Five of the best of the rest
SMYTH & GIBSON
EVERYTHING used in making Wendy Smyth's shirts is Irish - except, she admits, the mother of pearl buttons. A graduate of NCAD, Bangor-born Smyth set up her business in the summer of 1994 and has seen steady growth ever since. "Two of Northern Ireland's greatest industries have been linen and shirt manufacture," she says. "I'm just putting the two together and packaging it properly."
Smyth & Gibson shirts are beautifully packaged in their individual cardboard boxes - "they've a lot of shelf appeal," comments the 30-year-old designer who's now based in Belfast. One of the company's very first customers was London's Browns of South Molton Street which has increased the size of its order with each successive season. Smyth is putting a lot of effort into the export market, she already sells to outlets in Canada and the United States Austria, Germany and Belgium. Her next target is Japan.
Having started with three designs, Smyth & Gibson now offers six (each named after a different district of Belfast), using both cotton and linen. The cotton shirts retail from £55 while linen styles start at £65. Although essentially designed for men, they're just as often worn by women particularly since Smyth's latest collection for spring/summer comes in a range of fashionably bright colours such as canary yellow and lime green; there's both a slim and narrow fit on offer in the range. "My customer base takes in as many men over 50 as under 25," says Smyth to demonstrate the range of her appeal.
HAVING being made redundant from B&I in the late 1980s, Elizabeth Scully bought herself a knitting machine and started to sell sweaters to friends. Since then, her business has developed to the point that she has put aside the machinery and now employs 50 outworkers to create her handknits. All the designs are her own and every piece is hand-finished back in her Drogheda workroom "that way I can keep a check on quality all the time."
Scully varies the range every season, altering yarns and colours according to demand. But the essential basis of her knits remains chenille and mercerised cotton, "mainly because I know their wearability and my customers have no problem with them." Those customers often return time and again to add to their collection, Scully began building a loyal clientele when she sold her knits every weekend at the Mother Redcaps market in Dublin and now many women regularly travel to her year-old shop in Drogheda. Here they can find not just her knitwear, but also scarves in similar colours and patterns by Mel Bradley, as well as costume jewellery and hats. While her sweaters typically retail around the country for £159, individual suits start at £275.
Scully is happy to design to commission - "just put the concept to us and we'll work around that." She'll willingly produce wedding dresses and suits ("maybe for someone who's getting married for the second time") and confirmation outfits - "it's hard to find anything out there for that early teenage period." At the moment, her biggest worry is finding enough good knitters; "the problem is that no one's being taught knitting at school any more."
FOUR years after graduating from NCAD, Lorraine Bowen is currently working with designer Louise Kennedy on the latter's autumn/winter collection, samples of which will be shown to buyers in London later this week. Bowen took a degree in print textile design, followed (after a year's freelance work) by a Crafts Council of Ireland business course in Kilkenny. Then, in September 1994, she moved into her present studio in Dublin's Tower Design Centre. Aside from fashion designers, Bowen often works with architects and interior decorators, her fabrics can be used for wall hangings, decorative screens and soft furnishings on cotton, these special designs cost between £20 and £66 per metre. She also produces her own range of silk ties and scarves (the latter start at £45) and is happy to entertain commission proposals. Although she sometimes uses cotton and linen, most of her work is on silk of all kinds - chiffon, velvet, organza.
Bowen tends to mix print and paint techniques in the same piece; the eventual result is hard-wearing and, thanks to the materials employed usually hand-washable. Her designs are distinctive thanks to a mixture of architectural themes and writing which have turned up ever since her degree show at college. "I've always been very influenced by buildings," she admits, "and I do use a lot of typography. For instance, if I'm doing a design based on old Irish flowers, I'll look up old books on the subject and use those texts in the work."
ALTHOUGH she has been making hats for many years, it's only lately that Ann Lawrence has decided to turn what was essentially a hobby Into a business. For the first decade of her marriage, she lived in Helen's Tower, the romantic Victorian folly on the Clandeboy estate outside Belfast and her work reflects that streak of extravagance.
In 1993, Lawrence graduated with an honours degree in art and design giving her more formal qualifications. Since then, she has been building up a clientele Interested in buying individually-crafted examples of her idiosyncratic work. When not specifically-commissioned, her hats are made in limited editions of not more than six, ensuring that owners can be confident of a degree of exclusivity.
Colours are rich and jewel-like, and fabrics are from the luxury end of the market, raw silk, velour, satin and brocade, with all hats lined in pure silk "Wherever I see a beautiful fabric, I buy it - the hat is then created from that." Lawrence says she finds her inspiration in the designs of the Far East, the ballets russes and the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley. What sort of people come to her looking for a hat that can cost anything from £120 to £200? "They're usually less conventional and slightly bohemian," she says. "The hats are more for evening than weddings really."
SPOTTING an opening in the market, seven years ago Barbara Curran and her mother Mary moved from selling fabrics to manufacturing clothes. Mrs Curran set up business in the mid-1980s while her daughter was still working in the Scottish fashion trade, when the latter returned, they decided to venture into clothing using the Italian wool jersey already imported.
"It's always been based around investment dressing," explains Barbara Curran; most of her customers are aged 35-plus "and they want to know they're buying quality - these are durable clothes." Competitively-priced (the wool Jersey dresses retail around £150-175 in this country), Royal County clothes are unlikely to date quickly. While daywear is relatively simple and understated, for evenings a range of more luxurious fabrics such as French lace, chiffon and brocade Is used. The Currans are responsible for all Fabric sourcing and design and say they welcome individual commissions.
While the range of clothing is only available in this country through the Royal County shop in co Meath, there has always been a keen pursuit of the export market. Barbara Curran's first overseas order came from Lucienne Phlllips's shop in Knightsbridge and this week she travels to the United States to examine fresh opportunities there. In addition, she has also started to produce corporatewear. Her first job in this sector was designing uniforms for Limerick's Castletroy Park Hotel and at the moment, she's working on a range for the staff of the newly-refurbished Shelbourne Park Stadium.