Fashion forward: Innovate and create for success

Paul McLauchlan on the most promising names in the next crop of Irish design
Fashion forward: Innovate and create for success

Making her CREATE debut, Fiona O'Neill's work explores surrealism and optical illusions

After celebrating 10 years of spotlighting emerging Irish design, Shelly Corkery, the fashion director at Brown Thomas, considered the future.

CREATE, the annual showcase enters its second decade on Tuesday with the objective of pushing for progress, a guiding principle that forms the basis for the buzzy slogan behind this year’s event. As the pandemic recedes and ‘business as usual’ looks increasingly fruitful for businesses, Corkery and the wider buying teams came together months ago to ask ‘who’s next?’

Corkery said: "This year had to be something different because if you don’t reach out in different directions, it’ll end up being repetitive.”

The solution lies, as it always should, according to Corkery, in newness. For the 2021 instalment, 21 out of 33 participating designers appear for the first time. Across fashion, accessories, jewellery, and homeware, the lineup encapsulates the most promising names in the next crop of Irish design.

Following an intensive three-day interview process conducted over Zoom, designers are carefully handpicked to display their work on the first floor of the Dublin flagship for a period of six weeks.

Corkery admits that while Zoom complicated the process insofar as she was unable to feel the garments, she requested the participating designers to send samples of their work to the flagship store on Grafton Street when it reopened in May. At this level of high fashion, she notes, tactility is priceless. The proof of quality is woven into the fabric as much as it is in the brand identity.

While the pandemic has proved challenging for most, especially young designers, the cohort of talent in this year’s showcase are shining examples of resilience and triumphing in the face of adversity.

Sorcha Ó'Raghallaigh returns with a jubilant collection.JPG
Sorcha Ó'Raghallaigh returns with a jubilant collection.JPG

“In some ways, the past year has forced me to approach projects in a different way, and the results have been very positive,” said Fiona O’Neill, who showed at London Fashion Week earlier this year, counts Kendall Jenner as a supporter, and appears for the first time in the showcase.

O’Neill’s debut at CREATE will give shoppers an insight into her playful oeuvre which draws on surrealism and optical illusions. 

From statement dresses to relaxed trousers, she experiments with screenprinting and hand-painting to give richly decorative clothing a sense of the hand who made them.

The breakout star of last year’s event Sorcha O'Raghallaigh has worked with Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Madonna. 

Lockdown has allowed her time to distil her ornate, extravagant vision to cater to commercial viability without flouting the more artful flourishes that define her work.

“Although it’s been a challenging year I have really appreciated having more time to enjoy the overall process of designing and developing pieces.”

She returns with captivating dresses in emerald green and pink, embellished with feather embroidery and decorated with dashing mood-boosting prints. For Corkery, to have Ó’Raghallaigh participate again was a no-brainer, especially as shoppers begin to flock to more fanciful propositions.

For many Irish entrepreneurs, some of them on display in this year’s event, the pandemic fostered new beginnings. Many of the brands on show were born out of lockdown and the desire to bring customers something that respects their needs while also trying to lift their spirits. 

At CREATE, one can find Basic Juju’s hand-dyed hoodies with hand-embroidered positive messages, or Tidings, the brainchild of pedigree designer Niamh Gillespie, which imagines luxurious hand-rolled Italian silk scarves.

“Covid-19 has been a moment in time that the world will never forget however it does have some silver linings,” said Johanna Dooley, the founder of ToDyeFor by Johanna, who founded her brand during the first lockdown.

“As the world stood still I was able to take the time to evaluate what impact I wanted to make in the world.”

Another lockdown upstart comes in the form of To Dye For By Johanna.
Another lockdown upstart comes in the form of To Dye For By Johanna.

The idea, she said, was to create a clothing brand that invokes a sense of joy and happiness in the wear by “adding colour to those grey days we all know too well in Ireland while continuing to take small steps in designing a better future".

Since its launch in 2020, Dooley’s tie-dye hoodies and accessories have captivated audiences far and wide including Irish entrepreneurs and influencers Rozanna Purcell and Niamh Cullen. Now, they will find a home in a coveted retail space.

For Gabriella Malone, starting her own label was never the plan. Originally, the recent National College of Art & Design graduate was looking for an internship at a fashion house but when everything closed last year she spent her time toiling away at design development which led to the creation of her collection. From roomy silhouettes to skilful Aran knit and a serene colour palette that evokes the Irish seaside, Malone is certifiably one to watch.

The lockdown periods also facilitated her time to consider who she is and what she can bring to the table as a designer. 

Much of this was presented in light of the fashion trends of remote working. “For so many of us in the past year we have only seen each other from the waist up through Zoom, so I wanted to create fun textures and silhouettes that would translate through a computer screen,” she said.

 Recent graduate Gabrielle Malone started her brand during lockdown.
 Recent graduate Gabrielle Malone started her brand during lockdown.

In 2021, footwear stands out as an innovative category for CREATE. Brown Thomas welcomes Barbara Bennett, a 26-year-old from Galway, who customised sneakers from Nike Air Force One to Nike Air Max 90s putting an interesting spin on classic styles with her unique stamp. 

Meanwhile, Kevin Owens launched Sneaker Cleaner out of secondary school. The precocious talent emphasises longevity with his craft which sees him upcycle footwear so they can be worn time and time again. Both reflect the department’s store interest in bettering its sustainability efforts.

Elsewhere in the lineup include a considerably smaller jewellery output led by Yvonne Ryan’s eclectic and sustainably sourced styles. In the homeware department, Cushendale’s blankets appear alongside Adam Frew Ceramics’ streamlined styles, Laura Quinn’s glassware, D8 Candle Co's olfactory pleasures, and Paper Daisy’s pretty dried floral arrangements.

In millinery, returning label Leonora Ferguson extends its architectural prowess to hatmaking with renditions on Carrickmacross lace and linen.

The opportunity to present at CREATE is invaluable to emerging talent.

Bags from accessories brand My Name is Ted
Bags from accessories brand My Name is Ted

 The buying and visual merchandising teams provide mentorship to ensure the collections are ready for public consumption and for the next step in their careers. 

Additionally, designers are welcomed to attend their stands to receive feedback from customers and sales attendants, in addition to watching how garments move from the shop floor to a customer’s wardrobe. 

“As a new brand, it brings credibility to our designs and the quality of the finish. It creates trust with new customers and we gain invaluable feedback from the buyers and customers of Brown Thomas alike,” said Brendan McEvoy, co-founder of My Name is Ted, an accessories brand that specialises in designs that emulate the Georgian doors ever-present in the capital. 

Accessories brand My Name is Ted adapted their designs to suit the needs of customers during the pandemic - it might compact styles and attachments to carry hand sanitiser
Accessories brand My Name is Ted adapted their designs to suit the needs of customers during the pandemic - it might compact styles and attachments to carry hand sanitiser

Similarly, they produced HandySan, a range of hand-sanitiser holders.

One of their notable findings in the past year is how the bags customers gravitated towards were more compact than usual. 

In turn, they adapted their designs to meet these expectations.

“It is surreal to know that my collection will sit side by side with some of the world’s leading brands,” said Dooley, emphatic about the fact that her work will be adjacent to the likes of Christian Dior, Loewe and Valentino.

For others, like O’Neill, it’s a personal achievement: “Having grown up in Dublin, I have imagined my designs in the store since I was a child. It means the world to me to be able to do this."

Malone echoed this sense of personal achievement. “It's my first commercial collection and to be debuting it at Brown Thomas during CREATE is such an incredible experience.” 

While there were many applicants, the selection process this year, Corkery chimed, “it was easy to do with so much brilliance in front of me.” 

She hopes that people will come to the store to celebrate “innovation and flexibility, how people manoeuvred during this challenging period and built fabulous collections during lockdown, and how people diversified their output.”

  • CREATE takes place at Brown Thomas Dublin from Tuesday, July 6 to Tuesday, August 17

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