Are we experiencing an Irish renaissance? The arts are thriving, despite being starved of funding. Promising talents like Paul Mescal, Barry Keoghan, and Kerry Condon are enjoying a prosperous awards season in Hollywood; on stage, Alison Oliver is taking theatre by storm, Mescal too. The local music landscape is increasingly spawning emerging talents like ethereal songwriter and poetess Sinead O Brien. Sally Rooney kickstarted a literary revolution a few years ago; and the art world is revealing its next generation too.
In fashion, an industry that fuses visual arts with the basic necessity of dressmaking, there are plenty of names to be excited about. At the recent instalment of London Fashion Week, there were seven designers from Ireland on the schedule. From New York to London and Paris, Irish talent is blossoming like never before. Here, we have highlighted some of the most important Irish designers to know now.
That Irish history and craftsmanship are often interconnected is a fact that Róisín Pierce expounded on at her hotly-anticipated Paris Fashion Week debut earlier this month, in the American Church, with a collection that spanned ethereal, handsmocked and crocheted dresses atop undulating layers of airy organza.
Pierce first captured the attention of the fashion industry with white handsmocked dresses inspired by the bridal, christening, and communion dresses women in Magdalene Laundries were forced to make. In 2019, Pierce won the Chanel Metier d’Art Award and the Prix de Public at the Festival d’Hyères, a revered fashion and photography event. A textile design graduate, the Rathfarnham-based designer’s skilful approach to crocheting, smocking, ruching, and embellishment, shone through.
Three years later, she was nominated for the €300,000 LVMH Prize for emerging designers under 40 and listed on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Nordstrom in the US picked her up for winter.
“It’s a retelling of how femininity was challenged in Ireland and Ireland’s difficult relationship with femininity and sexuality through craft,” said Pierce, backstage at her Paris Fashion Week presentation.
Dublin-born Maria McManus has spent over 20 years working in the fashion industry mostly as a merchandiser for large American brands with many senior roles, and a stint at Edun (Bono and Ali Hewson’s now-defunct label that promoted trade in Africa) she decided to branch out on her own.
Eager to establish herself as a womenswear designer with ethics and environmental responsibility in place, she traces an outline of a ‘sustainable uniform’ with functional separates like quilted longline trench coats, fitted shirts, and takes on Arans, that use organic, recycled, and responsibly farmed materials, mostly with necessary environmental certifications that assure they have a limited environmental impact.
Even the buttons on her clothes, typically made from plastic at most brands, are fashioned from corozo nuts. Her newest collection, recently presented in her home at New York Fashion Week, introduces ‘Naia Renew’, a biodegradable material with a silk finish made from 60% wood pulp and 40% waste materials.
“We try to approach sustainability in several different ways and, honestly, it changes on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis based on how educated we are, how learnings and technology is changing,” says the eponymous designer, calling from her home in New York City. McManus, who studied International Business & Japanese in Dublin City University and spent some time living in Japan, has called the fashion capital home for over a decade.
Having already cracked US and Japanese markets, she is ready to bring things closer to home. This year, McManus’ line will launch at Selfridges, and she recently added Please Don’t Tell in Belfast to her stockists. Watch this space.
Menswear designer Robyn Lynch never fails to bring a smile to one’s face with her tongue-in-cheek interpretations of Ireland and its culture. At London Fashion Week in February, the Dublin-born considered Irish stereotypes and deftly wove them into her signature sportswear with references to the colour green, shamrocks, the harp, and leprechauns.
“I want to represent Ireland in a space that I felt it was underrepresented in: the menswear market. There are obviously such amazing womenswear designers but, in the menswear market, there was no reference that you could go to and get, for example, a knit jumper with symbolism or a graphic that’s an ode to Ireland,” said Lynch in her East London studio.
Graphics riffed on tacky tourist shirts she sourced from American eBay while hybrid knits — an Aran spliced together with regenerative nylon panels — reference her earlier work. Lynch routinely mines her own background: boxy silhouettes are inspired by a jacket she found in her father’s wardrobe while his favourite footwear brand, Geox, came on board for a collaboration. (The footwear brand has only ever collaborated with Red Bull and Spiderman.) Elsewhere, there was recycled ocean waste nylon trousers and a shell jacket in natural, compostable fibres with waterproofing and thermoregulating properties.
Lynch, who is in the running for the AU$200,000 (around €127,000) 2023 International Woolmark Prize, received an initial bursary that she funnelled into the creation of her autumn/winter 2023 collection. It meant she could elevate her offering to incorporate luscious bouclé hoodies, merino sweaters, soft fleece, and corduroy wool trousers.
If fashion is about conjuring desire, Sinéad O’Dwyer wants to rewrite the playbook. Dúil, the Irish word for ‘desire’ was her starting point for her autumn/winter 2023 show at London Fashion Week. Unlike your conventional fashion show, presented on a cast of mostly white, rail-thin bodies, the Tullamore designer based in London expanded the narrative to assert that every body type is desirable — from a UK size 6 to 26.
It’s not as simple as readjusting the proportions on straight-legged goat leather trousers or webbed bodycon mohair wool dresses, or tailoring suits in cotton and leather that appeared on the runway. Similarly, shirts and knitwear have to be reworked to fit certain cup sizes. They must undergo a complete redevelopment before they are ready for the women who wear them to feel as desirable as O’Dwyer intends.
“I want people to realise how the lack of pattern cutting for a variety of sizes and shapes was really detrimental to mental health and, overall, the whole nature of ignoring people and discrimination,” said O’Dwyer.
The designer’s commitment to body positivity is just one of her personal stamps on fashion. This season, she made a trench coat in navy cotton drill, with a square shoulder and a vented back, inspired by her late grandmother’s prized possession and the early Hollywood starlets she was enamoured by as a child. Furthermore, she recalled her time as a teenager when she would sneak out in the middle of the night, partly dressed in her school uniform and her pyjamas. The period of hedonism melded nicely with more high-end aspirations, something she achieves with aplomb through luxurious fabrication.
Based in Tralee, Co Kerry, Colin Horgan brought his hometown to London Fashion Week when, during the pandemic, he filmed a video for his collection in a local car park, perhaps the unlikeliest of unfashionable venues in Kerry. Yet his work, a mastery of form, silhouette, and construction, is what sets him apart.
Dua Lipa has taken notice. Helen Mirren too. Rita Ora and Ellie Goulding have sported his work. Havana Boutique in Dublin and Macbees Killarney in Kerry feature Colin Horgan in their high-end offering. While he snagged industry interest with avant-garde designs, a sense of maturity infiltrated his work in the form of well-tailored bonded bomber jackets and lean grosgrain trench coats, with accents like long strap ends, and buckle fastens.
“It took time, mentoring, and advice, because I was afraid of things becoming watered down but it’s all about balance,” said Horgan, in his Tralee studio.
Recently, he showed some archive pieces at a fashion show held at the end of London Fashion Week at the British Embassy in Dublin in collaboration with Limerick School of Art & Design, to emphasise the future of sustainable design in Ireland. Even though they had been previously presented elsewhere, the looks were as if brand new.