as the day Jean O’Reilly Barlow was born. Though my childhood remembers her as the vibrant Irish emerald of our small southern town, her story extends well beyond that. Her life has covered continents, molded industries, and touched history. She’s been a fashion icon, creative entrepreneur, and — most intimately — my mother. I’ve never met anyone like her, and I doubt the world ever will.
Here’s to celebrating the woman that has not only changed my life, but every person, space, and place she touches. Here’s to celebrating the most interesting person I know.
Episode 1: In the beginning... there was fashion
Fresh out of secondary school, Jean O’Reilly was preparing to attend Ireland’s National College of Art and Design when an opportunity shifted her course. Howard Layton, a famous British hairdresser, had flown to Dublin for the week to promote his signature brush – the Denman – and selected Jean as his muse.
He gave Jean a full makeover that cut off her locks but landed her the spotlight. The duo appeared on the Late Late Show for an episode centered around fashion and beauty. After her feature on the show, the calls to use Jean as a model poured in. Jean signed with Grace O’Shaughnessy, sparking the beginning of the Irish supermodel…. all in one week’s time.
After being Smirnoff Vodka‘s Face of the Year in 1974, Jean won a trip to a film festival in southern Italy. She met Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani and traversed throughout the country on fashion shoots. Her international exposure continued to Paris and London where she signed with agencies Catherine Harle and Models 1.
While abroad she modeled shoe collections for Yves St Laurent and acted alongside Gerard Depardie in a film about a man in love with a manicurist (played by Jean) in a beauty salon.
As an article in the Independent writes, Jean was “Ireland’s most celebrated catwalk presence…. In the mid-Seventies, Jean O’Reilly was the face of Ireland: the audaciously formed young Dubliner perfectly encapsulated the beautiful and the super-trendy at a time in Ireland when all around seem grey, unappealing and hopelessly hick.”
“Hers was the face that launched a thousand front covers, from Irish Tatler to Italian Vogue, from Image to French Marie Claire. She had agents in Dublin, London, Paris and Milan. Her sashay always the most sensual, Jean was the undisputed shining light of the Irish fashion universe. The Late Late Show wouldn’t have dreamt of doing an item on fashion without seeing if Ms O’Reilly was available first.”
Above: Jean O’Reilly as the Face of Guinness, 1979
However, when Jean’s close friend and Irish “It Girl” Noelle Campbelle Sharp created the first book bound magazine in Ireland (Irish Tatler) alongside husband and photographer Niel Cambell Sharp, Jean became involved as the magazine’s leading model. With Jean covering the beauty section, Niel leading photography and Noelle providing creative direction, the power trio spread fashion, beauty and travel across the Emerald Isle.
Episode 2: First Comes Career, Then Comes Marriage
While Jean was always her own woman on a mission, she soon met a man she wanted to share it with: Rick Seign. After marrying Rick at 24, the couple moved to Los Angeles in the US, returning to Ireland as Rick passed away from multiple sclerosis. And so, her life pressed on.
Jean coins herself as “a bit of a fighter all the way down the line. If there’s something I want, I’ll go get it. It’s just in you.” As she was renovating a home in Dalkey, she became interested in the world of home decor and design, attending auctions and taking fine art courses. After becoming associated with Sotheby’s in Ireland, she interviewed and was accepted to work with the company in London.
Prior to moving, she met American Tim Barlow at her friend Dee Brickenden’s house in Dun Laoghaire. As the pair shared an interest in both Christianity and real-estate, she decided to visit Tim for a weekend in the US and then continued to London where she planned to start her new career. “I had got myself in Sotheby’s and found a home in London and was going to pursue a career with them. Then I had to decide whether I was going to live with Tim and get married in America or go to Sotheby’s.”
Episode 3: Continental Crossroads
“So I decided to get married.”
After marrying Tim Barlow in Dublin, Jean moved to the US in 1992 and added wife, mother, and entrepreneur to her CV.
The couple welcomed daughters Joybelle and Grace to the world in 1994 and 1996. Jean’s interest in Irish antiquities and home design still thriving, she launched Irish Interiors in the late 1990s selling Irish antiquities in the US. As her parents were older in age, she continued to visit Ireland to care for them, passing through Italian and French markets on her way back home. As an idea arose, she stepped back from Irish Interiors and launched her second company: Interi.
Episode 4: Interi(or) Inspiration
Through her European travels, Jean collected 17th to 18th century church artifacts, too distressed to be used by the Catholic church any longer. She saw a beauty that transcended brokenness, and brought the artifacts back to the US to be married to gems, coral, and minerals. This was a first in high-end design: the creative combining of Italian artifacts with organic gems, minerals and precious shells. These pieces were reborn as a sculptural works of art, her signature collection of her newborn company and passion.
As her daughter, this is how I see her: innovating and defying gravity to create one-of-a-kind pieces that go beyond home decor. The pieces– much like Jean– have never fit into a box. They’ve not only grown beyond it, but run before it… waiting for others to catch up.
The pieces inspire collectors & clients as Jean inspires myself: providing joy through beauty, hope through history, and energy through resilience. Wishing the most fabulous of birthdays to my mother, model, and friend– Jean O’Reilly Barlow.