Irish creatives mix food and fashion by pairing hats to cakes

Margaret O’Connor and Jess Murphy combine millinery and patisserie in new project

The Japanese say that the first bite is with the eye, a belief that applies to food and to fashion, when first impressions count. The creative impulse being common to both, fashion designers and chefs deal with seasonal trends, draw from history, have to think about changing tastes, colour and texture, select relevant materials and experiment.

So when Clare milliner Margaret O'Connor met New Zealand-born chef Jess Murphy, who is based in Galway, and both were equally admiring of each other's work, they decided to collaborate, matching millinery to patisserie. "What we wear and what we eat are very entwined," says O'Connor, who came up with the concept of relating the project to the west of Ireland, its ancestral food and fabric heritage and rural traditions. Three extraordinary hats were made and three magnificent cakes fashioned in response.

The first hat, like a wide brimmed bonnet made of tweed, buckram and pheasant feathers in browns and greys, is "earthy, wild and free" according to O'Connor, who doesn't usually work with feathers. The culinary response from Murphy was a pumpkin pie with a broad rim made with orange kuri squash grown in Lough Boora in Offaly, organic eggs and custard made with raw cream from Mimi Crawford in Tipperary. "I just wanted it to be orange and brown and a complete reflection of the colours of the season," says Murphy.

The second hat references the local traditions in Clare and in Galway of straw boys and wren boys and O’Connor’s experience of making such headwear for Clare weddings. This ties in with her memories of the hand-knitted Aran sweaters her mother made for her growing up and hessian bags traditionally used for selling potatoes, carrots and onions. “So I drew from my roots. I used hessian, Irish tweed and hand knits, with wool, buttons and threads from my granny’s house” says O’Connor.

The carrot cake made by Murphy with dehydrated bog carrots from Connemara, honey and ginger, decorated with leaves from the Sea Road, reflected elements of the Aran knits “and the fact that I learned about the  báinín stitches and honeycomb patterns, as well as being introduced to brown bread from Aine [O’Malley] here in Galway,” she says.

The third hat, a saucer shape made from felted wool dyed with earthy green and tonal dyes was designed to reflect the landscape. Quills fan out from it, a plumage stripped of feathers. This prompted what Murphy describes as the hardest cake to create, with wild blackberries, cheesecake and meringues. “It is a reflection of the colours in the hat and also because Blackberry Picking, Seamus Heaney’s poem, is my favourite. Blackberries are really special in the west of Ireland and everything about that hat reminds me of Kathleen McMahon of Black River Wild Foods foraging in Headford. The cheesecake, being American, is a reference to her background.”

O'Connor is no stranger to collaborations, unusual ones at that, and knows how to make heads turn. Not only has she created award-winning collections – including taking the top prize in the Global Innovations Award in Shanghai in 2017 with Derek Lawlor – and has fashioned headwear for Lady Gaga among others. She has also done millinery makeovers for Dublin statues. Her current projects include working with Shane McGowan and Victoria Mary Clarke and planning a Dublin fundraiser with haute couture hats and a film she made in July in Berlin. She has always loved Murphy's cooking. "The flavours and textures she uses – she could be a textile designer – and we both like doing things well."

For Murphy, O'Connor is the milliner of the ultimate statement. "She has made many headbands for me. We wanted to do something together with a bit of craic in November. It's my favourite season and favourite time of year and I always wait for the first of November to work with game. When we started talking about it in 2109, it was always going to be November."
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Photography: Mrs Redhead Photography. Stylist/designer: Roisin Lennon