After a plethora of started-and-scrapped formats, does the optimal “fashion week” model lie in spotlighting creativity over commerciality?
“Any platform has to be very critical and curated. People have to earn their place”
The sepia-hued heyday of 1960s Dublin, an era characterised by annual country-to-city pilgrimages to the agricultural “Spring Show”, might not suggest, say, IR£13 million worth of fashion exports. Nonetheless, as Dublin’s industrial domain was still in its infancy, the primary supplier of such staggering figures, the Irish Export Fashion Fair, launched in April 1964 to a chorus of applause, propelling the city’s nascent rag trade to unprecedented heights. The Fair’s first installment attracted almost IR£1 million in orders, propelling export revenues to IR£5 million and, by the turn of the 60s, to a IR£13 million peak. Following the expanded Fair of 1965, an Irish-centric issue of Harper’s Bazaar shot to the newsstands, its celebratory spreads echoing a Vogue issue in May 1959, whose prophetic tagline read “A Spotlight on Ireland”. International interest was thereby secured, although not cemented – and when constructive criticism subsequently arrived from native and foreign fashion commentators alike, including proposals to stage an Irish fashion fair overseas, the organisers’ inability to adapt with the times resulted in a once-bustling showcase stagnating altogether.
By the late 70s, the Irish Export Fashion Fair had breathed its last, with little or no fanfare accompanying its demise. What followed was an assemblage of earnestly-produced events, stretching from the similarly-framed Futura fair to varying “Irish Fashion Week” formats which were rolled out in short-lived segments from the 80s onwards. Each new conception may have differed, if marginally, in appearance, but a thread of commonality can be traced through each one: a misplaced desire to emulate the commercial success of the European fashion capitals.
A modern-day “Dublin Fashion Week” cannot copy its structure from a style metropolis – especially that of Paris or London. “If you want to achieve sales for designers, then I don’t think it would work – buyers aren’t going to travel,” affirms Helen Steele, whose forward-thinking womenswear has long circulated in overseas consumer markets. “Even though London Fashion Week is great, it only has 10% of global wholesale fashion sales, while 70% are written down at Paris Fashion Week.” Aileen Carville, founder and CEO of trailblazing supply-chain platform SKMMP, is equally pragmatic: “When you look at Ireland’s retail opportunities, there are great stores but, really, you have to look beyond these shores to get the orders in, so that brands can [survive].” Irish fashion showcasing in foreign settings has yet to be fully capitalised on, but a number of stand-alone events have proven successful in recent years. Steele, for one, cites a smattering of fashion shows she did between December 2017 and January 2018, set in Thailand’s Irish Embassy. “The one-to-one sales I got were as much as [if I had sold to] three different boutiques. It was done really cost-effectively. The Embassy know people on the ground and invite them – and they spend. The buildings are gorgeous! I think the embassy in Paris should be opened during fashion week, and have showrooms there. It would be great done in New York as well.”
Another frequently-commended gathering is ID2015’s Unfold – a DCCOI-backed initiative in which 10 Irish designers unveiled their new-season collections at London’s ICA, presenting in the midst of fashion week. For Carville, who combined the roles of Mentor and Commercial Advisor during Unfold, “That was a really interesting event to happen for Irish designers – bringing a number of collections over to a great venue, and having the right people come and look at it. Because we’re so small, people automatically think, ‘we could pick six designers, but let’s do ten,’ – but I actually don’t think that’s the right attitude. Always pick the best six, and really work with them – any [Dublin Fashion Week] platform has to be very critical and curated. People have to earn their place.”
Nurturing the ever-evolving ties between Irish designers and foreign fashion hubs is, without doubt, worth prioritising. When it comes to re-establishing our city’s fashion presence, however, looking beyond “the Big Four” to source inspiration is imperative. Fellow culturally rich cities that lack a conventionally recognised fashion heritage should be the first to consult, with contemporary fashion centres such as Copenhagen, Barcelona and Melbourne falling into this category. This said, there’s no question that previous Irish Fashion Weeks have steered dangerously close to being corporate events – a recurring stumbling block that could easily be overridden if a future fashion showcase, held outside of the standard “fashion months”, championed aesthetic enjoyment above all other aspects. Structural ambiguity aside, Dublin’s full-to-the-brim talent base is indisputable: “[This] is a city of innovators. Our youth has extraordinary talent and endless ambition,” says multi-disciplinary artist and designer Aoife Dunne. “Our fashion and art scene has expanded rapidly over the past ten years, which is evident with street style becoming more exciting and experimental.” Revered fashion journalist Deirdre McQuillan believes that our creative strengths are “much wider than fashion – it’s art, it’s graphics, it’s photography, it’s food.” and feels that a week of melding fashion with other complimentary creative disciplines would have a resounding effect, not to mention ensure governmental support. In Steele’s eyes, fashion and art go hand-in-hand – her illustrious career has colourfully blurred the boundaries between both spheres.
For Rosa Abbott, head of Press and Communications at the Kerlin Gallery and founder of Vertov Vintage, her professional trajectory has also encompassed both fashion and art circles, so the concept of marrying the two fields – creating a cohesive dialogue between them in the process – is a refreshing prospect. “I would love to see a fashion week that is integrated into the fibre of the city, breaking away from regular retail haunts and putting a larger variety of spaces to use, and that could include arts spaces. It would have to be about more than the building, though – Tate Modern’s ‘The Tanks’ space serves as a venue for London Fashion Week, but the shows’ connection to contemporary art is superficial, taking place in a different part of the building to the exhibitions. Erdem’s recent show at the National Portrait Gallery is a much better example of what marketing types call ‘brand synergy’ – Erdem having an art history degree, and NPG long having been one of the best resources in the world for spying on peoples’ wardrobes.”
If achieved under the most effective premise – solidifying Irish connectivity to international fashion sectors whilst creating a viable, vibrant showcase in which established and emerging designers are highlighted, a suitably well-organised “Dublin Fashion Week” could provide captivating results. While a carefully concocted week can’t and won’t spring up overnight, one can instantly commence breaking down the boundaries between the city’s creative sectors to better facilitate such a model. “It starts with being engaged,” Abbott concludes, “showing up to each others’ events, learning who’s who, and asking questions. I, for one, would love to see more fashion people coming to exhibition openings, for example, and more art people supporting Irish fashion. There are some great examples of cross-disciplinary exchange happening already – I think Aisling Farinella’s Thread magazine has always managed to bring together both disciplines, for instance – but the more this exchange happens, the more we can all learn from each other.”
Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady