Ten years ago, Shelly Corkery asked herself where all the Irish designers were.
As fashion director at department store Brown Thomas, she took it upon herself to find some names who could appear in the Dublin flagship on Grafton Street to represent Irish design on an international level. She enlisted the retail consultant, Eddie Shanahan to assist her in the search. Soon after, CREATE launched.
An annual programme devised to foster, spotlight, and elevate indigenous design talent, CREATE allows Irish designers to showcase and sell their work in the country’s premier department store, for six weeks, alongside some of the world’s most exclusive luxury brands such as Balenciaga, Valentino, and Gucci. The project was successful from the beginning.
The tenth anniversary was meant to take place in July, when tourism in Dublin is normally at its peak. Then the outbreak of the novel coronavirus put things on hold. The Irish government mandated that Irish citizens shelter-in-place and that non-essential retail outlets would close. Bricks-and-mortar collapsed overnight. It would take three months before physical retail outlets would open again.
Despite the odds, Corkery fought for CREATE. On September 22, the tenth anniversary showcase will begin, for six weeks, on level one of Brown Thomas Dublin.
“We work a lot with international brands — to focus on the community really elevates Irish design creativity and it’s a fantastic way to support, platform, and market the talent we have here,” said Corkery.
This year’s instalment sees 31 participants across ready-to-wear, activewear, jewellery, accessories, millinery, childrenswear, homewares and interiors.
The stars of this year’s line-up are Richard Quinn and Katie Ann McGuigan, respectively. Both London-based, the two bring CREATE international kudos.
Richard Quinn caught the attention of the international fashion pack from the outset. Since his graduate show, his extravagant evening dresses with billowing proportions and chintzy patterns have continued to captivate audiences at London Fashion. (Quinn was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Award for Design, a prize awarded to emerging talent, by the Queen at London Fashion Week in 2018.) The Irish connection: His parents are from Co. Meath and Co. Donegal, respectively.
One should anticipate a smattering of fancy frocks, like flowers in the spring, that look as though they are in full bloom: bulbous skirts with cinched waists, decorated with florid patterns and twinkling embellishment. Where would one go in a dress like that? Corkery still believes in the joy of dressing up. “People love to get dressed up, people love fashion,” she said.
Katie Ann McGuigan, originally from Newry, is fascinated by the interplay between youth culture and heritage. Her work riffs on 1980s subcultures, imparting them with a sense of Irish craft and femininity. For young designers like McGuigan, the opportunity “gives a small brand such as my own the chance to expand its customer base, and build relationships which are priceless.”
Another returning design is Wicklow-based Sarah Murphy, whose whimsical creations respond to the tumult of the times with poise, elegance, and romance. “When we talk of a post-pandemic world it sounds like some kind of zombie film,” said Murphy, who is committed to designing beautiful clothes to make women feel special. “My clothes act as a form of escapism that hopefully allow people to forget how shitty everything is at the moment.”
Alongside the frills and thrills, Galway-based mother and daughter duo Leah Tiernan and Orla Moore present Leyo, an up and coming yoga wear brand that blends trend-led design with high-functioning performance. In a year that has seen humankind spend more time indoors than ever before, the presence of comfortable activewear comes as no surprise. (Corkery said activewear sales performed extraordinarily well for the store since the height of the pandemic.) Fashion’s favourite buzzword — sustainability — is the basis for many of this year’s designers including Dána Project, a unisex jewellery line made just off Grafton Street that sells signet rings, wedding bands, bracelets and necklaces in sterling silver. It makes its CREATE debut.
“I saw a gap in the market,” said Cillian Hilliard, the founder of Dána Project. Hilliard, a senior investment associate at a Dublin venture capital company, saw the staggering markups on jewellery as a “weakness.” His rings retail for a little over €100 and come with an Irish stamp of craftsmanship.
Dána Project is featured alongside returning designers Helena Malone and Blaithin Ennis, who are also committed to ethical practices.
New to accessories is My Name is Ted, a rebooted leather goods line that was once a saddle-maker in the 1940s. Husband and wife duo Brendan McEvoy and Kasia Gaborec McEvoy brought new life to McEvoy’s grandfather’s business which closed when he suffered a brain aneurysm.
In 2015, it was relaunched as a direct-to-consumer men's small leather goods brand but last year the label expanded into women's handbags with the ethos of being functional. Moreover, each bag, made from fine Italian leather, features a Georgian door clasp which is emblematic of Dublin's architecture and, the co-founder Gaborec McEvoy says, of the lives we spent behind doors this year.
The collection that will launch in Brown Thomas includes the ‘Handysan’, an adaptable luxury leather case for hand sanitisers to clip onto your bag.
“Functionality is more important than ever, even with handbags. People only want to carry the essentials as opposed to having this big bag with a bigger surface for germs,” said Gaborec McEvoy.
The pandemic not only influenced how designers think about what they make but the way their business functions.
CREATE comes at a time when the fashion industry is at crossroads. While many Irish brands assert they continued to sell throughout the pandemic, the fashion industry is expected to contract by up to 30% this year. If CREATE can amplify Irish designers’ voices, the future of Irish design might be brighter than ever.
Eddie Shanahan said: “While its focus is Irish fashion design, CREATE must also deliver a return in terms of retail sales to justify the extensive space allocation and support provided by Brown Thomas. It has done so for ten years.”
As an incubator programme, the department store opens its doors to emerging designers and fledgling businesses who believe they have what it takes to secure a coveted place on the shop floor.
The designers are first interviewed by Corkery and Shanahan and the successful designers will be provided with mentorship, advice on how to produce and retail their clothes, on business strategy and structure, as well as allowing the designers to appear as representatives on the shopfloor to earn feedback from customers.
After ten years, it “proves that Irish designers, when given professional consideration and support, can sell in an extremely competitive environment where their collections sit side by side with some of the world’s leading brands,” said Shanahan.
However, the project only lasts for six weeks. For many Irish designers, it will open doors to collaborations and special projects. For others, it may strengthen their chances of being able to launch their work in other stores across the globe. In any case, the six weeks require careful consideration, close contact with potential clients, and a vision of where to take things next. Only a handful of the designers on this year’s roster will be stocked in store beyond the six weeks.
Lucy Nagle, for example, who returns this year, has built an impressive knitwear business that launched at CREATE and has seen her launch the line in the four Brown Thomas outposts across Ireland.
The future has great potential, both Corkery and Shanahan said. Shanahan believes that the pandemic has allowed designers to connect with their customers in more authentic ways and has made consumers more disposed towards buying from local brands.
He said: “Irish fashion is therefore critically aligned for improved dialogue with its customers. These factors can only lead to improved commercial success.”