When she first set eyes on John Galliano designs in a copy of Hello Magazine aged nine, Claire O'Connor knew she wanted to be a fashion designer. "My life's mission began right there."
She didn't waste time. After finishing her Leaving Cert at Coláiste Íosagáin school in Stillorgan, Dublin, O'Connor's first port of call was the Grafton Academy in Dublin to study design. "At the Grafton Academy there was special emphasis on pattern cutting and how to construct the garments, which was to define my work."
Upon completion O'Connor worked with Dublin-based couturier Jen Kelly, who has dressed presidents and princesses, before branching out on her own in the mid-2000s. Her designs, she says, are "luxurious ready-to-wear, with a romantic expressionism which celebrate the female form".
"I've always been drawn to couture and bespoke design so when I was in Dublin I specialised in bridal for bespoke clients and created a capsule collection which I sold in various independent boutiques."
She worked on various campaigns with clients, including Cadbury, Max Factor, Peroni, the Eurovision Song Contest, as well as dressing various high profiled Irish names like Jean Byrne, Victoria Smurfit, Jennifer Zamparelli, Kathryn Thomas and Síle and Gráinne Seoige.
During the mid-2000s fashion was booming, but the recession saw the industry hit badly for many years, with demand for high-end designs dwindling and small businesses and designer shops closing. Despite her designs appearing on the front of fashion and lifestyle magazines in 2013, O’Connor was at a crossroads.
“I was working so hard yet I still couldn’t make a decent living. It was a case of either choosing a different career or making the move to a fashion capital. So I decided to make a go of it.”
Landing in London without knowing anyone was “really tough”, she says. “But luckily I had a design job lined up for three months, which enabled me to build up a client base bit by bit.”
Eight years on and the move to the global fashion capital has paid off. "Since moving to London I've been making custom pieces for TV series Call The Midwife, Killing Eve and dressed Hilary Swank for the TV series Trust. More recently I've been working on a new Amazon production filmed in London."
She also regularly tailors looks for fashion brands for stars like Salma Hayek or Catríona Balfe for film premieres and red carpet events. Brands she works with include Prada, Stella McCartney, Armani, Fendi, Balmain and Miu Miu. Not wanting to give up her day job, O'Connor also designs custom wear for her own label, with clients around the UK.
“The great thing about London is that there is no shortage of work even after lengthy lockdowns and Brexit. Here I can make a living doing what I love to do which I could not do in Ireland, unfortunately. The main and possibly only disadvantage is not having family and close friends around me like at home.”
Despite its effects on the luxury fashion business, O’Connor says the lockdown was a blessing.
"I was a complete workaholic pre-Covid-19, so before the first lockdown I decided I needed a hobby. I have always been obsessed with horses since spending my childhood around then, so I took up riding lessons. I lived within walking distance of the stables, so when lockdown hit I started volunteering at the stables, looking after about 40 horses, (which I continue to do). As a result I can honestly say that lockdown was the best year of my life."
During this time she also started drawing again. “Now I’m combining my design skills with illustrations of horses I care for, and turning them into prints for a contemporary line of T-shirts and sweatshirts.”
O’Connor says consumers are changing their habits in relation to fashion as a result of climate change and Covid-19. “People are more inclined to support small local businesses and are buying less but higher quality items.”
She says people are questioning where their clothing is coming from and what the working conditions of clothes factory workers are. “As manufacturing for a huge proportion of the clothing industry is done in developing countries, many plants in these countries, where people are on low-paid salaries, had to close down.
“As a result of climate change and equality, fast fashion does not have the same appeal as it once had. There is a renewed appetite for both brands and consumers for local engagement and prioritising the ‘personal touch’.”
O’Connor says she has not been home since the Christmas before the first lockdown in 2019, and she looks forward to coming home to Dublin and Kerry.
"My father was from Kerry so we spent a lot of time down there, so I guess half Kerry, half Dublin. Pre-pandemic I loved flying into Farranfore and my lovely sister or a relative would pick me up and we'd spend a relaxing few days away from the city life. You don't even get a proper phone signal there, so you have no choice but to slow down."
Despite living and breathing fashion, O’Connor doesn’t want to be a slave to it.