Irish designers in the spotlight in London

Costume designer Joan Bergin will accompany Sabina Higgins to Britain

Joan Bergin: “We are not dealing with a celebrity on the red carpet, but a hard-working woman, who is very intelligent and politically aware and the wife of the President.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Joan Bergin: “We are not dealing with a celebrity on the red carpet, but a hard-working woman, who is very intelligent and politically aware and the wife of the President.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 01:00

Irish fashion will be in the spotlight next week when Sabina Higgins accompanies her husband President Michael D Higgins on the first official Irish state visit to Britain.

Like other wives of heads of state, her outfit choices for the four-day itinerary will be keenly followed and scrutinised.

Responsibility for Ms Higgins’s wardrobe – comprising 14 ensembles – has rested with the renowned film and theatre costume designer Joan Bergin. She is a long-time friend who has guided her choices for major State occasions since her husband’s inauguration three years ago.

“We had a dress rehearsal last night and went through these long-standing royal protocol briefs,” Bergin said yesterday. “The thing you learn about politicians for somebody like me is that colour makes them stand out in important ways.”

The four-day schedule involves two white-tie banquets and events requiring formal and informal daywear outfits.

On Monday, Ms Higgins’s inaugural ensemble for meeting Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh will be a silk tweed coat and dress with a hat by Philip Treacy.


Heritage fabrics
The President’s more easily recognisable uniform of dark suits and ties is bound to include his favoured Magee tweed suits highlighting Irish heritage fabrics.

Although about a dozen Irish designers have been involved in preparations for the visit, no details will be released by the Áras until Monday. It is widely believed that Philip Treacy, Louise Kennedy, Aideen Bodkin, Orla Kiely, Helen McAlinden and Paula Rowan are some of the choices, along with antique Irish jewellery from John Farrington.

Bergin says protocol demands sombre colours for Westminster Abbey and long gowns and gloves for banquets.

“I have gone for very vibrant Celtic colours coupled with more fashionable pastels and I have tried to balance it so that it is not all too stern and occasionally a little more frivolous and feminine,” she says.

Other than watching footage of Carla Bruni “because she also has a tall, slim figure”, her research did not involve seeing what others wore to state events.

Bergin – who has just completed work on the third series of The Vikings and whose latest costumes are for the period drama A Little Chaos with Kate Winslet, Alan Rickmann and Stanley Tucci – will, for the first time, be accompanying the presidential entourage.


‘Politically aware’
“Because of the weight of history behind the places we are going to, there are great parallels with designing for film and theatre and I found that a very secure guideline rather than connections with fashion,” she says. She admits that the task was a huge challenge.

“At the same time we are not dealing with a celebrity on the red carpet, but a hard- working woman, who is very intelligent and politically aware and the wife of the President. How do you dress somebody who is not a 30-year-old?

“This has allowed me to look and see what was out there from Irish designers when I had somebody with a slim figure, former acting training and innate clothes sense .

“It was fascinating to work within these concepts and I would like to think we have pulled off one [a wardrobe] that honours the occasion and that will occasionally have some eureka moments. It’s like architecture, in that piece by piece, you build towards something that is visually exciting and special.”