February's installment of London Fashion Week saw an Irish invasion on the official schedule. There were globally recognizable names within luxury, like Simone Rocha, J.W. Anderson and Paul Costelloe, along with other wildly talented fledgling labels, like Richard Malone, Sharon Wauchob and Catherine Teatum (one half of design duo Teatum Jones). That isn't to mention the unprecedented numbers of Irish press and buyers from a wide variety of outlets and stores who flocked to the British capital to attend the shows.
In 2018, the Irish fashion industry is going international.
Ireland's arrival of design talent in London dates back to the 1980s, when Paul Costelloe and Orla Kiely were flying the flag for the country in LFW's nascency. Now, it is opened by Richard Malone, from County Wexford, and marquee shows include Simone Rocha and J.W. Anderson. Perhaps it's the nation's Irish charm, its prodigious work ethic or the ineffable talent pool bred in Ireland that catapults its citizens to the global stage, but it goes without saying that the Irish mean business.
"The Irish fashion industry at the moment is hugely exciting — there is lots of emerging talent," said Shelly Corkery, fashion director at Dublin-based, nationwide retailer Brown Thomas. Corkery references Brown Thomas's CREATE program, now in its eighth year, which was initially established as the launchpad for up-and-coming Irish designers to showcase their work for and among the most luxurious brands in the world. "This year, we saw a huge amount of newness with our CREATE applicants, especially in ready-to-wear."
Harvard University graduate and Ireland native Margaret Molloy founded WearingIrish, a social media campaign advocating for the purchase of Irish design, back in 2016. Soon after its launch, it expanded into an initiative to promote contemporary Irish fashion on the international stage, providing mentorship for Irish business as they operate within the global luxury market.
This year marked the debut of WearingIrish's sold-out, three-day-long trade show in New York City, at Bank of Ireland's technology incubator in Manhattan, which took place May 15-17. Out of 176 applicants, 10 designers were flown in to participate. "Designers across the island of Ireland are producing world-class fashion, yet few people outside Ireland own a piece of Irish fashion or can name an Irish designer," said Molloy at the announcement of the initiative's participating designers. "I created the WearingIrish platform to change that reality. Promoting fashion is a concrete way to demonstrate Ireland's creativity."
The trade show coalesced creative and commercial minds, as the visiting Irish designers had the opportunity to display their work to the American press and mingle with potential customers. According to Molloy, the program went "extraordinarily well" based on feedback she received — but most importantly, the participating designers' collections garnered rave reviews from consumers and critics alike.
"We already sell to U.S. customers from our online store; coming here increases awareness of our label to a wider market, which is vital to our expansion," said Natalie B. Coleman, one of WearingIrish's participating designers. "In just three days, our brand has already had an increase in our online sales to the U.S."
Another member of the collective, jewelry designer Bláithín Ennis, noted that the group presentation format has proven to be most effective. "Coming out here, not as an individual designer, but as part of a 10-strong group of established, successful people where there is an obvious appetite for their work, is where I see the seeds of success being sown," said Ennis. "I believe presenting in the U.S. as a cohesive, innovative and hard-working force to be reckoned with is the way forward."
There's a real strength in numbers, which WearingIrish promotes, but even so, the Irish fashion industry must strengthen its domestic efforts if it wants to be taken seriously internationally.
With an increasingly liberal political landscape, all eyes will be on Ireland on Friday, May 25 as the people vote on the country's strict abortion laws — abortion is currently illegal in Ireland — to shatter outdated mores.
The Irish fashion community galvanized, and a dozen designers participated in the "Fashion Is Repealing" runway show last Thursday. Andrea Horan, prominent women's rights activist and Dublin nail-bar owner, organized the event in order to "[throw] glitter on issues without minimizing them." The participating designers created a couture piece for auction( which was presented at the show), as well as a limited run of affordable, collectible T-shirts, currently available for purchase on progressive Irish media brand The HunReal Issues' website. The proceeds go toward the Together for Yes campaign group, fighting to remove Ireland's Eighth Amendment constitutional ban on abortion.
"If fashion piques the interest and empowers women and men to want to get involved in subjects such as reproductive rights, it's difficult to underestimate its power," said Horan, when contacted by email.
The visual language of Irish fashion has become a global entity. The Repeal the 8th campaign's heart-shaped logo and corresponding merchandise have been omnipresent in the lead-in to the referendum, both in Ireland and around the world. The Aran jumper, a traditional type of knit sweater, hails from the Aran Islands on the west coast of Ireland; the cable-knit design is world-renowned and recently appeared at Alexander McQueen's Fall 2018 show at Paris Fashion Week as a gift from the house to its attendees. The playful patterns of Orla Kiely are emblematic of Irish housewares and interior design. And, of course, there's the Tara Brooch, an iconic, seventh-century Celtic totem which now lives among other significant ancient jewelry items in Ireland's national archives.
With a rich past, can we expect the future of Irish fashion to look as bright?
"I think there is wonderful creativity in Ireland," said Corkery. "Brown Thomas is dedicated to elevating designers and working within the fashion community to offer support from both a commercial and sustainable perspective and give these talented designers a unique opportunity to create a global brand."
On that note, Rosaleen McMeel, the editor-in-chief of leading women's fashion monthly Image, added that there is much work being done in universities around Ireland to foster new Irish designers; the next generation of Irish creative talent is bright. "However," she says, "I'd like to see more government support in the form of funding and grants to truly secure the future of Irish design." Ireland's neighboring British Fashion Council, for one, receives funding from the European Union's European Development Funding (ERDF) to promote designers and support their international development.
Irish colleges are launching the careers of many future stars. Past graduates include Jill de Búrca (National College of Art & Design), Emma Manley (The Grafton Academy of Fashion Design) and the aforementioned Natalie B. Coleman (Limerick School of Art & Design; she completed a masters at Central Saint Martins) who have all achieved great things. A camaraderie exists between the pool of successful Irish designers as they often participate in collaborative events celebrating and spotlighting Irish fashion.
"Irish fashion design is a small and difficult market, and it's wonderful to see the designers support one another," said McMeel. "Many of these relationships have helped propel the designers forward, especially when they are establishing themselves abroad in unknown markets. Everyone needs a cheerleader in their camp."
Homepage photo: Models during the "Fashion Is Repealing" event on May 10 in Dublin. Photo: Courtesy of "Fashion Is Repealing"