FASHION is a fickle industry, and these days, the old adage that a designer is only as good as their last collection increasingly rings true. But for a recent graduate about to show his sixth collection, Wexford designer Richard Malone seems oddly impervious to the frenetic pace of the industry he entered just three years ago.
When we meet at a bustling creative hub on the edge of Hackney Downs, he is three weeks from showing his spring/summer ’18 collection, but displays none of the signs of stress you might reasonably expect someone in his position to be feeling.
If you believe the hype (and when it comes to Richard Malone, there is no shortage of hype), Malone is in the eye of a storm. Expectations are high — his name is regularly floated in terms of heading a major fashion house one day — but if he’s feeling the pressure, you certainly can’t tell from his calm disposition.
Behind his softly spoken demeanour, however, lie a razor sharp focus and an unwavering commitment to a singular vision that has set the 27-year- old on an astonishing trajectory since he graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2014.
Having had his graduate collection funded by LVMH’s prestigious Grand Prix scholarship (making him the first Irish and the first BA student to win it), he went on to win Deutsche Bank’s Award for Fashion, which enabled him to start his own label in 2015.
A season later he was showing under the umbrella of Lulu Kennedy’s Fashion East — a project that previously nurtured fellow Irish designer Simone Rocha — and this month, his rapid progression up the ladder of London Fashion Week continues. His new collection will be shown with the support of the British Fashion Council’s NEWGEN scheme. Acknowledging that he is “quite busy” at the moment, he adds: “It’s been busy really since I graduated.
“My graduate collection was bought by Brown Thomas, so I was immediately in that cycle, and when you’re in the cycle you don’t have a chance to take stock,” he explains.
“So when I get offered a project I’m interested in, I just take it on with everything else and keep going. I feel like I haven’t really stopped!
“I left college with some job offers on the table, and for a while I wondered, ‘do I want to go back to Paris and work for one of the big houses, or do I want to do my own thing?’ But then I won the Deutsche Bank prize, and that was the funding I needed to start my own label.
“I was about to say no to most of the houses in Paris anyway, because I didn’t like working there the first time,” he says, referring to the year he spent working in the belly of the beast, when he did a placement with Louis Vuitton between his second and final years of college.
Now, he says: “Having worked for the biggest fashion company in the world, and having seen that side of fashion, I know that would never be my end game. By the end of it I was so ready to leave.”
Returning home to work on his graduate collection, Malone was naturally struck by the contrast between post-recession Wexford and the world he had just left behind.
“I’d been working at a luxury house where we were selling handbags for a half a million pounds, and when I came back my parents had lost their jobs and all these awful things were happening.”
While a less astute designer might have turned their gaze back towards Paris, Malone instead infused his graduate collection with the iconography of his working class upbringing.
Establishing a vernacular that informs his work to this day, he began exploring ideas of contemporary Irish identity through workwear, uniforms, and even leprechaun hats.
He fused luxury offcuts from Vuitton with sustainable fabrics; mixed embroidered details with masonry paint; and produced a collection of contrasts that captivated the fashion crowd.
Since then, the awards and accolades have piled up. This month, he’ll add another feather to his cap when a specially commissioned piece is exhibited in New York at the Museum of Modern Art’s first fashion exhibition in 70 years — Is Fashion Modern?
“The timing couldn’t be worse,” he says. “It’s the week after the show, and we’ve to go straight to Paris, but it’s exciting — it doesn’t often happen that someone my age gets to be in the MoMA.”
Documenting pivotal moments in fashion, the retrospective will showcase everything from Alaïa and Comme des Garçons to the white T-shirt and Levis jeans. “They commissioned a piece,” Richards reveals. “And it felt natural that I would contribute to the workwear section, because that’s my background and I could make something new from it.”
Making something new is his raison d’être as a designer. “A lot of designers now are detached from the actual making of clothes,” he says.
“They research, and they send something to a factory, but that point where you actually touch cloth and create something — for me that’s the most critical part of it all.
“I’m trying to get experimentation into the brand as a really fundamental thing, and that’s in the cutting, the fabrics, everything.
“I’m constantly considering, doing drawings of form and shape and putting the body in afterwards. I think that’s how you figure out new shapes and new ways.
“Shape and silhouette are the overarching concerns for me; that’s the reason I did fashion and nothing else,” he says, alluding to the sculpture course he started in Wales before being told: “You should try for Saint Martins, because we don’t know what to do with you!”
Though his experimental instincts and sculptural inclinations are evident in his ready-to-wear collections, it’s from his work with private clients that he ultimately garners the most satisfaction.
“The women who buy my clothes can afford anything,” he says. “But they’re women who’ve been buying Yohji Yamamoto or Comme des Garçons for years, so they understand cutting and they appreciate designers who have a strong sense of identity. They know I do all my pattern cutting and construction myself and I think they respond to that.
“It’s so interesting to go to them and have conversations about fashion, and I think we both get something quite exciting from the collaboration.
“They’ll bring out pieces from their wardrobes that you’d never get a chance to see in your life… custom made Alaïa or Dior Couture; things that not a lot of women in the world can buy.”
It’s experiences like these that constantly reaffirm Richard’s decision to turn down some of Paris’ biggest houses when they came calling.
While most fashion students would kill to have Maison Margeila or Louis Vuitton on the phone the day after their graduate show, Richard Malone was never ‘most fashion students’, having landed a place on one of the world’s most prestigious fashion courses almost by happenstance.
“I got in with a bizarre portfolio of drawings and performance work,” he says, “but I think they look for someone that has a different point of view, and I could tell when I was there that mine was a very different point of view.”
Three years later, this is evidently still the case, and purposely positioning himself on the fringes, straddling a creative sweet spot where art-meets-fashion, seems to have left him immune to the pressures of an industry increasingly fixated on commercial appeal.
“I’m really committed to saying an absolute ‘no’ if something doesn’t feel right.
“We’re at a point with the fashion industry and the art world where corporations control so much, so I think saying ‘no’ to those corporations is a really powerful thing.
“It’s worked for me; it’s made me happier with what I’m doing and removed a lot of the pressures.
“When I was 23 or 24 I was being offered a starting salary of €100,000, but you really do sell your life.
“I met them and I just said, no, not for diamonds!
“It’s just very different to what I think fashion is.
“I can’t comprehend a different way of working, and it doesn’t interest me to work in any other way.
“I do this because I really love it. I don’t do it because of the money.”