As Ireland restarts, the fashion, beauty and lifestyle industries do too. When the mandated quarantine was introduced, fashion houses, schools, retail destinations and beauty and lifestyle outposts closed their doors. After months under lockdown, the industry prepares to emerge from a period of uncertainty, only to enter a landscape that is just as unknown. We speak to industry pioneers across fashion designers, students, teachers, about how they’re fashioning a future.
When the pandemic began, many London-based designers pivoted to making masks and scrubs for NHS workers, among them Simone Rocha, Richard Malone, and Katie Ann McGuigan. Locally, Natalie B. Coleman and Mariad Whisker made face coverings for the masses. Designers mobilised to operate beyond their typical function.
The past few months proved challenging. With orders cancelled and production facilities closed, Ireland’s small businesses faced an uncertain future.
“Our wholesale business was getting going but then a lot of those orders fell through,” said Paula Marron, founder of Castanea, a luxury cashmere label.
The Newry-born designer Katie McGuigan, known for evoking 1980s youth culture through print and fabrication, said, “[the future] is a worry on every small business owner's mind at the best of times, let alone when life as we knew it changed so drastically in such a time frame.” However, the mandated quarantine offered designers a chance to consider their raison d’être and the impact of their business.
Going forward, instead of producing 30 to 40 new styles for spring/summer 2021, Marron will focus on those that are already performing well at her stockists, offering customers new colourways. She is currently working on the collection which she will present to buyers in September through online channels.
McGuigan will continue to focus her efforts on building a sustainable business, where ethics are woven into the fabric of her creations. She is designing and producing a spring/summer 2021 collection that she will present in either a physical or digital capacity.
Less than a year into business when the lockdown commenced, Róisín Pierce, a purveyor of structural creations that embrace traditional Irish crafts such as lace work and crocheting, said, “being in isolation really emphasised to me how I need to give myself more space and more time to create my work.” Pierce is currently working on an exhibition for the Festival d’Hyères in France in October.
For many small-to-medium Irish fashion businesses, the traditional fashion system — two to six collections per year, participating in fashion weeks — never had a bearing on how they operated.
Natalie B. Coleman, a Dublin-based designer from Monaghan, whose romantic designs often come with a charitable partnership, is just one of them. Coleman wants her work to be “precious”, a celebration of the makers and the time spent on the work. She is working on a new themed collection she is hoping to show in November. It will consist of made-to-order pieces that will be produced in her Dublin studio. In addition, she will produce a limited casual line of sweatshirts and silk scarves.
“I want to make really special pieces that are an appreciation of beauty and the time that it takes to make things, so the opposite of fast fashion. It’s a personal and emotional experience for the customer,” said Coleman.
Ros Duke, a luxury knitwear brand, had begun to pivot her business towards a more direct-to-consumer model with the eventual aim of opening her own store. At present, she counts under ten stockists in Ireland and across the globe.
“The pandemic gave me headspace to think about moving towards my goal of shifting off the old model of wholesale and over-production and towards having a closer relationship with my customer,” said Duke.
Meanwhile, other Irish designers who operate according to the traditional schedule are toiling away as normal. Like McGuigan, JW Anderson and Simone Rocha are currently working on spring/summer 2021 collections. However, the British Fashion Council, the governing body behind London Fashion Week, has not officially announced September’s schedule yet.
In the immediate future, fashion shows could become digital affairs though it is clear from the recent announcement of a physical edition of fashion weeks in London, Milan and Paris that physical events are still important outlets for creatives. To what extent Irish designers will partake in events like fashion weeks remains unknown as of now.
“Fashion was already a highly competitive industry for graduates, so I was a little worried about my job prospects even before the pandemic,” said Feeona Carroll, a fashion design graduate from the National College of Art & Design in Dublin.
When educational institutes closed on March 14, learning continued online. Tutors and students were forced to adapt, quickly, to a new world order.
Given the unprecedented circumstances, Carroll, along with Aisling McGinn, a design graduate from the Limerick School of Art & Design, found the period of uncertainty challenging. However, both said the momentary pause offered them time to produce work they were truly happy with.
Anne Mellinn, Head of Fashion at the Limerick School of Art & Design, remains optimistic about prospects for graduates, saying, “I think the job opportunities in the market will be much broader. There will be job titles we have never heard of before.”
However, the fashion industry is expected to contract by up to 35%, according to Bain, the job market might be initially troublesome. Edmund Shanahan, retail consultant said, “there will be fewer jobs for graduates both at home and in the international marketplace as a result of closures in fashion companies (design and retail). This will impact on jobs in design, production management, buying and beyond.”
“I fear that we have missed out on graduate recognition in the industry due to the pandemic, as well as job opportunities working abroad not being possible in the current circumstances,” said Aisling McGinn, a fashion design graduate from the Limerick School of Art & Design.
In light of the pandemic, McGinn is taking time to reflect and continue to work on her portfolio with hopes of pursuing a career in the fashion industry in some capacity. Carroll decided against taking a place on a postgraduate degree in London considering much of the programme might take place online.
In any case, institutions are planning for reopening in September. Provisionally, the students at the National College of Art & Design will spend two days on campus working on the practical side of design while the other three days will take place remotely with an emphasis on computer-based skills and professional practice. The Limerick School of Art & Design will adopt similar measures with social distancing implemented into the studio space.
Both institutions plan to improve the physical experience for students as well as celebrating outgoing students later in the year and optimising online platforms which showcase student work which typically garners a larger international audience than a physical event. “It’s more important for our designers and graduates to look internationally for opportunities,” said Angela O’Kelly, Head of Fashion at the National College of Art & Design.
For both colleges, the outcome of learning is to equip students with a multi-disciplinary skill set in order to make them more employable beyond their knowledge of fashion design with an emphasis on the cross-pollination of ideas amongst its design students and developing the students’ understanding of digital technologies.
It is no secret that bricks-and-mortar retail has endured a crisis of its own kind in recent years as the push towards e-commerce dominated the conversation. With the ease of click, shoppers no longer had to venture further than their couch for a fashion fix. Yet many Irish businesses continued to champion bricks-and-mortar.
Ireland’s luxury fashion landscape consists of small, independent boutiques and one large department store, Brown Thomas.
When shop doors closed, many managed to pivot to online.
Shelly Corkery, fashion director at Brown Thomas, noted that while the pandemic forced the business to accelerate its online capabilities through omnichannel experience, the business remains committed to its physical outposts, especially where clothing is concerned. Corkery shared that when it comes to clothing shoppers are more likely to do research on Brown Thomas’ web store but visit a store to complete the purchase. During lockdown, this meant offering access to salespersons through online chat functions, normal delivery and influencer marketing. This will continue into the future.
Clodagh Shorten & Mary-Claire O’Sullivan, the director and retail manager, respectively, of Samui in Cork, put themselves in front of the camera on Instagram to showcase their latest products and offer a lighthearted, momentary respite from the gloomy state of the world.
“The response was incredible. It allowed us to connect with new followers but also our existing base. It showed me a side to our business we’ve never tapped into,” said Shorten.
Samui, which stocks Dries van Noten, Sacai, and Rick Owens, intends to launch e-commerce in the months to come.
Sisters Anne and Tracy Tucker, the founders of Costume in Dublin, which stocks Isabel Marant and Saloni, also realised the power of online. Online sales kept the company going throughout the 3 months.
Nikki Creedon, owner of Havana Boutique in Dublin, which stocks Simone Rocha and Comme des Garçons, said migrating online has made her a more confident business owner. Previously, she didn’t consider it as important to her model but going forward she plans to harness the power of digital even more.
While Emporium Kalu offered online purchases during the pandemic, co-owner Louise Flanagan found that the experience was not as satisfying for customers as walking through the doors of the Naas, Co. Kildare store which stocks Sara Battaglia and Vivetta. “Online is not our business model. Walking through our doors, feeling the atmosphere and having the experience is where we thrive and excel,” she said.
Although footfall is down, retailers emphasise the importance of bricks-and-mortar while continuing to implement a user-friendly online interface.
Costume’s Anne Tucker said “everything is personal in Ireland, people like businesses because they like the people behind them.” The buying process, which results in the clothes ending up in store typically involves travelling to Milan and Paris to visit showrooms a couple of times a year in order select pieces and negotiate pricing, is now being carried out online. While digitisation has advanced, the buying process which originally took two to three hours now takes three to four days.
Moreover, in fashion, an inherently tactile field, the sensory experience of feeling the cloth which eventually retails at an elevated price point is lost in digital translation. Samui’s Shorten maintains that while digital buying is suitable given the circumstances, it is not viable in the long-term. The risk is greater which makes the reward harder to grasp.
“I’m doing all the buying virtually. We’re coming into [the] spring/summer [buying season] so it’s a shorter run for us. It can be exciting but it will definitely be a tighter edit. You have to be careful,” said Corkery.
Irish entrepreneur Aileen Carville, founder and CEO of SKMMP, a virtual platform that facilitates brands with online wholesale capabilities from catwalk imagery, video and linesheets, is working to make the process for retailers easier with the aid of avatars, digitally-generated collections, augmented reality and 3-D.
However, Carville asserts that digital is not a replacement for physical buying rather a complement. She said, “The human interactions, peer to peer knowledge and industry expertise makes fashion week impossible to totally substitute with a digital only format. The future will be a working hybrid of the physical and the digital.” Luxury retailers maintain the resolve that their function is to satisfy the needs of customers through good times and bad. Ultimately, their clientele will have to get dressed, either for Zoom or socially-distanced occasions.
“We will continue to work incredibly hard to make our shop different and unique because that’s been our success for the past 25 years,” said Havana’s Creedon.
“Women still want to buy beautiful luxury pieces. The inclination now is to spend, feel good, buy what you love but wisely,” said Emporium Kalu’s Flanagan.
When beauty and lifestyle industry outlets closed their doors, revenue streams collapsed instantly. Close contact between professionals and customers makes most procedures high-risk, yet, across Ireland, men and women eagerly anticipated the reopening of these services to fix botched box-dyes, stripped colours, and chipped nails after months in lockdown.
In the weeks leading up to the reopening, Alan Keville, hair stylist and managing director of Alan Keville for Hair, a salon chain with four outlets in Ireland, said approximately 3,000 people tried to book an appointment. Appointment slots are fully booked until the end of August.
When people enter an Alan Keville for Hair salon, they wear a mask. Hitherto, hair procedures were carried out by multiple stylists, between the washing, drying, cutting, and dyeing steps, but now, one stylist works with one client.
The hallmark of beauty and lifestyle treatments is the personal element. Not only this, the services amplify one’s sense of self. A blow-dry or manicure is a valuable source of respite from the modern world. Behind a mask and without the humdrum in the salon environs, the personal touch most outlets offer could be lost. But Keville asserts the experience has become more personable than ever.
Andrea Horan, founder of Tropical Popical, echoes that the personal touch of her nail bar’s service survived the pandemic’s clutches.
“Sixty percent of what we do is the experience and how people feel when they’re here. Forty percent of it is nails. Obviously, nails are important but you can get them done anywhere but what makes people want to come back to you is whether the experience you’re offering is different,” said Horan.
At Horan’s tropical-themed South William Street nail bar, the technicians and the customers wear masks. Upon arrival, like in most establishments, clients are asked to sanitise their hands. Plexiglass screens separate technicians from clients but even those are branded with exotic prints like leopard and palm trees.
Although measures are in place to protect customers, Horan finds that while some customers are ready to return, others remain apprehensive.
However, she is positive about the future, believing that her manicure service has a place in the new world. For Tropical Popical, it is a careful balance between highlighting artistry and pampering and the profound effect it can have on the psyche and understanding that people will return only when they’re ready.
“Just because we’ve come from something so serious and there’s been sadness, we want to provide respite to that,” said Horan, “but we don’t want to disregard what we’ve been through as well.”