Monday, February 8, 2010

Rising fashion stars

FASHION: Their inspirations range from Irish crafts to fine tailoring and they have absorbed influences in Japan, New York and Paris before returning to live and work at home. DEIRDRE MCQUILLAN meets four up-and-coming Irish designers, each with her own individual style and fashion philosophy

Ruth Duignan’s boyfriend says she has the interests and hobbies of a Victorian spinster, which amuses her no end. Duignan, from Carrick-on-Shannon, has a passion for fashion in her blood; her mother, a home economics teacher, made all her children’s clothes; her grandmother was a milliner, and her great grandmother set up her own drapery in Kilbeggan years ago.
While studying at Limerick School of Art and Design, Ruth took a year out to live in Tokyo, working with a Japanese menswear label, “because I have always been obsessed with Japanese fashion and almost got it out of my system. They look at the body differently, they dress the space around the body, unlike Europeans, and their inspiration is Japan. I realised I was never going to be a conceptual Japanese designer because I am from Leitrim,” she smiles.

What she did learn was that “you have to take what you know and adapt it to what you want to do. My thesis was based on Irish craft and textiles and the things we have been producing are better than Japanese fashion in my opinion, but they have stagnated.” Now her ambition is to explore the possibilities of native Irish fabrics, to look at using tweed, linen and wool in innovative ways.
Duignan, winner of the AIB Student Award in May, got sponsorship to set up her own business. She converted an attic in her home in the Leitrim countryside into a studio, where a sewing machine from an old convent has pride of place. She also learned how to make lace, which she incorporates into her designs, and she owns an embellisher machine, which felts fabrics together. Her graduate collection, based on the Irish craft tradition, included a wool coat made with eight metres of cloth and a delicate white blouse made with Carrickmacross lace, cotton organdy and tulle, cut and machined by hand.
Currently she is working on a 10-piece collection to be shown in Dublin, using linen, wool, silk and cotton organza – inspired by the landscape in which she lives, yet totally contemporary in approach – in white or nude with dark underlays. “I want to take my time and aim at personal clients – it’s nice to produce something when you know who you are producing for. I have the freedom to be creative now.
This is my first time working by myself. I am not reading fashion magazines, just seeing what I can produce all my myself, so it will be such a personal collection, completely me.”

Barely two years out of NCAD, Higgins, who has been selling her clothes at weekends in the Loft space in Powerscourt for the past few seasons, will be launching her second collection this month and opening a studio and boutique in her native Portlaoise.
Her clothes have a deceptive simplicity and elegance, with feminine flourishes such as chiffon-trimmed collars, and prints she designs herself. “Fabric and colour get me going. Simple things like a beautiful button can get me going too,” she says. “I am more a 3D person and like to feel the fabric and see how it falls. In college they told me my colour story would always come together.”
She wrote her college thesis on three successful Irish women designers: New York-based Daryl Kerrigan, Lainey Keogh and Louise Kennedy. She spent nine months working with Kennedy, “whom I’ve always admired for her drive and success”. Friends had emigrated to work with designers such as Galliano and Westwood, “but I never had it in me to work with big design houses and hopefully I will always be able to work at home and get recognition for my own work.”

Tall, slim and blonde, she is her own best advertisement for her clothes. “When I’m designing, I’m thinking about what I like but I also make sure that I cater for everybody – both young and older women – I don’t eliminate anybody. I like to design classic pieces, clothes that will look good in years to come.”
She works in luxury fabrics such as silk, silk jersey and silk organza, which she buys from the UK and Paris, and her new collection also includes a black-and-white, textured fabric which holds it shape, sits well on a hangar and flatters most figures. The fabric in a polka-dot silk dress is her own design as are little polka-dot scarves that accent a plain top. She uses a lot of wool crepe, heavier weights for winter, and her strong points are dresses and blouses. “I am not really a trousers person,” she says. She points out how a black mesh undervest can make wearing a strapless dress easier. For spring, her palette is a mix of indigo, navy, blush and almond.
Boutiques such as TUI in Naas, County Boutique in Ennis, and Liberty in Westport are regular customers. “It’s all about pushing yourself. I check everything and I am very realistic about the financial end. It’s great being creative, but I think you have to have a balance between business and creativity. I’m not 25 yet, but my business head is learning slowly!”

Better known in New York, where she lived until recently, Eilish Kennedy, a self-styled “draper”, is nonetheless steadily making a name for herself back home in Ireland.
Her flattering shapes, sophisticated fabrics and feminine detailing testify to a successful career in the US as a bridal and special occasion designer. “I am a fabric person,” she says. “I can’t work with a sketch. I have to work with the fabric – to see and feel it – and fabric and style have to go together.” Typical of her current collection, which sold out in the Design Centre in Dublin, was a stylish black sateen coat with ruffled collar and pin-tucked sleeves.

One of 11 children, from Kilcar, Co Donegal, she was hand sewing from the age of 10, constantly cutting up fabric and making clothes. Encouraged by her mother, she joined the Grafton Academy and worked briefly in Dublin before deciding to go to New York. Her month’s stay turned out to be 20 years. During that time, she spent two years doing millinery and computer studies at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), set up her own business, and married a Donegal man with a bar and restaurant business.
“We worked very hard and we did well, but my heart was in Donegal and I knew I would never stay in the US forever. When decision time came about school , we decided to come home.” That was two and a half years ago. “We didn’t foresee a recession,” she adds ruefully.
She finds working in Ireland far tougher than New York. “There, everything you wanted was around you – rows of fabric companies, rows of button companies. Ireland doesn’t have resources like that. Everything is very tight here and it’s all about who you know. New Yorkers buy if they like it, but here it is all about labels. There’s too much throwaway. Quality should be important.”
Nonetheless, she produced a collection of lace dresses and velvet coats and one of the first to buy was John McIlhenny of McIlhenny’s of Donegal. “Otherwise it was two feet and knocking on doors. I worked all the shops that I liked, county by county.”
Her persistence paid off – several boutiques around the country bought her collection and she is now working on winter 2010. “My style is definitely classic, safe, elegant. I am very much into making something that can do things for the figure – I can’t do sloppy, I prefer the tailored look,” she says. Her new collection will major on soft tweeds and herringbones, with three different dress and coat materials. She admits she is market driven – “it determines what you are making – a lot of the collection may not be me, but what I know will sell.”
Practical considerations are important, too. “In Dublin and Limerick women are walking, but in Donegal they are all driving and want lighter coats.” Future plans include opening her own place in Letterkenny as a base where she can work and sell “my extras”. And she wants to sell online. “I want to make a living doing what I absolutely love doing.”

A graduate of Limerick School of Art and Design, Mia O’Connell took a year out to work with a French designer in Paris “and I came back to do my final year with a new way of looking,” she says. “I wanted to create a collection that was my style and directed towards a client I would like to dress.”
Her work is conceptual, highly worked and, with its mix of soft and hard fabrics, aimed at “a woman who wants to be feminine but with a really tough edge.”
Brought up in the UK, O’Connell moved with her Irish father and Belgian mother to Ireland in l999. She has been a finalist in the Nokia and Persil competitions and her use of wrapping, pleating and shadow effects is interesting and original. She works in lace, chiffon, silk and leather, and is currently learning how to Photoshop and improve her illustration skills, “because I put a lot of emphasis on good presentation.”
She and her sister Amy, an engineer, collaborate on projects, each bringing their own interpretations to common challenges through diaries, notebooks and film. “I like to take an idea and create my own images and my own inspiration. And I am quite particular about fabric,” she says.
She has drawn from fruitful internships with John Rocha, with British Vogue and the London Times as well as with Marios Schwab, the London-based Austrian designer.
After leaving college, she started selling velvet and silk cowls and velvet and wool collars in Circus in Dublin as “ a way of introducing my clothes”. They were snapped up, which gave her the confidence to start working on dresses and getting friends to wear them.
This month, O’Connell will have her first collection in the Irish Design Centre – 10 pieces that comprise textured silk batwing tops and draped chiffon blouses with zippered fronts in colours such as blush, black and raspberry, and chiffon slip tops in two tones, which can be worn with jeans or as a dress.
A pleated chiffon, leather-backed dress with a chunky, wetsuit-style zip sums up her approach, with its mix of delicate and tough fabrics. “I want people to feel beautiful, feminine and strong,” she says

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