Tyrone designer Sharon Wauchob on her career and the worth of luxury fashion. By Paul McLauchlan.
In the gilded enclaves of St Cyprian’s Church in London’s North Marylebone, the thump of a speaker jolted a fashion show to a start.
A procession of willowy models of all ages, attired in monastic simplicity, romantic serenity, and effortless perfection. It could only be Tyrone designer Sharon Wauchob.
Front and centre was Billy Porter, the star of the drama Pose, the person who arrived at the 88th Academy Awards wearing an outfit that was part tuxedo, part ballgown.
Judging by the looks of admiration and adoration on his face and his kind words backstage, Porter was a fan.
While it was Porter’s first Wauchob show, 2019 marks the designer’s 20th year in fashion.
“Fashion was always an escape for me,” says Wauchob, who grew up in Newtownstewart, Co Tyrone.
“I wasn’t surrounded by it where I grew up but shopping was a treat for my mother and I. Ironically, I have no time for it anymore but I still believe clothes are a form of escapism.”
Spring/summer 2020, the first insight into what dressing for the new decade will look like, began for Wauchob in 2018.
In her press notes, she says that “it’s been a collection in development through the course of a year. Process and experimentation have been an inspiration in itself, a reflection of our desire to cherish those items with most personal long-lasting resonance — allowing private motifs to become public luxuries.”
In essence, Wauchob’s introspective sojourn through her archive led her to a playing field of reimagining classics from her career, elaborating on the signatures which propelled her into the fashion conversation.
What differentiates her is that she operates in terms of luxury, not bowing to the same demands as fashion designers driven by the latest trends.
With her sharp bob, model Amber Witcomb opened the show in a satin tuxedo jacket with highly technical cocooning draped over her shoulders, and masculine-cut satin white trousers.
The ensuing show featured a blend of hand-dyed silk couture fringing on champagne-coloured dresses, cloudy plumes of crimson, pink, and lavender, and classic sharp tailoring.
“This collection was all about redefining luxury in a less formal setting and it achieved just that. The hand-dyed silk dresses with fringe detailing looked as good in the church venue in which they were shown as they would on a red carpet,” says Rosaleen McMeel, group brand director at IMAGE Media.
Edmund Shanahan, an Irish retail consultant, says: “Sharon consistently presents a distinctive an independent aesthetic that satisfies customers who confidently seek a point of difference.”
To mark the celebration of Wauchob’s greatest hits for spring/summer, she collaborated with Italian jewellery brand BVLGARI, loaning an exclusive selection of pieces from its Heritage Collection.
Dating back to the brand’s beginnings in the 1880s, jewellery appearing on the catwalk was worn by Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sophia Loren, among a coterie of other illustrious icons of style and culture.
“They were great to collaborate with. Karl [Plewka, the show’s stylist] suggested it to me and I thought it was perfect. It was fascinating to learn about the history of the jewels,” says Wauchob.
In the past, she’s collaborated with Fabergé and Savile Row, the latter an homage to her beginnings.
In her twenties, Wauchob earned her stripes at Koji Tatsuno and Louis Vuitton, two luxury brands of varying scale.
Tatsuno delivered bespoke tailoring on Mount Street, an outsider’s take on the sumptuous suiting demanded by customers of Savile Row finest tailors. Famously, Alexander McQueen worked for Tatsuno in the 1990s before establishing a footing as London’s enfant terrible.
Wauchob later moved to Louis Vuitton in Paris at a time of immense change. Now one of the biggest luxury brands in the world, she witnessed the debut of Marc Jacobs who would go on to spend 17 years at the house. Wauchob left in 2001 to focus on her eponymous label.
“Louis Vuitton was big, Koji Tatsuno was small — I witnessed the two extremes but, ultimately, what both did was luxury. I think it’s why I stayed in luxury fashion, despite the two different scales I realised both were important and not to be scared of competing in the industry.”
In 1998, she branched out on her own, launching her eponymous label. In order to be accepted by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, she had to prove her worth off-schedule.
With the help of an executive at Louis Vuitton who advised her where to position her show on the packed schedule, she tested the waters. Wauchob presented her first défile, incidentally, on the same day as the Louis Vuitton show.
Wauchob eventually joined the official schedule in 2003. “I think my naivete prevailed above everything else.
“In Paris, you’re constantly competing. You have to be absolutely equal to the big brands, and in some cases, you even strive to be better because when a journalist or customer looks at what you’re making, they know straight away if it’s good or bad. I always knew I had to compete but I thought, ‘if you’re going to survive, you have to compete successfully’.”
“I met Sharon in Paris over a decade ago I believe — she had left Louis Vuitton and was showing her own collection in Paris,” says Caroline Issa, chief executive and fashion director at Tank.
“In an age of shouting, I think Sharon brings about a quiet confidence where she lets the clothes and her women do the talking. That’s rare in an age of Instagram overload. She has loyal clients and she, in turn, is loyal to them by creating, season after season, timeless pieces they can build entire wardrobes around.”
Her work caught the eye of Bono and Ali Hewson who, in 2009, appointed Wauchob to design their label EDUN. She exited the company in 2013.
Wauchob decamped from Paris Fashion Week to London in 2016. It allowed for a moment of clarity, one that gave her a renewed purpose. Her final collections in Paris straddled understated utilitarianism, subtle sexiness, and gothic romanticism, but it was difficult to discern a clear point of view.
London has given her work a sense of maturity, a designer in her prime, honing her craft.
One of the many conduits Wauchob has explored in fine-tuning her art is an open-minded spirit, one that lends itself to one of fashion’s most important tenets: Gender.
“Wauchob sells gender fluidity like no one else and I found myself drawn to the men’s tailoring as much as the women’s,” says Rosaleen McMeel.
On the spring/summer 2020 runway, men and women seamlessly blended in a romantic tandem. Oftentimes, menswear appears as an afterthought but here it was convincing.
The tailoring, produced in England by traditional craftsmen and women, is updated with new techniques and cuts to reflect the increasing gender agnosticism within fashion.
“When I’m designing I don’t think if it’s menswear or womenswear. That’s usually the stylist’s decision in fittings. There’s a greater shift towards brands presenting men’s and women’s clothes next to each other. To me, it’s immaterial if it’s men’s or women’s,” says Wauchob.
Another area to account for in the increasingly fractious fashion world is sustainability. “The fashion industry is oversaturated with product,” she says.
However, she acknowledges the “desire for new, fresh creativity, cautioning: “We have a duty to produce less but better quality. My main concern with fashion is if it doesn’t change.”
Everything in this collection was produced by hand.
“I’m lucky in that I built a career working hard on the technical elements of the collection. I revisit, rework, and recreate these techniques in collections, striving to perfect them each season. That’s the essence of luxury, though, and something I learned at Louis Vuitton — luxury is about perfection.”
Edmund Shanahan says: “She is a thinking person’s designer, meaning someone who appreciates good design, beautiful fabrics, craftsmanship, and individual style over fads or temporary trends. They consider before they consume.’
With 2020 approaching, Wauchob’s work serves as a reminder that the way forward is informed by the principles of the past but determined by one’s attitude towards them.
By striving for perfection, the end customer is buying better. It serves as a reminder that quiet luxury values timelessness over trends. It serves as a reminder of why one pays such a high price for high quality.
“Luxury needs to remind itself what it means,” says Wauchob.
Take it from the woman whose devoted half her life to striving for perfection.