Irish creatives in New York: if you can make it here . . .
As the dust settled on New York Fashion Week, we met some Irish people making waves in the Big Apple
Petria Lenehan with her daughter Robyn in New York: ‘Everything has just happened by being here, by meeting the right person at the right time’
Colm Corrigan is a stylist who splits his time between New York and Ireland: ‘New York has pushed me not only in my career, but as a person too’
Hair stylist Helen Reavey: ‘As you might expect, the Irish diaspora are amazing at looking after each other’
Producer and photo editor Sarah-Louise Colivet: ‘It can be hard to find a healthy work-life balance. Days on set can be extremely long and demanding so it’s important that I enjoy what I do’
Make-up artist Lorcan Devaney: ‘You can really do anything in New York – as long as you have drive and the will to stay here, you can accomplish so much’
Model Clara McSweeney: ‘New York is the dream place to be for modelling and if you can make it in New York you really can make it anywhere’
Photographer Rich Gilligan: ‘If I came here when I was 24, I probably would just have gone mad’
Vice President of Merchandising for DKNY Women’s RTW Jemma Cassidy: ‘It’s difficult to crawl to the top here, but even more difficult to stay there’
The fashion industry brings $250 billion (€222 billion) to the US economy every year. But in a city already saturated with fashion enthusiasts chasing a shared dream, is it possible for Irish creatives in New York to make the American Dream an American reality?
Like many of their peers, fashion designer and former owner of Dublin’s Dolls boutique, Petria Lenehan and her photographer husband, Rich Gilligan, were forced by the recession to look at viable options for emigration, and considered London, Berlin and Sweden. On past trips to New York, Gilligan says he would extend his stay to set up meetings, in his words “winging it”, and half-pretending to be based there. As one opportunity led to another, the couple planned their move. During the arduous but successful 18-month Green Card application process that ensued, they found out they were expecting a baby.
Despite the challenges of adapting to a new city with a one-year-old and saying goodbye to “everything that was comfortable and familiar”, they quickly met like-minded people who became fast friends, an advantage of moving to a creative, family-friendly neighbourhood. In fact, since they moved, in February 2015, these random playground encounters have led to opportunities, with Lenehan explaining: “You just meet someone in the park and they’re a stylist or have their own creative agency and then you exchange emails and that’s how it goes. Everything has just happened by being here, by meeting the right person at the right time and the right conversations.”
With only a small sample collection, Lenehan began cold-calling stores across New York and was surprised by how open and enthusiastic they were, with shops in Manhattan and The Hamptons agreeing to stock her brand. While the ever-changing nature of New York calls for constant trend refreshments of the new and cool, Lenehan has defiantly built her brand as seasonless, offering simple shapes in heritage Irish materials built to last for decades.
Extending this non-conformist attitude to her workload and headspace, Lenehan refuses to give in to the rat race of the New York fashion industry. “I don’t pay any attention to it. I nearly wouldn’t know it was Fashion Week. At the moment I’m not looking to be in the big stores. I don’t want stress. I just choose to not. You can choose to live a certain way here.”
But contrary to her Zen attitude, her husband has embraced the industry’s hustle, saying: “I’ve probably had more than 100 meetings since I’ve got here. It’s manic, but at the same time, part of me loves that, and it feels like it’s already starting to pay off. Even though it’s early days, the potential is already there.”
And it’s that endless potential that draws so many to the city, it seems, despite the high cost of living and being up against what Gilligan calls “the best of the best”.
“To just exist here you need to earn good money but the potential to earn is there. One commercial job could last you six months and that just doesn’t happen in Ireland. ”
Gilligan, who has photographed some of Ireland’s biggest stars, such as Saoirse Ronan, Gabriel Byrne and Cillian Murphy, says despite leaving behind a successful career in Ireland to embark on a city as a relative unknown, career-wise the timing couldn’t have been better. “We’ve come here quite formed in what we do. If I came here when I was 24, I probably would just have gone mad.
“Because we came here at this stage, and we’ve kind of got our heads screwed on, we have a very specific goal of what we’re doing. I don’t think either of us has ever been as focused. Or as confident in what we do. It’s been quite liberating to be able to actually believe in what you’re doing. We wanted to really push ourselves out of our comfort zone and do something we couldn’t do in Ireland.”
This desire to push herself out of her comfort zone made Sarah-Louise Colivet extend her stay in New York after a three-month working holiday when she left college. Five and a half years later, she still hasn’t left. With a degree in journalism and photography and dual citizenship (her parents lived there when she was born), Colivet works as a freelance producer and photo editor for The Last Magazine, which covers fashion, music and culture.
Her freelance career has seen her work on Fashion Week shows for Alexander Wang and Hugo Boss, and Victoria Beckham’s SS17 show. Colivet says it was the city’s energy that made her stay, but she misses the culture and humour of Ireland. “It can be hard to find a healthy work-life balance. Days on set can be extremely long and demanding so it’s important that I enjoy what I do. At times, living in the city can feel like a rollercoaster; it’s extremely competitive and fast paced. You need a strong backbone and an open mind.”
It undoubtedly took a strong backbone for hair stylist Helen Reavey to leave her steady job at Peter Mark in 2013 and pursue a freelance career in New York, but the determination has paid off. After contacting hair stylist Sam McKnight, Reavey was given the opportunity to assist him on her first fashion season, which then led to her working with Alicia Keys and styling her hair for her 2013 world tour Girl On Fire, which she describes as her “big break”.
Reavey, who comes from Warrenpoint, Co Down, now travels the world for Fashion Month each season, having been booked for more than 30 shows this month alone, working with everyone from Chanel to Fendi. Her work has been featured in the fashion magazines such as Vogue, Elle and Harpers Bazaar.
Based in New York, Reavey says not seeing her family as much as she wishes is the greatest downside to her emigration but it seems the American-Irish tradition of helping one another out still exists, even in an industry that is notoriously cut-throat.
“There are lots of very talented Irish people in New York and I’ve always enjoyed working with them,” says Reavey. “As you might expect, the Irish diaspora are amazing at looking after each other.”
One such person Reavey considers among her best friends is fashion stylist Colm Corrigan. The Blanchardstown native says it was assisting the creative director of American Vogue, Grace Coddington, on a September issue shoot in Kerry that led to an opportunity to work at NYFW and the decision soon after to divide his time between there and Dublin.
Corrigan began his styling career 11 years ago, assisting Sonya Lennon and Brendan Courtney on RTÉ’s Off The Rails. The 30-year-old has dreamed of living in New York since he was nine and says the contacts he made before moving proved invaluable. “I had assisted on big jobs in Ireland, from American, French, Italian and Russian Vogue; the New York Times and Bergdorf Goodman. But it was hard work . . . Even after styling for years I would never say no to assisting someone.”
The hard work appears to have paid off for Corrigan, who has gone on to style shows at NYFW and more shoots for American Vogue and Paper magazine. While Corrigan’s initial plan was to move to New York full-time, the work has continued to come in for him in Dublin. On splitting his time between the two, Corrigan says: “It’s been tricky to say the least, I would love to think I made the right decision but at times I think, ‘Why am I missing out on so many things back home? Or sitting on another plane?’ But I feel it’s been worth it, and New York] has pushed me not only in my career, but as a person.”
Having spent her post-Leaving Cert summer in New York in 2015, model Clara McSweeney says it was the “excitement and vivacity” of Manhattan that stayed with her when she got back to Ireland and she decided to move there more permanently last May.
McSweeney has worked in fashion cities all over the world, but says New York is the ideal place for an international model to be working, because it houses leading designers, fashion magazines and lucrative advertising campaigns.
“New York is the dream place to be for modelling and if you can make it in New York you really can make it anywhere.”
The Cork native, who was shortlisted from thousands for last season’s Victoria’s Secret fashion show, conveys that there are strict body measurements for models in New York that don’t exist in the Irish industry but says keeping in shape is part of the job. With greater opportunities, a wider range of jobs and bigger budgets on offer, the model hopes to stay in New York for the foreseeable future.
Make-up artist Lorcan Devaney moved to New York four months ago in the hope of turning his passion for make-up into a viable career. “A lot of the work I do is a little more ‘out there’, I guess: weird conceptual stuff based off songs or whatever I find emotive. So it made more sense for me to be in an area where I could be creative with make-up and have it as a career more than as a hobby.”
Devaney has worked with a number of Irish musicians on the festival circuit; Le Galaxie, Nanu Nanu, BARQ. New York has given him the chance to take his talents to the next level and he has already worked with Joan Jett, Phil Gibbs and Kelsy Karter. While so far Devaney’s work has been unpaid; assisting others and organising his own shoots until his O-1 visa for artists comes through, he says the experience has been invaluable.
“Being able to create beautiful images, and collaborating with others to make art, is what makes me happy. You can really do anything in New York – as long as you have drive and the will to stay here, you can accomplish so much.”
It seems the golden ticket for these creatives is the O-1 visa, notoriously difficult to obtain and officially awarded to “the individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics”.
Dubliner Jemma Cassidy moved to New York three years ago on an O-1, and says she constantly disappoints immigration staff when she tells them she’s just a buyer. In fact, Cassidy is not just a buyer but the buyer: the Vice President of Merchandising for DKNY Women’s RTW, to be precise. After dropping out of her first year in college, she worked in retail before setting up an event styling company. When a stateside opportunity arose with Urban Outfitters, she became its global merchandising manager before moving to her position at DKNY seven months ago.
Evidently a hard worker, Cassidy refuses to conform to the New York stereotype of 18-hour work days, generally working 9-6 unless preparing for a show.
“It’s difficult to crawl to the top here, but even more difficult to stay there, so generally the people you work with are incredibly ambitious, hardworking and never stagnant. Very few people are clocking in solely to have a job. If you’re choosing to live here, the chances are you genuinely love the industry and are passionate about working here.”
So is New York home for good? “I’m sure I speak for most expats when I say this is a question you ask yourself almost weekly and, depending on the week, the answer changes. Do I want to live in Ireland close to my family and friends and have their support and influence especially if I have children? Absolutely. However, the realities are I cannot get the type of work I want in Ireland. I certainly can’t get any job that pays even close to the salary I earn in NYC. I struggled for long enough in Ireland to pay my mortgage, other loans etc, and I’m not willing to do it again. I’ve a much higher standard of living here so it’s a compromise.”
While their roles in the industry vary widely, one thing these eight people share is their an insatiable appetite for opportunity, a strong work ethic and a genuine passion for the city itself. Not one said it was easy but each lit up when they spoke about New York, using words such as “magnetic; dynamic; electric and exhilarating”.
Whether there is such thing as a finishing line when it comes to achieving your dreams, it seems it is the thrill of the almost-within-grasp potential that makes New York such a desirable place to be.