The Irish designers bringing couture back to Ireland

As Haute Couture Week begins in Paris tomorrow, Carolyn Moore meets the Irish designers bringing the craft of couture back to Ireland.

"I didn’t choose couture — it chose me,” states Helen Cody. “I tried mass production and it didn’t suit me. Everything that’s intrinsic to us and has the DNA of what we do — beading, embellishment, 3D effects — my hand is in the work.”

Couture is all about the handwork. When Haute Couture Week begins in Paris tomorrow, the collections of Dior, Chanel, and the houses which have earned the designation ‘haute couture’, will showcase the work of skilled ‘petites mains’ — the seamstresses and artisans who pour sometimes hundreds of hours into the creation of a single garment.

Having witnessed the painstaking production of a piece of feathered tulle in a Parisian atelier, Cody recalls: “As it wafted down the catwalk, I felt so honoured to have been close to this work of art. It was poetry in motion.”

It’s a rarefied world, but Cody is one of a new breed of Irish designers bringing the craft and tradition of couture back to these shores.

For Eddie Shanahan, head of the Council of Irish Fashion Designers, couture is “the most abused word in the fashion lexicon”, but true couture has a firm place in the history of Irish fashion.

When Sybil Connolly created her signature pleated handkerchief linen, it marked the beginning of a golden era when European houses began using Irish cloths, and the Irish Haute Couture Group was established.

Our most famous couturier, Peter O’Brien, enjoyed an illustrious career at Dior, Givenchy, and Rochas; and now, a select few are bringing Irish couture to the fore once again.

Through investment pieces or once-in-a-lifetime buys like wedding gowns, Irish customers are discovering the unabashed luxury of couture garments; designers like Umit Kutluk and Delphine Grandjouan — who produce both ready-to-wear and couture lines — are relishing the creative freedom couture offers.

Both find couture standards, once employed, are difficult to leave behind. Grandjouan holds fittings in Dublin and Kerry for both her RTW and couture lines, and Kutluk describes his individually-tailored RTW pieces as “demi-couture”.

For designer Jen Kelly, haute couture is the name of the game. At this level “everything is by hand”. Diaphanous bias-cut gowns are fully lined — “Very difficult to do,” he says, “but we can do it” — and tailored pieces come with details like hand-rolled hems.

In his showroom, Linton tweeds used by Chanel sit alongside laces from couture embroiderers Lesage in Paris. He tells me about one piece of Lesage lace on order for a bride: hand beaded, it weighs 23kg.

Saudi royalty and New York socialites are among his clientele but, equally, “you might get a school teacher buying a beautiful wedding gown and her whole heart and soul is in it. She enjoys every payment she makes.” It’s part of what he sees as “a whole new customer evolving”.

“In the last two years I’ve shown in London, New York, Derry, Belfast, Dublin,” he tells me. “I feel like a prophet, converting people to the art of haute couture. It is, quite simply, the ultimate.”


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