From today’s column: Gift of the Garb
It occurred to me a few weeks ago that right now, in Ireland, for what seems like the first time in a long time, we have an abundance of designers working on our doorstep. My own sister is one of …
It occurred to me a few weeks ago that right now, in Ireland, for what seems like the first time in a long time, we have an abundance of designers working on our doorstep. My own sister is one of the many designers who leave our island for fairer climes and more bustling marketplaces, but it’s heartening to see so many fashion talents deciding to stay at home (giving me home that she may one day decide to come back). Here’s a piece that was published in today’s fashion page, and, with it, Natalie Coleman’s S/S 2013 video – which proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that deciding to work from a smaller industry doesn’t have any impact in the end result.
OF ALL THE things the “Oirish” are known for, fashion is not high on the list. There is no disrespect intended to those involved in our fashion industry, but even they would have to admit that they come in behind the craic agus ceoil, smiling eyes and dancing feet, Bono, Michael Flatley, Sinéad O’Connor and the Corrs, even behind Aran jumpers – although they could, at a stretch, be classified as “fashion”.
When it comes to fashion, there are a few names that come to mind: Paul Costelloe, John Rocha, Orla Kiely and Peter O’Brien, followed by young guns Pauric Sweeney, JW Anderson, Simone Rocha and Una Burke. But there are lesser-known names, gradually becoming more prominent, with one thing in common: they’re all based here.
Design graduates are faced with two choices: stay in Ireland and struggle to stay afloat in a small, quickly diminishing industry; or go abroad and find their footing in a well established and supported industry.
But with the recession has come a new trend. While engineers, doctors and construction workers flee the country, several young fashion designers have put down roots at home, whether by chance or (if you’ll excuse the pun) by design.
Technology has played a big part in allowing designers to operate from our tiny island. With the advent of high-speed broadband, the divide between Ireland, the UK, Europe and the US has narrowed considerably. “I really believe you can be based anywhere, in the West of Ireland or in Alaska, and it doesn’t make a difference,” says Joanne Hynes, whose home is in Ringsend and describes herself as being “anchored” in Ireland. “It works well for personal reasons,” she says. Hynes just gave birth to her daughter, Fainche. “But travel is really important with work – it’s unavoidable with fashion weeks in London and Paris, and manufacturing in Italy.”
Merle O’Grady is another designer who does a lot of her manufacturing in Italy and France. “So being in the euro zone is genuinely making life easier,” she says. O’Grady recently moved back to Ireland after years living and working in the UK, selling jewellery from a stall at Spitalfields market. “The ease of doing business in Ireland has been great,” she says. “There’s a warmth and openness when it comes to sharing information here that I didn’t come across quite so much in the UK.”
Natalie Coleman is based in Monaghan. Her designs were recently worn by pop singer Marina & the Diamonds, and her work has been praised online by Susanna Lau of stylebubble.co.uk, arguably the UK’s most important fashion blogger.
For Coleman, being in Ireland hasn’t hindered the development of her line. “It’s a small industry for selling, because it’s a smaller population – but I don’t think it stops you from doing anything.”
Living and working from a country with no dedicated manufacturing industry is a stumbling block, she says. “It makes it a little bit more difficult because you don’t get funding.” Coleman has been trying to embrace Irish traditions and to incorporate some native manufacturing methods into her work. “I’ve started working with a lovely lacemaker in Monaghan, and I know a few other people doing stuff with older traditions, so then there’s a uniqueness to what we can do.”
Jennifer Rothwell, who is based in Dublin, echoes Coleman’s desire to see manufacturing happen more often here. “I believe there will be a return to garment manufacturing in Ireland,” she says. “I’m campaigning actively to promote this initiative.”
Every designer interviewed speaks of a lack of support for the industry on a nationwide scale, comparing Ireland to the UK, where the British Fashion Council supports and endorses a number of designers each year and recognises the contribution the fashion industry makes to the economy as a whole.
“I don’t think the fashion industry is taken seriously as a business here,” says Sinéad Doyle, who set up her eponymous womenswear label in Dublin in 2008. “In London, people have become really aware of the amount of money the fashion industry pumps into the UK. But it’s still seen as quite frivolous here.”
Coleman agrees. “It would be nice to get a little bit more support,” she says, then pauses and laughs softly. “But I’m always banging on about not getting enough support.”
O’Grady is pragmatic. While recognising that the “fashion industry just isn’t big enough here”, she says that the industry needs to accept that “exporting is the key to really growing a business from Ireland”.
They all agree that there’s no reason we shouldn’t be exporting our fashion designers, just as we export our Guinness, Michael Flatley, craic and our ceoil. Being in Ireland, says O’Grady, is pretty good, and she can think of only one major con: “The price of a post-work GT.”
First published in The Irish Times on Monday, October 8th, 2012