Jean O'Reilly Barlow

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, artist, 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 model.

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.

Jean O'Reilly Barlow
Jean O'Reilly Barlow
Jean O'Reilly Barlow

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 collections for Yves St Laurent and Kenzo and acted alongside Gerard Depardie in a film about a man in love with a manicurist (played by Jean) in a beauty salon.

Jean O'Reilly Barlow
Jean O'Reilly Barlow

Jean returned to Ireland in 1979 to be Guinness’ Face of the Year and designer John Rocha’s muse (right).

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.”

Jean O'Reilly for Guinness
Jean O'Reilly Barlow for club soda

A few years into her career, Jean’s close friend and Irish “It Girl” Noelle Campbelle Sharp helped create Irish Tatler alongside husband and photographer Neil Cambell Sharp. Jean became involved as the magazine’s leading model. With Jean covering the beauty section, Neil leading photography and Noelle providing creative direction, the power trio spread fashion, beauty and travel across the Emerald Isle.

Jean O'Reilly Barlow
Jean O'Reilly Barlow

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.

Jean O'Reilly Barlow

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, artist 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 interior 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

Through her European travels, Jean started to collect 17th to 18th century church artifacts that have fallen into disuse. Once works of art that adorned churches throughout Italy, these fragments were deemed “beyond restoration” and were taken away from the places of worship.

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 new creative concept in art preservation: the creative combining of Italian artifacts with organic gems, minerals and precious shells. These pieces were reborn as a sculptural works of art.

The matrimony of the fragments and minerals creates a piece that looks as though it evolved together over time. And although they all come together as a whole, each detail shares a unique story. Whether it’s a fragment that came from a historic Italian 16th century church or gems mined from inside the Great Smoky Mountains, they find their way to the Interi studio. They are given a new life, new purpose, and a new meaning. Each mineralized artifact captures that what was once broken can be made even more beautiful than before.

As her daughter, this is how I see her: innovating and defying gravity to create one-of-a-kind, historically significant yet contemporary works of art. The pieces– much like Jean– have never fit into a box. The pieces inspire people 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, artist and friend– Jean O’Reilly Barlow.

Headshot (2)

To learn more about Jean & Interi, please visit our website or follow us on social.

To read about Jean’s story, visit her feature on The Irish Independent.

Images via Image, Irish Tatler, The Irish Independent, The Irish Times, RTE, Kenzo, Club Tonic, and Guinness.

3 thoughts on “Spotlight: Model, Icon, Entrepreneur”

  1. Are you retirement age this year like me?loved reading about your parcours.
    Never saw any of those magazine covers as I lived in Switzerland at the time.Remember your face well of course from Our Lady’s.
    Maria Brennan

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