As the season for the most glamorous of Britain’s horseracing festivals gets underway, beginning with the iconic and historic English Derby at Epsom, swiftly followed by Royal Ascot, we caught up with one of TV’s most knowledgeable and stylish presenters, Francesca Cumani, and her personal stylist Sarah Kate Byrne. We talked racing, styling, holidays and much more…
What’s your early story – how do you first meet and get together as a stylist/presenter combo?
Sarah Kate: Francesca went to school with two of my dearest friends from Trinity College Dublin. After graduating from Law I moved to London and those friends let me ride on their coattails and introduced me to all their amazing pals including Cesca! The working relationship was a happy accident. Cesca had secured the ITV Racing role and I sent her congratulations and offered help with PR loans from my startup Open for Vintage. She called asking if I could be her stylist and the rest is history!
How long have you been working together?
Sarah Kate: Our first collaboration was Epsom 2017 so this is our 5th season working together. Last summer with racing behind closed doors our working dynamic changed so much with Cesca working from home a lot and then Ascot behind closed doors meant we had to bubble up in a self-catered apartment!
Covid has meant that the last year has been very out of the ordinary for all of us and our working lives have been challengingly different. What have been the silver linings of it for each of you?
Francesca: For me, it has been spending more time at home. I am very lucky in that I live in the countryside with plenty of space, a gorgeous little boy, a dog, a horse and some chickens and I have learnt to take pleasure in the simple things.
Do you think you will have made any lasting lifestyle changes as a result of it?
Francesca: I think with the above in mind it has taught me to slow down and realise what really is important. Life is short and we only get one shot so let’s make the most of it.
Sarah Kate: What a year it has been. I was unlucky in the sense that most of my work hinges on events but lucky in the sense I got to do the first lockdown at home in rural Ireland with my parents, brother and myriad animals! It also made me think outside the box on work prospects and others too. The big endorsement of sustainability in fashion that suddenly came was so validating for me as it has always been my modus operandi as a stylist. Long may it continue!
Sarah Kate, what was your path to becoming a stylist?
It has been a wild, unintentional and a rather serendipitous one! Law degree to luxury travel to start-up founder to stylist! I think my upbringing had a huge influence on what I do now especially my passion for vintage and sustainable fashion. My father deals in architectural salvage & is a building conservation specialist so he taught me to find value and beauty in things that others will consider just junk or a ruin. I now make a point of working with small brands with great sustainability credentials like Tusting as well as vintage dealers.
Francesca, how does your typical race day styling plan work? Do you plan it all out in advance with Sarah Kate, or do you show up on the day and Sarah Kate surprise you?
Sarah basically does all the hard work sourcing outfits from all over and then we have a styling session normally at my house every couple of weeks or so. It’s so tricky given it’s an outdoor job and the weather is often cold or unpredictable meaning you need a few options up your sleeve. Thankfully we work with some brilliant brands who let us hold on to things for when the weather decides to play ball.
Do you always see eye to eye?!?
Yeah, I would say 99% of the time. Sometimes I will start off not really liking something and once Sarah has styled it up and worked her magic I think it’s great!
What’s your off-camera style?
Very, very pared back! My days off-air are usually spent either catching up at my desk, mucking around with my 5yo, riding my ex-racehorse or pottering in the garden so jeans and a t-shirt suffice most of the time.
Do you think that you have more confidence in your clothing outside of work as a result of working with Sarah Kate?
Yes and no. She has definitely taught me to be more adventurous and I’ve learnt what works with my shape and colouring etc but now I’m nervous of buying a piece of clothing without her approval!
Sarah Kate, as a rider yourself, was racing already a passion for you too, or has working with Francesca brought you to it more by default?
Well, my fathers family are 4th generation stud farmers in rural Ireland so growing up racing was very much part of my life. But having a blue-blood of racing like Cesca as a friend and client means I have learnt a lot from the very best! She used to scold me for not knowing what horse won what so I pay attention now!
You’re a big enthusiast of vintage clothing. What do you love about older pieces and do you think we should all seek out some ‘new-to-me’ for our wardrobes?
I think 90% of my wardrobe is secondhand! I love the fact that no one else is likely to have the same piece as me. I love the fact that when people ask me where my dress is from I can reply by decade! I love that a lot of my pieces have a story. I just bought a black astrakhan coat that once belonged to a WWII spy!
Francesca, as the daughter of top trainer Luca Cumani, clearly, you’ve been immersed in the racing world all your life, including a spell as a jockey yourself, but what brought you to TV Presenting? Was that always an ambition or more of a happy accident?
The latter. I was working very much hands-on with horses and doing a lot of travelling around the world with them. The tv opportunity presented itself in Australia with the Melbourne Cup coverage and it’s gone from there to a job with CNN International and now to ITV.
Do you harbour ambitions to get back to training or breeding racehorses in time?
I have been breeding alongside the tv work for the last ten years. I have mares near me at my parents Fittocks Stud in the UK and in Australia at Yarraman Stud. Breeding doesn’t require a huge amount of input, unlike training which is hugely time-consuming. I would love to put my own ideas and horsemanship to the test but it would be a massive undertaking with a young family.
Sarah Kate, do you feel you are cutting your own path, given all the formal dress that racing demands, or is there a building appreciation for such a sustainable approach?
I was and still am very much cut my own detail! When dressing Cesca to begin with I had comments like “Oh can’t you use less vintage fashion”. I replied that if they could tell me which of her last 10 looks was vintage I would make an effort to use more contemporary pieces…the reply? “Oh isn’t it all vintage”! Since only 2 of her last 10 looks were vintage I knew I had a problem!
What are your top tips for sourcing – where do you find all these lovely vintage pieces??
Vintage fairs such as Clerkenwell, Hammersmith and Frock Me are a must. Currently they all have to offer the fairs virtually on Instagram and I still pick up gems. Charity shops too are always worth a punt. And always think if something is superb – tailoring, detail, fabric but you don’t love the cut or fit have it altered!
Besides the vintage sourcing, who are your favourite designers to draw from and do you like to stick to British designers or go further afield?
Gosh yes I will use a British or Irish designer over any other as far as possible. Occasion-wear brands such as Allison Rodgers, Laura Green & Catherine Walker are a mainstay for Cesca’s workwear. More casual brands such as Troy London, Edward Mongzar and Ellie Lines are on my hit list too. It gives me such joy to help a small brand.
Francesca, Rachel Blackmore’s Cheltenham and Aintree successes must do great things to get women on an equal footing in the world of race riding. As an ex-jockey yourself, do you think we’ll ever see equal numbers of male and female jockeys?
I would like to think so, yes. Like other equestrian disciplines racing is a sport where the sexes can compete on a level playing field. The like of Rachel Blackmore and Bryony Frost on the jumps and Hollie Doyle and Hayley Turner on the flat are proving that the female jockeys can be just as good when given the right opportunities and thankfully I think finally now the idea of a female rider not being as strong as the men is finally no longer the narrative.
Are there any other cultural changes that you’d like to see in racing?
I’d like it to be less of a closed shop. Partly due to the financial high barriers to entry in the ownership sphere it’s been hard to get involved, although that is changing due to large syndication companies. But we can always do more to help explain how the sport works and make it more accessible. Often people will say to me that they don’t like racing because they don’t bet and for someone that can count on one hand the number of bets they have ever had it seems strange to me. The beauty of the horse, the skill of the jockey, the understanding of the trainer and all the subtle intricacies make racing so fascinating to me without the need to bet.
Have you been lucky enough to have any great riding adventures away from home? Would you go back, or where in the world would you most like to ride?
Sarah Kate: Gosh I have been utterly spoiled in my riding trips. I have my indulgent parents to thank for teaching me to ride at a young age, a skill that has taken me the world over – home to Ireland, many adventures in England, Spanish capers near Madrid with a bunch of wild Spanish pals, Africa, Argentina, India, America. I go back to Spain every year and relish every moment. For future plans I would love to ride in Romania and Mongolia. But this summer I’ll be mainly staying in the UK and doing rides with a dear friend Rose Cameron at RoseCameronRides
Francesca: Yes, I have been lucky enough to have had a great deal. Would you go back, or where in the world would you most like to ride? I spent my summer holidays from university working for a horseback safari operation in Kenya’s Maasai Mara called Offbeat Safaris. It’s a magic experience from start to finish being in amongst nature’s most beautiful animals on the back of a horse and camping under the stars at night surrounded by all the noises of the wild, I would go back in a heartbeat.
What are the essentials in your handbag that you can’t do without on a typical race day?
Francesca: My ITV running order, my book with printed race cards and my notes, a little pot of Carmex lip balm and my moulded earpiece!
Sarah Kate: iPhone, battery pack, tissues, safety pins, needle and thread, and usually red lipstick!
What would you say was the ideal size and type of handbag for a day at the races?
Sarah Kate: My bag choice depends on the outfit actually rather than on practicality! Not sure how sensible that is but I’d rather polished look. But a shoulder strap is a must. That’s why I love the Tusting Mini Cardington in red as I can sling it over and fit my essentials above in!
Francesca: for me, if I’m working at the races, it needs to be big enough to fit an A4 notebook and a bottle of water and pens etc etc, all very practical but if I’m not working I think something you can put over your shoulder is ideal to free up hands for a race card and a glass of champagne!
What’s your Tusting pick and is there a style of bag that we don’t currently offer that you think we really should?
Francesca: My pick is the Cardington and I think Tusting bags are just beautiful and super-elegant and most importantly really great quality! I think Sarah might be better equipped to answer the last part of the question and I will stick to what I know!
Sarah Kate: The Mini Cardington in red is my pick. The style is so ME – a super smart and gorgeously neat saddle bag. As for more styles, I think less is more and the collection, all so beautifully made has something for every taste!