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Where designer dreams come true

Some of NCAD’s legion of luminous alumni talk about the impact their alma mater has had on their careers

Hat by Philip Treacy. Photograph: Sandro Hyams

Hat by Philip Treacy. Photograph: Sandro Hyams


The National College of Art & Design (NCAD) on Dublin’s Thomas Street is one of Ireland’s oldest established colleges and occupies a unique position as the sole provider of art education within the NUI framework. Originating as a private drawing school set up by Robert West in 1746 on George’s Lane, it was taken over by the Dublin Society in 1877 and renamed the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and continued as such until the Department of Education took control in 1924.

Many famous Irish artists either studied or taught in the college, including WB Yeats and Harry Clarke. In the 20th century, teachers included Sir William Orpen, Oliver Sheppard, Oswald Reeves and Seán Keating – quite the name-dropping staff! Leading designers who cut their cloth there include milliner extraordinaire Philip Treacy, Orla Kiely, Simone Rocha and Ciarán Sweeney, along with many other award-winning catwalk wonders.

Nicola Gordon Bowe, the famous art historian, discovered Harry Clarke’s Eve of St Agnes stained glass panels under a bed in the college and retrieved his diploma work from storage after it moved to the old fire station building on Thomas Street.

Fashion designer Helen Cody is an award-winning couturier who secured a coveted place at NCAD more than 30 years ago with a portfolio brimming with ideas.

She recalls the excitement of entering this bohemian environment. “I came from the very cosseted environment of my private all-girls Catholic school so arriving into NCAD was a little overwhelming.

“I had always been the ‘arty one’ in Mount Anville Secondary School, but here I was surrounded by so many incredibly talented people.

“My first drawing project was with the talented artist Charlie Whisker, who kept us all working hard to win his approval, which of course was impossible unless your name was Hubert Montag, the most gifted artist in my class! For my first experience of life drawing, I made a 5ft rendition of the male lower torso, I did it to shock but no one paid a blind bit of attention,” she laughs.

Endless hours

Cody’s dresses are renowned for their stunning fairytale elements. In fact, some of her ethereal creations bedeck marbled hallways and art galleries in Dublin. Her most enduring NCAD memory is the endless hours that went into every project.

“It was a great way to encourage my work ethic, which remains to this day – I never give up until the job is done. I loved my time at NCAD, I got to learn alongside some very talented people, and it shaped my interesting and colourful future career.”

Philip Treacy, the mesmerising milliner from Ahascragh in Co Galway has been turning heads globally with his mind-blowing sculptured hats. Was NCAD an inspiring place to attend?

“Absolutely. I loved every minute of my time there. It was my first introduction to fashion and design, and I benefited hugely from the experience.

“All the lecturers were encouraging in different ways. However, Frances McDonagh, Gill Hewitt and Mr and Mrs Scully encouraged me enormously,” he explains.

“I loved Thomas Street as well. It’s part of the ambience of where the college is located and it’s authentic.

“I never came across a library quite like the visual arts one at NCAD. It was my first introduction to everything this amazing library contained. It was the first time I came across photography books by Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. Their work inspired me hugely in my career so when I got to work with both of these giants personally, all those hours I spent in the library of the NCAD came to life. Indeed, I could not have had a better experience than that at NCAD.”

Activewear by Jennifer Rothwell.
Activewear by Jennifer Rothwell.

Jennifer Rothwell, a high-tech trendsetter and fashion leader, graduated from NCAD in 1995, and all of her colourful printed garments and textiles are designed digitally. She worked as the director of design for many high-profile New York companies including Norma Kamali and Calvin Klein before returning to Dublin. Three of Rothwell’s dresses are on display in the National Museum’s display of Contemporary Design & Craft. Her gorgeous gowns can often be seen sashaying along the red carpet at the Oscars and are frequently worn by A-list actors overseas and at home.

“I worked really hard on my portfolio during sixth year as I wanted to go directly into college after school. For my final degree year, I remember wanting to design a very tailored and commercial range, however, my tutors convinced me to do a more creative collection and, in the end, I was delighted with how everything worked out. College is when you should be creative and NCAD was enriching and inspiring.

“I learned something different and unique from all the tutors that taught me at NCAD. I would have liked to have studied both a fashion and textiles degree combined – but that wasn’t an option so I opted for fashion.”

What were her high moments there?

‘My proudest moments’

“My most memorable moment at NCAD was when my final-year collection closed the NCAD fashion show. It was such an honour and one of my proudest moments.”

Rothwell, despite all the accolades, has found it hard to make a fashion business work in Dublin and hopes the Government will offer more support to many pressurised designers.

“We need to foster the Made in Ireland campaign both nationally and internationally. We are renowned for arts, music, literature and more recently food, so why not Irish craft and contemporary Irish design? It breaks my heart to see Irish design talent having to emigrate – we should be creating employment opportunities.”

The VAT rate at 23 per cent is particularly crippling the industry along with massive rents for small businesses in Dublin.

“The tourism sector got the reduced VAT rate they needed back in 2011 and the design/craft sector needs similar help. I’m not independently wealthy and it’s not a hobby for me,” Rothwell adds. “I have been in business for 10 years and hopefully there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jewellery by Bláithín Ennis.
Jewellery by Bláithín Ennis.

Bláithín Ennis is an award-winning jewellery and accessory designer who graduated from NCAD in 2011. All her pieces are handmade in Ireland. “I remember my first day in NCAD like it was yesterday. I was enthralled by the historic, beautiful aesthetic of the buildings and the cobbled pathways. I was intrigued by all my new creative peers seated in the large vaulted room of the Granary building for our first assembly. One of the first things our lecturer said was: ‘From this day on, you will see everything differently’. He was entirely correct.

“I studied in NCAD for four years and specialised in embroidered textiles under the guidance of Nigel Cheney. Nigel was a fantastic tutor. Working in this constant, creative manner helped crystallise my love of detailed, tiny things and an aesthetic that is still the signature style of my brand today.”?

Ennis’s jewellery is frequently worn by style celebs like Nicole Scherzinger, Cheryl Cole, Vogue Williams and Roz Purcell, as well as sparkling on the covers of leading glamour magazines.

Sarah McGahon is a Wicklow-based milliner whose studio is located in Bray. She designs occasion hats and striking headpieces that are stocked in a number of Dublin boutiques. “I loved all my time at NCAD as you get the freedom to explore many aspects of your own creativity. I was never particularly academic in school, so when I found all these wonderful quirky people, I felt like I was accepted.

‘Support and encouragement’

“Lecturers like Nigel Cheney and Rachel Tuffy were amazing to me – they were full of support and encouragement and gave me priceless advice that I have adhered to in my career. There was an amazing drawing tutor called Oonagh too. The NCAD weaving room was awesome. It’s amazing what a simple four-shaft loom can achieve and in my final year, I was holed up inside a large cage-like wooden loom called a Canadian Le Clerc, day and night, only taking a break to change the pattern or re-thread the shuttle.”

Following her degree at NCAD, McGahon completed a HNC in Millinery in Kensington & Chelsea College in London. During this course, her hats were on display at Peter Jones in Sloane Square and many were trotted out at Ascot.

In summer 2005, McGahon won an internship to work with renowned milliner Stephen Jones of London. There she was honoured to work with designers like John Galliano, and had celebrity clients like Dita Von Teese, Kylie Minogue and Mick Jagger. McGahon’s latest bijou collection is available through the online website Secret D’Or. “NCAD’s reputation continues to inspire and mould many artists and designers who want to leave a lasting artistic legacy.”

Newbies at the college might heed the advice of Bláithín Ennis: “Look at NCAD as the beginning of your creative career. There are endless possibilities and job opportunities that come from a creative degree – be open to all.”