Though only 21 and passionate about fashion since the age of 10, Conor O’Brien has already established an enthusiastic following (including Dublin rapper Malaki) for his original handknits, modernised takes on traditional Irish cable knit patterns and shapes.
A second-year fashion student at the National College of Art and Design, unlike others who took their Studio+ year (an optional additional study year) abroad, O’Brien opted to stay home and now works part-time in Beautiful South boutique in Rathmines, developing his brand while continuing his studies.
“I am learning more [working in the boutique] and learning about selling clothes, than in college, though you need both,” he says. Growing up in Rathfarnham in what he describes as both a rural and urban environment was “fascinating and you learned so much”.
His love of knitwear began at the start of the Covid pandemic when an old friend of his grandmother, Berna Byrne, taught him how to knit “and I fell in love with it rather than the sewing which I found very stressful”, he says. “And it’s not just the high relief of the surface, but the yarns that I love.”
Those vary from pure Irish Galway wool from Bláthnaid Gallagher’s sheep, the wool from which the original Aran sweaters were made, to mixes produced by Donegal Yarns.
He began making scarves and then started playing with shaping, learning stitches by perfecting each pattern in blocks, then composing them together. “Knit is difficult to read, and after making traditional Aran sweaters that took four to five weeks, I started experimenting with two basic shapes,” he says.
The results are a gilet in brown or báinín wool that can be worn with a polo neck, shirt or dress underneath and a sweater in a chunky brown blackberry stitch with leg o’ mutton sleeves, a real statement piece. “Most of my inspiration comes from historical sources, and I love the 1890s and Belle Époque,” he says, referring to the sleeve shape.
His own sartorial style and love of the utilitarian is influenced by the Japanese. The day we met he was wearing a capacious Maison Margiela navy smock over a long skirt that he had made himself.
A person of strong and forthright views, he bemoans the fact that the fashion and textile students don’t collaborate at NCAD (though he is full of praise for his tutor Linda Byrne) and that the recent fashion graduate work was displayed on hangars rather than models. A visit to Antwerp to see the fashion graduates of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts was an exhilarating and very different experience, he says.
He loves talking to customers, is very insistent on developing an ethical fashion business using natural fibres, paying fair rates and allowing for generous lead times to produce a quality garment. “I am prioritising the welfare [of my knitters], taking the power back and I want to reinvigorate cottage industries and the made-to-order process. For me there is no other way.”
A sculptor turned fashion designer, Lia Cowan, who is 26, worked as an art teacher for three years after graduating from NCAD before realising that she wanted to do something else. A sewing course in the Grafton Academy was the seminal point in which she immediately knew what path her career would take. This was followed by two years studying fashion design in Sallynoggin College of Further Education where the designer Alison Conneely “helped me to find my own voice”, she says.
Last year she entered and, to her astonishment, won the Longines Young Designer Award (€10,000 and a Longines watch), an award that gave her the confidence to go on, “and things snowballed from there”. After a successful pop-up show at Christmas in Exchequer Street, she set up on her own, making pieces that she describes as “modular, playful, sculptural, big and loud, mix-and-match pieces that are elasticated and can be worn in different ways”.
Her fabrics are the stuff of frothy femininity — organza, tulle, cotton — but used in ways that allow them to be trans-seasonal and easily mixed together. “I like to bring hard and soft elements together. Winter is about layering and you can layer up very light fabrics to make them heavier or remove them to make them lighter.”
Such is the playful element of her work in which pieces can be moved around and connected with previous collections.
Her love of performance art, movement, ballet and dance informs her work. “Organza is bouncy and there is something transformative about wearing clothes that move around you; you become a different person because you are taking up more space, you are taking over the room.” Everything is made to order in three to four weeks from her base in the Chocolate Factory. Her new winter collection in black and white, with new silhouettes and embellishment, and her first solo show called Undisciplined Tulips will make its debut this month.
Four years ago Hannah Mullan and Gráinne Finn made a promising debut with their fashion brand Tissue at Showcase with a small but innovative collection of knitwear and silk scarves. Mullan had worked as a pattern cutter with John Rocha for eight years and had a degree in art history, while graphic artist Finn designed the wonderful oak-leaf prints based on 18th-century embroideries. Mullan’s mother Aoibheann provided the knitwear samples.
For a variety of personal reasons, including the death of Aoibheann and the onset of Covid, the pair have been quiet in recent years “and thought long and hard about where we wanted to go next with Tissue through the turmoil of the pandemic”, says Mullan.
Their new collection, a modest one and sustainable in keeping with the times, is made from 100 per cent Irish linen and consists of four items — two blouses, two dresses — made to order by We Make Good, using skills from refugees and people from disadvantaged backgrounds. “These are lasting pieces that reflect our values of fairness, longevity and ecological consciousness,” they say.
The dresses and blouses are designed to carry the wearer throughout the year. They can be worn with fine — or chunky — knit polo neck sweaters in winter or with sandals in summer. Called after Irish trees, the two blouses, Birch collar and Alder side button are €165 and €150; and the dresses, Sloe and Ash, are €285. Made in blue or brown check and charcoal, colours deliberately chosen to be natural, calm and change with the light, this is slow fashion and inclusive with sizes from S-XXL using recycled thread and non-toxic buttons.
“It’s what we really love to wear in our own wardrobes”, says Mullan “They are easy-fitting and generous, not body-hugging, so they suit lots of body shapes. At the end of the day, everybody wants to be comfortable.” The pieces are made to order within four weeks.
The photographs are by Cliona O’Flaherty and modelled by Olamide from Kerry, a second year student in TCD