Designers in Ireland are very lucky, in a way, to work outside the chokeholds of fashion cities like New York and London. Being at arm’s length of the metropolis allows a freedom to go against the grain in fashion and to do things your way. For Helen Steele, that means producing clothes for Dublin, London, South Korea and beyond from a duck farm in Monaghan. The sometime abstract artist and now international fashion designer spoke to me about famous fans, colour therapy and how to make a digital print from Dickens and Darwin.
Where are you today, and what are you working on?
I am working today from the studio in Monaghan, developing prints for a new accessories range.
What’s your set-up in Monaghan like?
Here in Emyvale we have an old quail factory that we have converted into offices, with a pattern-cutting table and sewing machine with an overlocker. We have loads of space, and you can hear the ducks quacking on the duck farm behind us. The walls are covered with mood-boards, and swatches of fabric. The exterior walls have love hearts and balloons on them, spray-painted by me to cheer up the rainy days in Monaghan (which are many as it’s the wettest part of Ireland!). I also paint love hearts on the trees on the grounds too, so we never have trouble with people trying to find us.
Tell me a little bit about your professional journey up to this point.
I have a B.A in Fashion Design from City and Guilds London. I then worked as an apprentice to South African artist Patrick O’Connor for three years, while I was in a thrash metal band called Woocher by night. After that I set up my own art studio in a converted duck hatchery on my husband’s duck farm. I started to show in galleries in 2005 and in 2007 I was signed to Bait Muzna Gallery in Muscat, Oman, and then was selected to show at the first Art Paris Abu Dhabi Art Fair. But it wasn’t until September 2011 that I launched my digital print label at London Fashion Week. That collection sold out in Seoul within 3 weeks, and since then we have doubled our sales with each collection and now we have 25 international stockists, including Costume and Arnotts and this autumn, E-Von in Galway.
And you’ve had some celebrity interest in your wares since then?
Yes, I’ve had the pleasure of creating a capsule collection of stage costumes and travel wear for Jessie J. The label has been worn by Rita Ora, Cara Delevingne, blogger Susie Bubble, Nicola Roberts, and Suki Waterhouse. Most recently I have just done a Pre-Spring fashion show for the launch of the New York Times T Emirates magazine in Dubai.
What is the relation between your abstract art and your work in fashion?
My own artwork becomes the print that we use in every collection, so without the artwork we have no print. That’s how integral art is to the fashion line. We try to achieve a 3D print effect on 2D by projecting layers of paint into the air, and then capture this process and transfer it to print.
Is it difficult to balance commerciality and creativity in fashion, compared to your career in art?
It can be very difficult, having spent so long in abstract art, to try to adapt to a more conformed visual expression in fashion and print. However, bills have to be paid, so that’s always the driving force. I use colour therapy in each print by layering contrast colours together to create a balanced feel, which always produces a more wearable print, compared with the method and product in abstract art. So it’s still a work of art, but it’s kinder to the body and face.
Regarding the AW13 collection – what was the process in making those prints? Do you start with a single image, or do you look at the bigger picture in creating a print?
For this I was inspired by the literature of Dickens, and to contrast that, the drawings of Darwin from his many notebooks. I wanted to bring these ideas onto fabric with a digital-age edge. I chose colours that I found on the wallpapers and fabric during the Victorian period, and then took the essence of Dickens’ female characters. I tried to put their stamp on more delicate and floral prints and then clash that with some of Darwin’s cell drawings.
Why do you think you’ve been so successful in the Middle East?
Success in the Middle East has been due to spending time there since I have been signed to the gallery in that region. I try to determine their day-to-day life, and complement that with clothing that fits their environment and culture. I think the women of the Gulf region are very sophisticated, fashion-savvy consumers.
A lot of your pieces walk a strange line where they are both incredibly distinctive and with your stamp on them, but also seem very malleable and individual, depending on the wearer. Who would you like to see wearing your clothes?
I strongly believe that my clothes can be worn by all ages and sizes. My clothes have been worn by women in fashion, music, film, literature, finance, law, and most importantly, by mums and by daughters.
Do you wear your own designs? Do you have a favourite piece to wear?
I do – it’s the ultimate pleasure. It satisfies all of my body issues, hides lumps and bumps, it’s lightweight and it makes me feel good. Is that not what fashion should be? Realistically? Is that not the fundamental reason that makes us purchase something? My favourite piece changes daily… Today I am wearing my silk kimono from ss13 in the light blue Cala print. I just throw it over jeans and a tee and it takes me from work to the school pick-up and to dinner.
What have you got up next?
I have a show running now until the 17th of July at the Truman Brewery in London with HF Contemporary. In August an advert I did with Cadbury will be aired in TV3, in collaboration with Xposé. Then onto London Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week with SS14, and Karen Toner (my right-hand woman) and I are working on an exciting new accessories line due out late 2014/early 2015. So watch this space!
You’re clearly an international designer, but how do you find working in the fashion industry in Ireland today?
I love working at something I adore and I feel very blessed to be able to do so. The fashion industry in Ireland is very small and tight-knit (excuse the pun) and everyone being so lovely and helpful makes things so much easier. The Crafts Council of Ireland has been a godsend to have, too, they are so progressive. I think at the end of the day everyone here is trying to make a living and just doesn’t have time for any rubbish.