Chupi’s jewellery designs made her a household name. Now, with designer Kate Nolan, her new fashion label focuses on made-to-measure pieces for the environmentally-aware woman. Niamh O’Donoghue pays a visit to Atrium
How can you tell the difference between silk made from worms and silk made from wood pulp? Unless you investigate their genetic makeup side-by-side under a microscope, you can’t. They’re both soft to touch and have that classic high-fashion finish that makes silk so desirable. Traditional silk can be ecologically damaging and expensive to manufacture but eucalyptus silk, by comparison, is manufactured with zero waste, as well as being totally biodegradable.
“In 300 years’ time, there will be no trace that there ever was a shirt,” says Kate Nolan, co-founder of Atrium, Ireland’s newest addition to slow fashion shopping.
Built on a core bedrock of ethical and responsible shopping, as well as traceability, Atrium was launched in 2018 by long-time industry friends Kate Nolan and Chupi Sweetman.
The pair had already built the foundation they needed to start a clothing brand of their own: Over 30 years between them working in the fast fashion sector, a beautiful retail space in the heart of Dublin city centre, ample relationships with suppliers and designers, and a fervent devotion for responsible fashion to boot. Having spent so long working with disposable clothing, the women joined forces to build a home for Irish design, and thus sprouted Atrium.
“We came together during the year of Irish design in 2015 when both Chupi and I represented Ireland during London Fashion Week,” Kate tells me as we walk through the brightly lit, airy loft on the top floor of the Powerscourt Centre.
Atrium, previously known as Made, quietly launched its first limited collection in January 2019 with a sublime edit of of sustainable cashmere wears. Beautiful and form-fitting alpaca-wool pieces instantly drew a crowd not least for their soft-touch and luxurious feel but for their accessible price point, too. The collection was produced by a women’s co-op in Nepal who sourced and manufactured the fine, layerable garments.
It cemented Kate and Chupi’s commitment for and mission to produce high-quality, fair-trade produce from the onset. “Sustainability is not the lead reason behind Atrium,” says Kate, “but it’s our ethos and sustainability is at the heart of what we do.
“We work with baby alpaca wool because the collection method is very sustainable. The farming of alpaca wool isn’t as intensive as say, sheep farming, and it’s got amazing thermal qualities so it keeps you warm in winter and cool during warming months, so it’s a lovely transitional piece.”
For their second collection for spring/summer 2019, Kate and Chupi took a gamble working with Irish linen, creating a series of easy-to-wear tops, dresses, and trousers in beautiful, rich, and earthy tones. While trends come and go, linen has a timeless allure. It’s romantic and fresh, expressive, and unobtrusive. It has the right amount of sex appeal and can go from boardroom to dinner party in one clean swoop (save for a change of shoes).
“For SS19 we did an amazing collaboration with the Republic’s last remaining and working linen mill in Co Wexford. We wanted to explore linen and think it’s not utilised enough in Ireland anymore,” says Kate.
I take time to examine each item, my favourite being a full button-down dress in black and cream. I think about how I can wear it opened up as a top layer or light jacket, or buttoned up and belted. There’s a blush pink and charcoal variation too that are rich in depth against pale, blue Irish skin. This is the thing about Kate and Chupi’s designs: they create functional pieces that answers all of your ‘what will I wear today?’ conundrums. Atrium’s designs can be worn on their own without having to think about what to do with them and it’s this coupling of functionality and form that will win the hearts of Irish women, regardless of age or profession.
“We’re designing the missing elements to our current wardrobe. The Atrium woman is a conscious shopper and she’s aware of what’s going on in the world,” says Kate.
"She is self-assured and wants to know that what she’s buying is of quality and not doing any damage to the environment. We want to keep it simple,” says Kate as we move from rail to rail.
“Atrium isn’t just for people like me or Chupi. Our design is a slow evolution: You start with one thing and think you know what you want to create and as time goes on, it turns into something totally different.”
Kate and Chupi are completely opposite, but it’s this dynamic that makes their business so successful, both economically and creatively. Kate points to a cream alpaca sweater from the SS19 collection to help solidify her thesis: “Take this sweater for instance. This is a perfect example of me and Chupi combined. The cut and feel is very me, but the ribbon is more Chupi. She pushes me and she would say the same of me. It keeps you constantly revitalised. You don’t always like it when you hear a different opinion, but at the same time it opens you up to the alternative perspective and that’s really vital.”
The crown jewel and stand-out piece of the Atrium SS19 collection is a two-piece, terracotta, handmade silk and wool-blend suit. Every detail is considered, from the double-breasted blazer and notch lapel to the slightly exaggerated shoulder caps, which perfectly echoes this season’s love-affair with the ’70s era. For many women today, wearing a suit to work is a choice and not a requirement, so, in the context of tailoring, this really is a ‘Power Suit’ with a capital P. The slight drop in the shoulders and wide, pintuck, flared pants give this otherwise feminine suit a masculine permutation.
And as two women CEOs, creating an authoritative yet wearable piece like this is culturally relevant, especially at a time when the politics of fashion are so closely observed. A not-so-silent proverbial nod to smashed ceilings everywhere. “Today’s workwear is more fluid,” says Kate. “These women want to make a statement by wearing it, rather than being obliged to wear one depending on their industry or profession.”
Of course, those who aren’t partial to pink terracotta can try a neutral oatmeal choice instead.
We turn our attention to sizing, referencing — almost in unison — how men are uniform in shape, but how no two women are the same. To combat this, and to create an inclusive and encouraging space, Atrium works with a group of female seamstresses and tailors in Dublin who provide alterations free of charge. Women today want more choice and control yet buying bespoke is expensive and not widely available. Atrium is a great middle-point for customers who want a similar bespoke experience at a lower cost. Women come in all shapes and sizes; mass-produced clothes don’t. Atrium is creating a coherent response to this frustration.
The overarching theme of Atrium’s SS19 collection is inspired by the ’70s, with dramatic collars, oversized cuffs, and sharp silhouettes. For AW19, however, the focus will be on outerwear. “We have a collection of beautiful fabrics and we’re really interested in creating amazing outerwear; beautifully simple but amazingly cut coats in a selection of beautiful fabrics. Chupi loves a bold coat but I’m more minimal and subdued. We meet in the middle somewhere.”
Chupi and Kate opened the shopfront to international brands like New York-based designer Mara Hoffman and Spanish hand-crafted shoe label Miista, the likes of which give Atrium an expansive, worldwide appeal. “It is as good as you’ll find in London or New York,” says Kate as we walk past a selection of curated Miista shoes.
Each label, she explains, must meet certain criteria in order to be stocked, namely that if the brand outsources production, that it has control of its chain supply and workers are paid fairly and work in safe conditions: “We don’t expect everyone to be perfect, but we definitely strive for it. We opened the store during a period when the industry really started to change, so the calibre of how designers are transforming their businesses into sustainable ones are pretty amazing.”
Kate and Chupi are champions of Irish design. Their commitment to safeguarding and exhibiting it is apparent from the moment you step into the crafted shop space: Pops of colour from Electronic Sheep’s recognisable scarf motifs come to the fore around the space and Orla Lanigan’s handmade ‘denim-meets-sports’ designs brings a freshness to everyday denim. Designs from Natalie B Coleman, Jill De Burca and Alanna Plekkenpol, as well as Chupi’s own jewellery collection, are housed in the shop year-round too.
Brands are chosen not just for design and retail ability but simply because Kate and Chupi believe in them. Kate says: “Particularly with Irish designers, when we see someone doing something really interesting then we love to get them in. It’s not necessarily because they fit with the mould of the store, but because we believe in what they’re doing.”
The ultimate prize though for the environmentally considered shopper, apart from buying the best in Irish design, is knowing that in 300 years, there will be no trace of it left on the planet.