At the elite carnival that is Paris Fashion Week, where Jean Paul Gaultier models were got up as Wags at a mock Miss Universe contest, and Kim Kardashian was booed upon arriving late to Lanvin, one Irish designer showed her collection without much drama or incident.
Sharon Wauchob’s intricate, hand-worked clothes aren’t yet stocked in Ireland, but in Paris she is known as an independent designer with a cult following. Wauchob (a Belgian name, which is pronounced “Wo-cob”) launched her first collection in 1998 and maintains a high place in the pecking order. Hers is one of 93 luxury labels billed on the official schedule of Paris Fashion Week, next to Chanel, Balenciaga, Gaultier and the gang.
The designer from Co Tyrone let us have a snoop around backstage before her show in the Louvre Oratoire, a magnificent 17th-century church.
Karl Lagerfeld said that fashion is "ephemeral, dangerous and unjust". Vogue's Anna Wintour said people are "frightened" of it. The late Isabella Blow described fashion as a "vampiric thing. It's the hoover on your brain."
Whether you are enthralled, fundamentally opposed, or couldn’t care less about fashion, the fashion weeks are likely to have some impact. The naked people dancing on the Make Up For Ever bus down the Rue de Rivoli amused the playing children, many of whom will probably be dolling up their eyes in five years’ time as dictated by these shows.
Behind the scenes at Sharon Wauchob spring-summer 2015, dressers are patrolling the packed rails of newly crafted garments. A lot of people work here: the master Japanese fabric cutters; the suited gentleman on the sewing machine; the producer shouting at someone to go to Monoprix for plastic cutlery; and the stylists picking at supermarket salads with their fingers. Today’s menu is green salad, pasta spirals and mozzarella – although not much of it.
Other people's jobs are less obvious. There is a woman called Doushka walking around in Ray-Bans. She is the choreographer. In two hours' lurking, I hear her give one vexed instruction to the models: to take off their shoes. There's a small, old Frenchman, of the sort you see outside the tabac, just standing around.
But most unexpectedly, the mood is normal and nice. No vampires here. These are artisans enjoying their work. Could it be that special occurrence, found in certain cafes, family homes and even some company headquarters, when the person on top has a natural decentness that percolates and creates a spirit of calm?
On the sheep farm
Wauchob grew up on a sheep farm in Newtownstewart, Co Tyrone, which she says she once considered taking over. She now works on her four collections a year with a team of 12, including her husband and business manager, Josh Neville, in her studio in the Marais.
Today she’s dressed in cigarette pants, sneakers and a gossamer blouse. She has an elfin quality. She wears no make-up and her hair is untidily pulled back.
Music roars from soundchecks as she strolls around the marble halls with her assistant designer, Catriona McCarthy from Co Kerry. Their heads are bowed in a whispering and seemingly profound dialogue as they gather fabric from a model’s back. When Wauchob discovers a tiny, stray bow that shouldn’t be there, she rushes off urgently.
Like every expat designer in Paris, she has always taken care to hire “her own”, from north and south of the Border. This includes Limerick School of Art and Design bursary winner Éadaoin Ní Drisceoil from Fermoy, Co Cork, who stands out, a friendly face with a baby-pink bow in her hair. The prize of €10,000 included a chance to work with the designer for six months. She has been sent to Italy to meet shoemakers, and has been dealing with textile workers in India.
“She’s the hardest-working person ever. She’s encouraging; she wants to involve you,” says Ní Drisceoil of Wauchob.
Then there’s Eddie Shanahan, chairman of the Council of Irish Fashion Designers, who is here as a friend, but is carefully watching preparations.
“The thing that distinguishes Sharon Wauchob from other designers is her mesmeric use of fabric,” he says. “She’s very grounded. She’s in the business of fashion rather than the fashion business.”
Models sit sulkily
Upstairs, in a marvellous domed room thick with hairspray fumes, the models sit sulkily, having their hair scraped into ponytails and held down with playing cards, like they are set to feature in an Alice in Wonderland sequel. Sarah Taylor from Co Down is among them. She is excited to be in Wauchob's show, and is not bored by all the waiting around. Her ringed eyes glower underneath lilac streaks; her skin is bone-white. "Innocence is the look today," she says matter-of-factly.
All of a sudden everyone is kicked out. We take our seats, the people in fur arrive and the media form their own theatre troupe at the far end of the church. Tellingly, there are no celebrities in attendance (although Wauchob is not badly connected; she has been head designer for Ali Hewson and Bono at Edun, for example.
The work of many hands and months flows out in a magical play of luxurious fabrics, embellished with lace and embroidery and all things nice. Wauchob does her mandatory curtsy at high speed, and it’s over in about 13 minutes.
After the show, the designer emerges like a timid bride greeting a mob of smothering relatives. She gives each person careful attention. “Thank you so much, thank you so much,” she says to the jabbering French lady interrupting our interview. “Thank you, thank you,” to the demure Chinese private buyers queuing for a selfie. Her two daughters (aged 4 and 2) are also here. “Mummy, can you check where they are. I worry about the stairs,” she says to her own mother, and runs off again.
Olive Wauchob recalls Sharon at their age. “She used to dress up her dolls for fashion shows,” she says, softly-spoken like her daughter. She is on a holiday from the farming life. “I enjoy the contrast,” she says. “There’s big similarities between farming and fashion,” her daughter says, resuming her perch. “Well, they’re very seasonal. It’s a lot of physical work, and you have to just keep going. You need stamina for both.”
The eponymous brand name is a good hiding place. When you ask her about Sharon Wauchob, instead of saying “me” she talks of “we”. There’s a media scrum around her, but she says she is not the centre of attention. “I don’t feel it. It’s beyond a team effort.”
The two-year-old is now slung over her shoulder, so I suggest we chat again on the phone. “I do not have a mobile phone,” she says. “I detest CC-d emails, unless they have a purpose. Everyone’s in loops, but no one’s really in the loop.”
It sounds like a metaphor for fashion. Backstage empties out and we’re all driven out of this loop, on to the next thing.