Dressing Lady Gaga

SORCHA O’Raghallaigh has had three special wedding dresses in her life this year.

The Offaly-born designer wore two on her wedding day, both gifts custom-made by her friends Craig Lawrence and Raffaele Ascione. The third is a gold lace Sorcha O’Raghallaigh original that Lady Gaga christened “my wedding dress” on The Graham Norton Show.

Her crystal-embroidered gown and elaborate, veiled headpiece became ironic talking points as Mother Monster lamented being single. The singer, whose esoteric style never fails to generate international press, executed the look perfectly and named the designer. It was a dream endorsement.

Four months on, I go to visit Sorcha at her East London apartment. It’s London Fashion Week and, though her own Spring/Summer 2012 collection isn’t quite catwalk-ready, she contributed floral headpieces that went down a storm at the Ashley Isham show.

She comes to the door in a poppy-patterned velvet dress and a white lace shirt. Her feet are encased in black platform-wedge sandals. I tell her I love her hair, which is carmine and blunt cut, like Claire Danes’ pre-Romeo+Juliet. She clops off to brew green tea while I look around in her home studio.

The white-walled space looks twice as big for the panoramic eighth-floor view. A heavily-embroidered velvet cape hangs from a wardrobe door. This is Sorcha’s “Cape of Memories” inspired by the patchwork quilt that envelops Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet for much of The Eternal Sunlight of the Spotless Mind. She and eight friends spent a week decorating it for her Central St Martin’s BA graduate show. Each embellishment references the designer’s past, including appliqués that commemorate her grandparents and childhood pets she kept in Birr.

As a little girl, Sorcha adored clothes and idolised her mother, whom she describes as innately and effortlessly stylish. She excelled in art at school and, at 17, had a fashion moment while watching Peter O’Brien on The Late Late Show. The veteran designer had just finished a stint as creative director of Rochas in Paris. “He showed these exquisite, hand-painted dresses. That was the first time I thought I wanted to be a designer.” Today, Mr O’Brien says he finds Sorcha’s work “quite wonderful and so creative”.

Sorcha took a diploma in fashion from the Limerick School of Art and Design in 2005 but wasn’t certain she wanted to pursue it professionally. This isn’t a lady given to a lone creative outlet. “I do get bored doing the one thing. I feel I have to keep an open mind as there’s so much I love doing. I don’t really fit in one box.” She is a gifted illustrator. Her 2007 solo exhibition, held in Dublin’s Monster Truck Gallery, sold out in two days. One piece was acquired by Mr Pat Murphy, art advisor to the state. The illustrations, like her clothes, are layered with colours, textures and materials. They depict reed-thin figures dressed like revellers at BoomBox, a Hoxton nightclub popular with the fashion set at that time.

Fashion wasn’t her all-consuming passion but she persevered, taking jobs with stylist Niamh O’Rourke, the Opera Ireland costume department and knitwear designer Heather Finn. Ms Finn inspired Sorcha to specialise in knitwear at Central St Martin’s College. Illustrating and freelance fashion commissions helped fund her degree. While studying, she interned at John Galliano in Paris and Diane Von Furstenberg in New York. “They were very hands-on internships and I learned so much. Seeing a collection go from toile (test garment) to show line-up really influenced me while putting together my own final-year collection,” says Sorcha.

Sorcha’s graduate show was spectacular. Her colourful, layered knitwear flowed to the catwalk, even with all the models walking on five-foot stilts. Super-stylist Anna Trevelyan called a few days later. Ms Trevelyan is a candy-pink haired, kohl-eyed, self-described “potential Barbie” who styles shoots for all the most influential fashion magazines. She is also an assistant to Nicola Formichetti, Lady Gaga’s head stylist. To Sorcha, she is a friend, mentor and muse. “It’s hard not to love her style and use her as a reference. She’s an amazing person and I love what she wears and even just the way she wears clothes.”

Anna regularly commissions Sorcha’s work for fashion shoots, ad campaigns and Lady Gaga. “She is very uniquely talented. I really believe that she is a true artist, what she does is couture,” the stylist told me.

Sorcha is typically briefed on the inspirations for a particular look (in the case of Gaga’s Graham Norton dress, for example, she was asked to draw on medieval and religious influences). She then sketches ideas and realises those Anna, Nicola and/or Gaga approve.

Sorcha created the PVC cape-skirt Gaga wears while giving birth to a giant machine gun (!) at the beginning of her Born This Way video.

Fashion designers, particularly in their youth, are far more commercially-pressured than artists or writers, who may wait years for inspiration to strike. There’s no time for feeling “blocked” with just six months to take a collection from sketches to show.

For next season, she’s working to strike a more defined creative-commercial balance. “I’m trying to create smaller, more wearable pieces and some jewellery. It is still intense but smaller. I’m hoping that’s the way forward, commercially. I don’t want to be stubborn and then struggle in years to come.” With her boundless creativity, unique style and influential fans, it is hard to believe she’ll have to.

Sorcha O Raghallaigh is one of five cutting-edge Irish designers taking part in the ABSOLUT Mode Fashion Showcase, a multi-media exhibition at The Loft at South Studios, Dublin 8, from November 15– 20.

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