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Co Clare designer Michael Stewart on the power of ancient female forms

What is remarkable about his graduate collection is the sculptural quality of the garments

Michael Stewart's breathtaking Burren-inspired creations: "I will only make something if it is to the highest standard."

At the age of seven, Michael Stewart was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. He replied instantly: “a sculptor”. Already the child from Co Clare had exhibited exceptional artistic talent encouraged by his mother, Ann, and his teachers at school and an exhibition of his work had been held in Ennis Library opened by Síle de Valera. But such recognition brought unwanted pressure, to the extent that he did not pick up a pencil to draw again until 10 years later.

The Burren formed the backdrop and inspiration for Michael Stewart's graduate RCA collection.

Time moved on. He decided to study fashion in Limerick, graduated with Best Overall Collection, later winning the Student Designer of the Year Award. His graduate collection called Commune in white cotton embellished with green bugle beading “like enchanted moss” was exhibited at London Fashion Week.

“Ancient female forms are so powerful,” says Michael Stewart

It was an early indication of his aesthetic approach, for central to his work and the core of what he creates, is craftsmanship and the hands-on process – the beading took him hundreds of hours of work – which he credits to his Irish heritage.

Michael Stewart has been characterised as an “emotional designer but equally deeply professional”.

“I have to see everything in front of me in 3D. I could never make a garment on the flat,” he once said. Supported by the inaugural bursary of €15,000 from Kildare Village, he went on to complete an MA in the Royal College of Art in London.

The silhouette was constructed with canvas topstitched on a form and with upholstery foam that was rolled and manipulated into shape. The jersey was then draped over it.

During that two-year period, his tutor described him as an “emotional designer but equally deeply professional” acknowledging Stewart’s background and spiritual connections to his native Clare. What is remarkable about his graduate collection which was shot in the Burren by Andrew Nuding and presented recently on static live models in the Douglas Hyde Gallery is the sculptural quality of the garments and their elaborate yet deceptively seamless looking construction.

Stewart credits the craftmanship in this collection to his Irish heritage.

“The main concept was the reanimation of ancient female forms which are very powerful – so it is almost that you are wearing something that makes you feel more powerful,” he says. The entire collection was made in jersey, draped on a form first of all, then constructed with canvas, handstitched (a tailoring technique), and with upholstery foam rolled and manipulated into shape over which the jersey was then draped. The metal fastenings were sculpted in clay then made in aluminium and polished for a high finish, another craft based technique.

Michael Stewart: “Ancient female forms are so powerful.”

Stewart hopes to further his skills in haute couture in Paris, but in the meantime is supporting himself teaching in Limerick “and I will only make something if it is to the highest standard.” Following in his footsteps at the RCA will be Dubliner Andrew Bell, recipient of the second Kildare Village Bursary enabling another talented Irish fashion designer to pursue their dreams in one of the most renowned fashion colleges in the world.

  • Photographer Andrew Nuding; stylist Kieron Kilgallon, models; Kathia at Models; Natasha at Select Models