When designer Mary Gregory speaks about fashion, she does so with such passion and conviction it’s hard to believe the Autumn Winter collection she produced for Brown Thomas’ CREATE 2016 is her first in 13 years.
Alongside designers Jill de Búrca and Una Burke, Gregory’s 34-piece collection will showcase in Brown Thomas, Cork, for three weeks from August 25, as part of the store’s annual CREATE initiative.
The brainchild of buying director Shelly Corkery, CREATE aims to curate and showcase the best and most innovative Irish designers — a cohort Mary Gregory has belonged to since her rise to prominence as a star graduate of Grafton Academy in the early 1980s.
It’s rare to meet a creative in any field who is still enchanted by their craft 30 years on, but over the course of her career — from becoming a founding designer in the Design Centre in 1984, to the heady aftermath of 1996’s Supermodel Show — Mary’s love for producing beautiful clothes has never wavered.
In fact, as she tells me when we meet in Brown Thomas, her 13-year break was not really a break at all.
“Our last collection for Brown Thomas was 2003,” she explains.
“They were moving their fashion rooms, so I thought it would be the perfect time to follow my dream of moving to the country, getting a period house, and living a simple family life.
“I asked could we take a year out with the security of knowing that we could come back, and then, for family reasons, that year just extended.”
While her focus may have shifted during that time, however, fashion was never far from her mind.
“I just missed it all the time,” she says.
“It was still what I loved doing, and as the years went on, it never felt like I’d stopped, because I was still going to all the fabric shows, I was still having ideas — it was just that the collections weren’t happening.
“I did other projects, but it made me long to get back to designing and producing collections. Trying other things helped me see clearly that this was really what I wanted to do.”
While her new collection is a return to form, for Mary it’s not so much a return as “a rebirth” of the Mary Gregory label.
Determined to “start at a new point”, she even returned to college “to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything”.
“I knew that whatever parts were important from the past would automatically come through,” she says, “but I really wanted to approach it as if I was just launching.”
She quickly established her priority for the new collection would simply be “to create the most beautiful pieces”, free from logistical constraints; each garment imbued with a purity of vision that begins with a gesture drawing — “I see something in my mind and create a line” — followed by meticulous pattern-drafting to bring those lines to life.
Garments were then completed in the finest ethical couture fabrics, like baby lama ecological fur and double layered silks, and manufactured in Ireland, “at the highest level possible”.
Having spent several years researching manufacturing with a view to establishing what is now Lismore Atelier in Waterford, “about two years ago I met Shelly, told her I was designing a new collection, and asked if she’d look at it.
"She promised she would, and from that point my goal was to make it better than any collection we’d done before,” she says.
“I know Shelly appreciates a beautiful finish, so as we were working on the prototypes in Lismore, I decided I wouldn’t tell her it was made in Ireland, I wanted her to ask me where was it made, and to surprise her when I told her,” she laughs.
The response couldn’t have been more positive: “She absolutely adored the collection,” Mary’s artistic director Gwen McNulty tells me.
“She thought the fabrics were incredible, and the finish was incredible; completely at international standards.”
Not so much a slate wiped clean, the new collection shows traces of past obsessions with strength and fragility explored anew, and infused with a vigorous modernity.
While in the past Mary has viewed these opposites as separate concerns — the fragility of a diaphanous gown versus the strength of a tailored jacket — in this collection she has uncovered their potential to coexist in the same garment.
The implied stiffness of sculptural tailoring reveals hidden softness and fluidity when it melts onto the body, an irresistible contradiction created through precision pattern drafting and ingenious double fabrics that allow for movement.
“The double layered fabrics are actually woven separately, then stitched together,” Mary explains, “so it does away with the need for interlinings or fusings and allows a very pure finish with a bounce and movement which was integral to the collection.”
“This is probably the first time Mary has been completely true to herself as a designer,” says Gwen. “And with no restrictions, she’s produced an incredible collection and it’s been very successful.”
So much so that the pair confirm it will continue to retail in Brown Thomas’ designer rooms when CREATE finishes next month.
Free from the pressure of expectation and eschewing logic for the first time in her career, Gregory has managed to achieve things she was told couldn’t be done.
A coat with a three-dimensional standing hem; a dress that’s been shaped entirely without darts.
“We achieved them all with pattern cutting,” she says, explaining that she “didn’t think or use logic”.
“I just stayed true to myself and the ideas as they came.”
The result is a collection that is both wonderfully considered and stunningly cohesive, in form and concept. Pure Mary Gregory, with nothing added but time.
“It’s a relief to be doing this again,” she smiles. “I love doing it, and I can’t believe how lucky I am to be back here.
“I can’t thank people enough — customers, Brown Thomas, journalists, everybody. It’s been really overwhelming.”