Look out! Young man in a hurry
It's the stuff that high-octane success stories are made of. Young Irish menswear designer, Danny Kearns, had to put on five fashion shows in two days as part of his final MPhil show at the Royal College of Art in London two weeks ago. But on the second day, in between the noon show for members of the press and the gala evening show for fashion houses such as Gucci and Prada, the top menswear designer from Ungaro, Jens Kaumle, put through a call.
A contract for a position as menswear designer with the house of Ungaro in Paris was in the post. As if that wasn't job security enough, an offer to work with Calvin Klein in New York followed shortly afterwards.
"I decided to go with Ungaro because Jens seems to want somebody who would be capable of a number of tasks, which is more interesting to me than sitting in a room drawing all day," muses Kearns, who has spent the past three years in London since completing his BA in NCAD.
The realisation that his interests were rather more ambitious than just "sitting in a room drawing", dawned on him during a work placement which many would have seen as the pinnacle of their achievements - while working for four months with Dolce & Gabbana in Milan.
"There were lots of velvet curtains and nice lunches but the work was very routine. From nine to six, I would sit down and draw clothes. That kind of burst the bubble for me." The down-to-earth attitude mixed with a kind of pragmatic ambition seems typical of Kearns, who already has a number of prestigious work placements under his belt despite only graduating from NCAD in 1997. While in Ireland, he spent time with Louis Copeland, John Rocha and Marc O'Neill, while the work placement with D&G culminated in an invitation to design the womenswear mainline spring/summer 1999 collection as assistant designer.
These names were not just baubles to decorate a CV either, but genuine efforts to master the crafts of tailoring, pattern-cutting and menswear construction. "It was really important to me to know tailoring really well because you can only be creative and innovative if you know the language. So much of menswear is about playing off the subtle details of what has gone before, so it's really important to learn how it was done." Kearns is articulate and hugely knowledgeable about suits and tailoring, and bespoke - or rather, the qualities that bespoke can lend to a suit - is a particular passion.
On his return from D&G, Kearns decided to transfer out of his taught MA and into a research MPhil, to pursue a fascination with that James Bond-ish nexus where fashion meets new technology. Looking at the difference between off-the-peg suits and made to measure, he wondered whether there was not some way in which ready-to-wear could get more tailor-made appeal. He began working with fibres, filing a number of patents using metal alloys: "They're using them now in aeronautical fabrics - they've outdone me." Kearns's idea simplified is that, some day, a customer looking for a suit would try on a standard suit in a shop but should it prove to be a little too tight across the shoulders or too full at the midriff, a sales assistant would apply a gadget "like a hand-drier" which would make the fabric expand and contract to fit your body.
"I had a whole new vocabulary of fabrics but it was almost too huge an area . . . Backers pulled out and really, it's probably for the best or else I'd have been in a white coat for the next 10 years." Hand in hand with Kearns's research into a more commodious fabric was his pursuit of a new method of construction, which would give suiting more flexibility. For his final year show, he worked with a Yorkshire mill, Bower Roebuck, to give new life to that most traditional of suit fabrics, pinstripe. He staggered the stripes and created 3-D effects, before cutting his patterns in ways which would ensure that the stripes appeared in the most unexpected of places.
"It's all about movement and creating the right ergonomics, so not only is the construction on display but it is woven round the human form. One jacket has no shoulder seams, with the front and back cut from the same piece, together with an octopus wing sleeve, all tailored with darts and seams. The pinstripes go everywhere." He must be doing something right - Kearns recently had a chat with the art director of Prada who confided that it was looking into the same kinds of fabrics.
For Kearns, such exploration is not just a way of branching away from his fellow students or a question of doing something faddish, but a kind of credo. He firmly believes that urban and active wear has had its day and is now stale - "there's only so many places you can put a pocket or a toggle". He believes that men will be looking to the individuality of bepoke, while still wanting the ease and wearability they have become accustomed to with urban wear.
"I think we're getting back to a kind of Saville Row elegance . . . I would like to see more off-thepeg suits using the kind of fabric and fit that bespoke can give."
If his love of tailoring is written all over his final-year collection, so too is his Irishness - there is even one Aran-knitted piece featuring a spine-like cable knitted into the back. "Before with me, it was all about technology - I had waistcoats with digital watches stitched into them and so on. But when you move abroad you realise that 25 per cent of your personality is suddenly made up of being Irish. You're defined by where you come from, and it does make you start to recognise your differences. I think, too, I was very aware of bespoke as a very English tradition, and in a way I wanted to say: `This is where I come from'."
In the future Kearns is determined to set up his own menswear label, although he refers to the difficulties other designers have had setting up and maintaining a business here. "I'm from Dublin so I'd like to live there but I think John Rocha's past difficulties are a good illustration of how difficult it is to be based in Dublin - showing is difficult, selling is difficult, manufacturing is difficult and then there's the whole question of keeping abreast of what's happening. In London and Paris, you can see what's happening on the street."
For the time being, he's quite happy to learn the ropes with Ungaro, which is one of the few fashion houses retaining its titular designer, Emanuel Ungaro, at the helm. Just as Gucci and Yves St Laurent have done before them, Ungaro is starting to modernise its look and streamline its business. "It's always good to enter a place during a time of change - but not too early on or you might lose your job."
Still, if the day job doesn't work out there's always his musical career - in recent months, Kearns has been travelling back to Ireland to work with the small label RGB Records. "I've been called the new Peter Gabriel; is that a good thing? I'm still hopeful that I`ll be able to keep my fingers in many pies."