Cashmere sweaters may cushion us from the chill of these spring days, but in the present crisis may not be of much comfort for Irish knitters and designers who make a living from their production. One of the country’s most successful is Lucy Downes, whose spring collection for 2020 marks the 21st year of her label Sphere One, though birthday celebrations in May have been deferred due to Covid-19 and sales are only online.
The only Irish designer who shows in Paris and New York twice a year, she has customers all over the world for her luxury knits of the finest European cashmere yarn, handmade in Kathmandu, Nepal. Last month in Paris, she took orders for autumn/winter from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and the UK. Having shipped her spring-summer collections, she now awaits payment for them – cash flow that will enable her to purchase yarn to produce the winter collection. Everything, however, is in abeyance.
As the whole normal trading process has ground to a halt in the fashion industry, Downes, like so many others, is waiting to see what will happen though she can still sell online and is phlegmatic about the future. “Hopefully when this has passed people will realise their individual purchasing power to support enterprises they believe in. I think of these times as like an engine running out of oil that can be restarted, but with care.”
Having established her label in 1999, the very first sweater she ever made was a thigh-length cardigan called the Kim O No. This was followed by its sister, the Lauren O No, a flared, ribbed version; they both became best-sellers.
After she completed a degree in Economics & Business in Trinity College Dublin, and then a further first-class degree in fashion design at the National College of Art and Design, Downes spent over a decade as a shoe designer in New York with Donna Karan, an experience that helped fund the early years of Sphere One, and familiarise her with the US market.
Her strengths are both technical and aesthetic, underpinned by a post-graduate award to Shima Seiki, Japanese world leaders in knitwear technology, along with a cultural background and upbringing steeped in architecture and art.
“My first big break was getting a fantastic offer in 2006 from a [lifestyle luxury] company called Calypso St Barth. They placed an order for $50,000 for their 17 stores across the US, then a further order for $100,000 and then $150,000, so by 2007, they had ordered a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of Sphere One,” she recalls. However, when Calypso was taken over by an investment company, the decision was made to produce knitwear themselves.
“Since then the big stores have seen cashmere as a commodity and buyers are not able to distinguish good from lesser quality”, she says.
Given that cashmere has become so ubiquitous and inexpensive, Downes explains why quality costs more and lasts longer. “It is the length of fibre, the dyeing, the carding, the spinning and the twisting that gives that extra level of quality. We buy yarn from Todd Duncan in Scotland and Loro Piana in Italy” (recognized as world leading cashmere yarn spinners). Mass production of cashmere, she points out, when too many goats turn pasture into deserts, has fuelled ecological destruction “but I stand over where my yarn comes from and how it is produced”. Consumers conscious of sustainability should expect to pay a higher price for quality.
A passionate environmentalist “obsessed with zero waste” who is “as tight as a tick when ordering yarn”, her TCD thesis 30 years ago called A Load of Rubbish, on the economics of recycling glass, metal, plastics and paper was ahead of its time in its prediction of environmental damage. It concluded that it would only be when the world was at the tipping point of the disaster that people would wake up and do something about it, “so I am quite hopeful that brilliant human minds finding solutions to this Covid pandemic can put them towards tackling the environmental catastrophe”.
So back to her spring collection called Field Day; this can be purchased online along with her little tunnel Cosey Rosy scarves (€100) that can be tucked into less expensive sweaters and beanies for ARC – for every one sold, one goes to someone going through cancer treatment. All carry her familiar circular Sphere One hand-stitched logo inspired by both the Irish artist Patrick Scott and the avant garde Belgian designer Martin Margiela. “It captures visually and literally the identity of the collection representing its simplicity and modernity,” she says.
Field Day, recalling her memories of country fairs in Wicklow, features featherweight knits and cool summer cottons in a neutral palette enlivened with specially dyed pink and sherbet shades. Hand applique, detailing and metallic yarn adds texture and shimmer throughout, lighthearted and playful touches to lift the spirits in darker days. Visit sphereone.ie or @sphereonecircle on Instagram.
Photography Simon Walsh, art direction and styling Ciana March, hair and make-up Rebecca O Neill, model Teresa Lui at NotAnotherAgency. Portrait of Lucy Downes by Matthew Thompson