We Are Islanders’ poetic vision permeates their collections of artisanally produced yet boldly modern clothing. True to their pioneering spirit, a focus on eco-sustainability, heritage, and hand craft is at the core of the brand that was born out of establishment of sustainability fashion ventures, Re:dress and the Better Fashion Project. We Are Islanders has amassed a cult following since it launched in 2012 and their work was showcased most recently at ID2015’s Unfold: Irish Designers Collective at London Fashion Week. We spoke with Rosie O’Reilly, designer for WAI.
So, how did We Are Islanders begin?
I worked as a designer before [Kate Nolan and I] set up Re:dress, and had always considered making again, and building a bigger body of knowledge about fabrics in Ireland and production and so on, so we decided around 2012 that we wanted to set up a clothing label. The name came because at around that time I was involved in a boat project and was helping to build a boat, and I spent a lot of time looking out to sea and thinking about what it was like living in Ireland especially in relation to making clothes. I was researching a lot into maritime history and how people on the west coast were heavily influenced by people travelling into those parts, all the way from eastern countries and African countries. It hit me that living on an island is such an amazing thing, and in fact everyone lives on an island in a way, whether it’s earth floating in the universe, and how it’s really about looking outwards and not looking inwards. It was also a double-metaphor for the clothing industry, and looking at better practice in the industry, so then that also includes the multiculturalism that is involved in creating textiles and fashion in Ireland.
Why do you feel that it is important to be sustainable and to make in Ireland?
The ethos of the brand is about putting a contemporary twist on heritage, so merging craft and innovation, and that may push us beyond Irish shores in terms of production sourcing in the future. We started making in Ireland because of the economics of production – like working with a weaver and being able to get a three-week turnaround time is great for us. When we go to trade shows we have a very quick turnaround time, also in terms of how much shipping around the world is, we save on that. So there is the economic part, but also the heritage and craft in textiles that can be found on the island is really important to us as a brand.
Could you tell us about the new collection for SS16?
It’s called The Journey to Hy-Brazil and it’s based on a fictional story that I wrote. A lot of women in the 18th century travelled by sea and I found out about a group of women who were all botanists and adventurers. They couldn’t get on ships as women so they dressed as men to sail on these ships that were used to find out about foreign lands. I was fascinated by that in terms of clothing and the kind of style they would have worn which would have been something feminine but also a strong silhouette, and a multi-functional piece. It also fed into this other story of Hy-Brazil, which is this mythical island off the west coast of Ireland, it appears in 13th century maps but it doesn’t exist, so there’s loads of mythical stories about it that it once existed but it only appears once every seven years. People have always searched for it, so it’s the story of these two women travelling off the coast of the country searching for Hy-Brazil. The fabrics in it are inspired by the fact that they were both botanists, so there’s hand painting on the silk using wood from a boat and marks are made from using wood from botanical flowers. The colours of the fabrics were influenced by a lot of the pictures of these women, black and white pictures and hand-drawn illustrations which were very oriental, and very bright and flowery. It was floral but mixed with a maritime feel.
There are three of you on the team. What is it like to be in collaboration together? Who looks after which side of things?
I’ve worked with Kate for a number of years on Re:dress, Kate Nolan has always worked in production so she was behind the label from the beginning. This was the first time she was working in fashion after working in India after college and doing Re:dress with me, and she looks after all of the production side of things and the operations. Dee Hynds joined in 2014. She did some work with us on Re:dress and we asked her to come on board at We Are Islanders to head up the communication side of things. I think there are amazing benefits involved with having three people in a team to carry some of the load, especially since what each of us do is quite specific, the overlaps aren’t really there which is great for getting jobs done.
WAI is also known for your films and installation work – how does this extra dimension add to your message?
I work as a visual artist as well so for me the whole things about We Are Islanders from the very beginning was that it would be a project that was bigger than the clothes it produced. It meant that every garment had a story, either through printing methods or mark-making used out of boat-making materials or whatever else, because all these methods give the garments a story and it becomes a vehicle for communicating a bigger message than just a fashion trend or style statement. Our first installation was dying the clothes on Dollymount Strand, going with the movement of the water and the rise and fall of the tide, and that was to talk about loads of different things like rising sea levels, living on an island, things that you don’t normally get to say through clothing. Every collection I try to collaborate with film-makers or musicians, people that can put together content to show these processes in conjunction with the clothing collection.
Any great exhibitions you’ve seen or are excited to check out?
There is a book that I’m currently reading called Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky – I’d recommend it to anyone – it’s got all of these crazy stories about wild islands. I saw an exhibition by Seanie Barron called Sticks at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, it was absolutely beautiful. He hand-carved sticks with different figures and faces and made them out of Irish wood. Also in the Douglas Hyde Gallery they did a series on collecting, and I met with this amazing woman who collected old wren boys made of straw, and [talked about] the history of straw and hay-making that exists in this country.
Are there any exciting projects you can let us in on?
We Are Islanders are doing some work with a brilliant festival called Drop Everything on Inis Oírr – an island off the coast of Galway. I’ve been involved with it before, last time I interviewed the local knitters on the island and this year I’m going to be collaborating with two other artists on a piece which will be installed on the island. We’re looking at mapping movements of people on the island and creating a light and sound installation that will be running along the old pathways on the island and using the old stone walls. It will guide people along from one part of the site to the other. It’s on at the end of May, it’s really amazing. You have all the locals who speak as Gaeilge mixing in with artists and musicians, and just being able to wander around in such beautiful landscape is really wonderful.
We Are Islanders is stocked at [MADE] Store & Gallery in the Powerscourt Townhouse. You can see more at www.weareislanders.com
Words: Honor Fitzsimons