Northern Ireland fashion designers make their mark in the shadow of Brexit

With a nod to Ireland’s mythology, these designers want to revive the North’s textile industry

Northern Irish design is steeped in the history of its once lucrative linen industry. The mills may be closed but the creativity is far from quenched. The designers of today’s Northern Ireland are not afraid to push boundaries when it comes to fashion.

This is modern-day design at its most daring where androgyny and gender fluidity are the accepted norms. Technological advances are no longer limited to the sciences but are instead embraced to produce dramatic pieces of design. But a nod to the deep-rooted cultures of Ireland and its mythological past is never far from the finished piece. These designers are here to revive the textile industry of the past even under the looming shadow of Brexit.

The Cut by Patricia Grogan

Patricia Grogan’s love affair with tailoring began under the mentorship of a former Saville Row tailor, Mr Raise. A passion for tailoring and the centuries old techniques led to her creating a made-to-measure service for the women of Belfast. A few years on and The Cut’s clientele include some of Belfast’s large number of lawyers (56 per cent of barristers in Belfast are female), members of the LGBTQ community and businesswomen.

Grogan puts her success down to a lifestyle shift: "I think women began to turn to tailored pieces on a subconscious level following the #metoo movement. Women wanted more then ever to be on par with men". Grogan's signature style is androgynous and the feeling of empowerment she gets from wearing a well-made suit is something she wanted to share with other women. "When the cut is perfect the suit speaks for itself," she explains. The ultimate honour for Grogan is seeing her, "edgy, rock 'n' roll vibe, dark-green velvet suit," currently on display at the Ulster Museum as part of their Permanent Contemporary Collection.

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The Season Hats by Paul Stafford and Selina Horshi

When Science and fashion collide the result can be pretty spectacular. Case in point - The Season Hats. The British Council of Fashion, Newgen brand is the perfect cocktail of technological advances and design. Husband-and-wife duo Paul Stafford and Selina Horshi have combined their talents – Selina as head of marketing and Paul at the helm of the design process – to create a futuristic style of millinery. Based at the Fashion and Textile Design Centre for emerging fashion and textile businesses in Derry, has given the experimental designer access to state of the art equipment such as laser cutters and 3D printers. With a degree in natural sciences, Paul’s approach to design has elements of both science and engineering.

“I found that I could make more interesting headwear by developing new techniques. Geometry is very important for my work, so there’s still some science to the collections.”

As a Newgen brand their collections have been exhibited within the British Council of Fashion’s Designer showrooms at London fashion week. They have also shown in Paris and with a graduate collection that was featured in British Vogue, The Season Hats has been propelled to a global brand. The striking designs are available as far afield as Hong Kong and Australia.

Éadach by Sara O’Neill

There’s something enchanting about Sara O’Neill’s designs. After a 12-year career as a stylist, O’Neill returned to not only her artistic roots of illustration and design but also to her hometown of Portrush. With Éadach, which simply means cloth, O’Neill draws on Irish mythology and the rugged Northern Irish coastline for inspiration.

“Moving back to Portrush I began to see the coastline with fresh eyes. There are still places that have been untouched by human hands and the views brought me back to the folklore stories my Granny in Dublin use to tell me,” she explains. “These mythological stories were always about strong Irish women such as Grainne the Pirate Queen, Deirdre and the Banshee. I just loved that women were depicted as strong characters in the stories.”

These enchanting stories are intricately illustrated on silk scarves and kimonos that are handmade locally by O’Neill’’s former tutor Lorraine Cunningham of Grain-Line Design.

A regular feature of Brown Thomas's Create and the Marvel Room, O'Neill has been shortlisted for the Designer of the Year at the Irish Innovation awards. Most recently she dressed Derry Girls actor and pro-choice activist Siobhan McSweeney for the BAFTA awards in a Éadach red Morrigan kimono inspired by the Celtic Goddess of war.

RUEDI by Ruedi Maguire

Who wouldn’t want to step out in a silk organza sheer skirts by Ruedi for an instant touch of glamour? Shunning the bright fashion lights of London, Maguire has decided to stay put in Northern Ireland.

“I use to think I wanted to do the high fashion lifestyle, but the more I create for people in Ireland I realise that fashion should be about real people,” he explains.

With this ethos it’s no wonder Ruedi was hooked once he heard the premise behind RTÉ’s show The Fitting Room where he designs pieces for everyday people who struggle to shop on the high street.

“It’s refreshing to hear from real people and the challenges they face when it comes to fashion. The industry needs to do better and we need to challenge it,” he says.

These aren’t the only boundaries Ruedi aims to push. His own personal style oozes gender fluidity – from his immaculate eye make-up to his kilt/trouser combo, he unapologetically crosses those fashion lines. This is something he hopes to explore in future collections.

“If I make a dress in my next collection, I want it to be for whoever wants to wear it,” he explains.

Han* by Hannah Vail

At just 25-years-old, Derry designer Hannah Vail is on the cusp of opening her fifth concession store in Topshop. In June, her label Han*, which consists of beautiful minimal tees and sweatshirts, will be available in their Glasgow store. Taking inspiration from the art world – her mum brought her to Grayson Perry and Tracey Emin exhibitions from a young age – expect to see abstract design prints on her functional sweatshirts and tees. Nature also plays a part in her inspiration resulting in delicate embroidered bees or jellyfish featuring in her designs.

When it comes to who can wear a Han* design, gender is a non-issue.

“It was never a conscious decision to be gender neutral, more like consciously thinking that I’d never want anyone to tell me what I can and can’t wear so I wouldn’t want to do that to anyone else,” she explains.

After graduating from her degree in Textiles, Art, Design and Fashion at Ulster University, Vail started a residency at the Fashion and Textile Design Centre in Derry.

“I feel very passionately about my hometown. I love that we are able to outsource our embroidery and printing to other locals,” she says – the ultimate unwavering Derry Girl.