Even the most casual observer can see it. Irish fashion is having a moment.
It’s not just that Irish designers like Simone Rocha, Jonathan Anderson and Richard Malone are blazing a trail internationally; after all, when it comes to producing creative talent, our little island has always punched above its weight. From Sybil Connolly’s commissions for Jackie Kennedy to Paul Costelloe dressing Princess Diana, Irish design is woven into the fabric of 20th century fashion.
The new millennium, however, got off to a rocky start. Globally, the industry was reeling from the impact of fast fashion, and in Ireland, established designers who’d been so reliant on manufacturing here were left struggling to recalibrate in the wake of a tidal wave of factory closures.
But the industry is finding its feet again, and retailers and consumers alike are embracing Irish fashion with an almost unprecedented enthusiasm. Strategic support for the sector can be seen across the retail spectrum, from independent boutiques to the likes of Kilkenny, Brown Thomas and Arnotts. Even Dunnes Stores has been transformed from high street fixture to high fashion haven; a €900 Joanne Hynes coat they sold last winter dubbed ‘peak notions’ on Twitter.
In New York, the Museum of Modern Art is paying homage to the cultural impact of the Aran sweater, while a contemporary take on the iconic design by Lucy Downes and Inis Meáin graces the window of Barneys this season. The designers shaping Irish fashion today – confidently taking their place on the world stage or changing the face of Irish retail – have surely earned the right to have ‘notions’.
Like a rising tide lifting all boats, this newfound confidence is palpable, buoyed by the fact that, after decades of shortsightedness, government agencies are finally recognising, not just the export potential of Irish fashion, but the essential role of design in shaping the image of a modern Ireland.
Central to this shift has been the work of the Council of Irish Fashion Designers (CIFD), an organisation of professional designers, who - like their American counterparts, the CFDA - work together to advocate collectively for Irish fashion, strengthening its influence and visibility, here and abroad.
As chairperson Eddie Shanahan tells me, it was founded seven years ago with less lofty ambitions. “It’s not too dramatic to say the CIFD was born of loneliness,” he says. “The idea emanated from a phone call I received from a designer who felt angry, exasperated and paralyzed by the apparent lack of support here for small fashion enterprises.” Her frustration was likely warranted. Until recently, fashion businesses here simply fell through the cracks when it came to funding or support. Designers of commercial ready-to-wear offerings didn’t fall within the remit of what was then the Crafts Council of Ireland; were too small to be of interest to Enterprise Ireland; and found local enterprise boards just didn’t know what to do with them.
“Creating support networks had served the craft industry well,” Shanahan recalls, “so I suggested something similar might relieve her anxiety. We invited 16 designers to a meeting, and the rest is history. Many of today’s members attended, including two of our current board.”
One of the two is designer Heidi Higgins. “Initially I was interested in networking opportunities with fellow designers who understood the fashion business,” she says of her decision to join. “We’ve since evolved into a legal entity, and I’ve taken on the role of secretary. I’m happy to be making my contribution to the future of Irish fashion.”
As the organisation has expanded its reach, the benefits to members – who come from all over the country - have outstripped the initial goal of simply providing a support system for designers.
“We host presentations and workshops from industry experts, and we have resource guides for members,” Higgins explains. “At meetings we share information, and that’s so valuable as the majority of designers work on their own.”
Having worked around the world, Niamh O’Neill joined the CIFD two years after starting her business in Ireland. Now the group’s press officer, she says, “It seemed like a natural progression to join an organisation with the aim of promoting professional Irish designers.
Fashion is a competitive global industry. It’s essential for Irish designers to promote themselves as a group, not just as individuals.” While realistic about the challenges facing Irish designers, Shanahan says, “We don’t believe in complaining about situations, we believe in influencing them.
“It may be fair to say that until recently the government did not value the design sector as a key driver of the economy, and that design expertise was lacking in many state agencies,” he says, but the CIFD has been instrumental in bringing about positive change.
He points to the layered supports that now exist between Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs), the Design and Crafts Council (DCCOI), and Enterprise Ireland. “These are designed to reflect the growth stages of individual enterprises,” he says. “They’re not perfect but they have considerably improved.
“We are members of DCCOI, because we believe design and craft are opposite sides of the same coin,” he says. “DCCOI in turn works with LEOs to help small enterprises with mentoring, training, market development, trade fair funding and promotion.”
Higgins, who has a flagship boutique in Portlaoise, has seen these developments roll out.
“Each LEO varies in their specific knowledge of the fashion industry, which can be frustrating for designers,” she concedes. “I personally had to prove my worth over a number of years to gain support from my LEO, but now they know my business and can see I’ve grown it year on year.
“Engaging with the government and informing them of our needs is more productive when it comes to achieving our end goal,” she says, “so that’s what we strive to do.” To that end, the council works tirelessly to elevate both the profile and reputation of Irish fashion.
The first Irish Fashion Summit took place during the ID2015 Year of Irish Design, and the group has contributed to policy development across a range of design-oriented initiatives.
One consultation process led to the establishment of an Irish National Design Forum, while another won support from the EU Commission towards the establishment of a European fashion council - a welcome development for many reasons.
Milliner Margaret O’Connor has just opened a boutique in Clare, and while she believes success is “not down to your postcode. It’s down to your passion, drive and determination”, she has experienced first hand the benefits of cross-border collaborations between international design councils.
Last month, as part of the British Council’s UK/ID international exchange, she and knitwear designer Derek Lawlor showed a collaborative collection at Jakarta Fashion Week. “I couldn’t put a price on how valuable the experience was,” she says.
“It got me thinking globally about my brand. Pushing Irish designers to think bigger is so important.” But as Shanahan explains, while such experiences doubtless have value: “You can’t bank experience, you can only bank sales.”
A retail and branding mogul, for him, quality and commercial viability are the cornerstones of a strong fashion offering, and stronger offerings make a stronger industry.
Niamh O’Neill agrees, and for her, manufacturing abroad is the only option to compete on quality of production and price.
“Retailers in Ireland have tremendous choice when it comes to what they buy, so it’s up to designers to maintain high-quality manufacturing and have a collection with a point of difference,” she says.
For Shanahan, establishing a route to market is also key to banking those sales, and at their Autumn Winter launch in September the CIFD unveiled a new range of initiatives aimed at meeting that issue head-on, including retail partnerships and pop up shops.
“Effective routes to market are vital for designers,” he says. “Designers need engaging transactional websites, but they must also have a physical presence in the market.” “In store and online shopping experiences go hand in hand now,” agrees Higgins.
“Much of the research is done online and bought in store, or vice versa.” At today’s Irish Fashion Summit, speakers will seek to inspire, motivate and challenge the attendees to address these issues and more, but Shanahan also hopes the summit will attract more like-minded members to join their ranks.
“We have a membership now that includes some of the most able fashion, millinery and accessories designers of their generation,” Shanahan says. “As we build our reputation with the various agencies, we can demand our fair share of support.
“We need to prove our worth, hone our offer and improve our business processes. That is what the CIFD is trying and succeeding to do.”