Two jewellers, a leather worker, weavers, print makers, fashion and knitwear designers — that’s the lineup of Irish design practitioners who took New York by storm this week, when Irish design advocate Margaret Molloy’s WearingIrish initiative showcased some of our finest homegrown talents in Molloy’s adopted hometown of New York City.
Ten designers were flown to the Big Apple to be introduced to prominent members of the Irish diaspora, along with fashion industry professionals, marketing experts, stylists and press, and the lineup was nothing if not varied. But then the WearingIrish campaign has always been about so much more than highlighting Irish design; it’s about showcasing the skill, craftsmanship and provenance that underpins the best of Irish fashion.
Initially conceived in March 2016 as a way for founder and chief flag bearer Molloy to showcase her favourite Irish designers — and encourage others to do likewise — the campaign quickly caught the public imagination. Search #wearingirish on Instagram today and you’ll find over 13,000 results.
Of the 10 designers and brands selected to travel to New York — Alison Conneely, Natalie B Coleman, Áine Knitwear and Bláithín Ennis among them — many are names familiar to Irish design aficionados here at home, but for Molloy, these are world-class talents deserving of a global platform.
“Designers across Ireland are producing world-class fashion, yet few people outside Ireland can name an Irish designer. I created the WearingIrish platform to change that,” she explains.
For one of those chosen — Cork-born jeweller, Gemma O’Leary — the opportunity to showcase her brand, Inner Island, to social media stars like Kerrywoman Erika Fox and executives from Bloomingdales is the latest marker of success on a trajectory which has seen Inner Island become a strong, contemporary Irish brand with global stockists and limitless potential.
Not bad for a project started as “a side hustle” by a self-described “late bloomer” who took up metalwork in 2013 as a hobby. Now based in Wexford, O’Leary decamped from Dublin earlier this year when a job opportunity for her husband revealed, for the price of a one-bed apartment in the capital, the couple could be living in a beautiful house in the country.
Her studio now transported from Dublin’s Drury St to the idyllic Wexford countryside, it’s here that she personally hand makes every piece of Inner Island jewellery — in many respects living out a childhood fantasy which began on the farm in Burnfort, Mallow, where her family have lived for 250 years.
“On the farm there was a barn with old tools in it— welding equipment, hammered pots, horseshoes, all sorts of old artifacts from the past — but because I was a girl, with four older brothers, I was never allowed in there. I think it held a certain fascination for me because it was forbidden,” she explains.
“That might have been the start of my love affair with metalworking — because I was told it was a man’s job, dirty work, and because I was a girl I wasn’t allowed do it.” After dabbling in a couple of college courses — business in the Galway Institute of Technology, then fashion in the Cork College of Commerce — she found herself living in Canada in 2013, where she finally got her hands dirty with a part-time metalwork course.
“I instantly fell in love with it,” she says, “but I didn’t think of it as a viable career choice. Growing up in the Irish countryside, in my family, we were encouraged to seek out good, practical careers, so for me, becoming a jeweller didn’t feel like a realistic option.”
Once back in Ireland though, bitten by the bug, she added to her skills with a FÁS course, and internships with Irish jewellers followed. Finally, in 2015, O’Leary launched Inner Island with an online shop and one stockist in Dublin — still not fully believing it could become a full-time gig.
“I didn’t have the confidence that it could be a viable business,” she says.
But as more and more people were buying my pieces, I realised I could actually make it my full-time job, so I took the plunge.
It helped that Kilkenny shop picked up Inner Island in 2017 and took it nationwide.
“That was a huge endorsement,” she says. “They’re tireless supporters of Irish design, and constantly working to promote the brand.”
Now she has stockists in Japan, China, and the UK, and her online shop means customers all over the world have access to her designs. Marrying age-old techniques with a contemporary point of view, they have a truly international appeal.
“I like to create a feeling with my designs, and that feeling is calm and serenity,” she says. “So it’s clean lines, interesting textures and unique shapes. It’s understated; I don’t want them to overpower the wearer.
“There’s a huge tradition of metalwork in Ireland,” she adds.
Go into any museum and you’ll find beautiful examples from down through the years, and I love that. I love knowing that I’m practicing a craft that has been done in this country for thousands of years.
And even though Inner Island has a thoroughly modern outlook, as she points out, the methodology hasn’t changed all that much.
“It’s still heating, shaping, hammering, filing, polishing; the general techniques haven’t changed that much, and I think having that Irish heritage has been a huge influence.”
With one stockist already in San Francisco, she hopes the exposure in New York will lead to further opportunities stateside, but if she woke up tomorrow to an order of 10,000 pieces from Bloomingdales, how she would she react?
“I think I might scream into my pillow and do a happy dance,” she says. “After that? There’s such a tradition of silversmiths in Ireland, and so many talented people who could help me, so I have full confidence I’ll be able to seize any opportunity that comes my way. I think that’s part of running your own business,” she laughs. “Blind optimism, and figuring out the logistics later.”