Home Is Away

 

The past 12 months have been particularly good for Irish fashion. At the end of the year, our designers are better known internationally than has been the case in living memory.

For the first time in more than a generation, the idea of an indigenous fashion industry seems something other than merely a chimera. Ongoing successes include John Rocha, whose global presence is now firmly established and who - after too long an absence - made a welcome return to Irish shops in 1997. It is a measure of his international stature that, earlier this month, Rocha was given the job of designing new uniforms for the Virgin Atlantic airline. Back at home, spring 1998 sees the launch of Louise Kennedy's new uniforms for Aer Lingus. Both in Ireland and Britain, Kennedy has built up a loyal following among professional women, for whom her coats and suiting are an essential part of their daily wardrobe. Mary Gregory is another designer who has begun to make decisive inroads into the British market where Paul Costelloe is currently realigning his position; the latter plans big changes in 1998 and a radical overhaul of his image. Most important of all during the past year, Lainey Keogh created a real stir with her first solo show during London Fashion Week in February. Keogh is undoubtedly the biggest, as well as the most richly deserved, beneficiary of 1997. For more than a decade she has been gradually consolidating her position at home, as well as building up overseas accounts. However, for many non-Irish fashion writers and buyers, her show was a revelation about just how innovative - and sensual - knitwear can be. Keogh combines traditional techniques (all her pieces are hand-knit) with contemporary technology as she constantly explores the possibility of new fibres. The imaginative clothing she designs has won her fresh plaudits and markets.

Keogh's challenge over the next year will be meeting those demands while still retaining a tight control over quality. That is a problem every Irish designer must face whenever expansion is offered. In the past, there have been failures because ambition surpassed resources. Wisdom born of experience means this now looks less likely.

Lainey Keogh's development has been sufficiently steady to ensure she does not succumb to the temptations of rapid success. Nor will the majority of her peers in the business.

Knitwear is just one area in which many new names - Liesa O'Keefe, Liam Grier, Edmund McNulty - are starting to emerge. Better still, these young designers today believe they can afford to stay in the country rather than emigrating like their predecessors. Earlier this year, The Irish Times ran a four-part series on young talent in fashion, with one page devoted to graduates who had moved abroad. Designers such as Murray Scallon in Milan, Michael McGrath in London and Daryl Kerrigan in New York have done particularly well overseas but they almost always express a wish that they might have remained at home. Although this was often not possible in the past, changing circumstances - not least an improved economy - should allow any designer who now wants to build a career in Ireland to do so. Our domestic market will never be big enough to support a fashion business but it can provide a healthy base, provided the local demand is forthcoming. Irish designers must have their work bought and worn by the Irish consumer. Today we show new collections from four of the country's best-known talents. Their continuing success in the year ahead depends on all of us as consumers. Here is another opportunity to buy Irish and in so doing help our international image abroad. Fashion has never been as strong in this country, nor in so much need of your support.