Each year a mass exodus of Irish fashion graduates occurs. Young, talented and ambitious, they leave for greener pastures, the nearby fashion capitals of London and Paris, to hone their craft, build a career or to apply for one of the many prestigious bursaries on offer. With such unparallelled opportunities abroad, Irish fashion graduates often feel they have no choice but to leave the country if they want to succeed in the industry. Many plan to return, but most never do. And with no support system in place for designers here, why would they? Apart from allowing a creative brain drain to occur, a significant financial opportunity is also being neglected. In 2015 the fashion industry in the UK was valued at £1.2 billion. Where is Ireland’s piece of the pie? We spoke to three Irish designers; Michael Stewart, Andrew Bell and Caoimhe MacNeice to get an insight into the experiences of aspiring Irish designers, to find out why they are leaving at such a rapid pace and what can be done to keep them here, so that we may access the massively untapped potential of the Irish fashion industry.
Michael Stewart is one of Ireland’s most promising talents. A graduate of Limerick School of Art and Design (2013), he is now busy completing a master’s in Fashion Womenswear at the Royal College of Art (RCA). The college is notoriously selective and the course itself was ranked the top fashion MA in the world by The Business of Fashion’s Global Fashion School Rankings. Early this year Stewart became the first recipient of the Kildare Village Fashion Bursary. A sum of €15,000 was awarded to support him through the remainder of his studies at the RCA, helping with crucial material costs and his graduation show in 2017. This bursary is, unfortunately, one of the few of its kind in Ireland.
When first applying for the MA at the RCA, Stewart knew he had no way of funding it, but having been determined to do a master’s in London since the beginning of his BA, this was merely a speed bump along the way. “I had absolutely no money but I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to let that stop me from doing it.” His determination was something he was matter-of-fact about in the interview. “I told them I didn’t have any money and that I would be looking for support from the existing bursaries.” This brazen outlook, combined with an undeniable talent, led to Stewart being awarded the Laura Ashley Foundation bursary, one of the biggest in the whole school, covering all tuition fees for the two years. Had he not received this initial bursary, Stewart says he probably wouldn’t have been able to accept his place.
Halfway through his master’s, Stewart was struggling to save the adequate funds required to pay for the materials while also maintaining any decent standard of living. He found saving money while living in London and working only a retail job in a Notting Hill store on the weekends is “virtually impossible”. With no legitimate government fashion grant to apply for in Ireland, Stewart had to find the money elsewhere.
Having worked with Kildare Village on In The Fold, an exhibition of emerging Irish talent at London Fashion Week 2015, a relationship already existed. So when faced once again with putting his future in the hands of others, they were his first port of call. “I expressed my situation and asked them to see if something could come out of it.” After much deliberation and the instrumental coordination of Dee Breen, Deputy PR & Communications at Kildare Village, and stylist Aisling Farinella, the inaugural Kildare Fashion Bursary was founded and awarded to Stewart. Stewart’s situation is a rarity. Unfortunately not many young, broke and talented designers possess the gumption to essentially make their own bursary happen.
NCAD graduate Caoimhe MacNeice, 25, juggles working full-time as a designer in Dunnes Stores with running her own brand on the side. “Whenever I look at designers in London and the organisations over there that actively look at trying to find new talent and support them, there’s really not anything like that here for us at all.”
MacNeice was surprised to discover that both NEWGEN (supported by the British Fashion Council) and Fashion East are relatively young initiatives, having only been set up in 1993 and 2000 respectively. Yet since their inception they have launched the careers of an impressive roster of designers between them including Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane, Roksanda Ilinčić and Mary Katrantzou.
For MacNeice, investing in the Irish fashion industry is a no-brainer for our economy. “There’s money to be made. It’s hugely profitable. It’s a very desirable industry. But it’s like banging your head against the wall sometimes.”
In order to be eligible to apply for NEWGEN, a designer’s business and studio must be based in the UK. For those hoping to get funded, jumping ship is almost the only option. In Ireland there are various small business grants from local enterprise boards or from the Crafts Council which designers can apply to, but there is no centralised organisation akin to the British Fashion Council which solely serves the industry alone. As a result, Ireland has lost out on laying claim to the rise of of some great talents. “You look at so many Irish designers are taken as British now,” says MacNeice. The designers she is referring to are Simone Rocha and JW Anderson, two of the most revered alumni to come through NEWGEN.
MacNeice is careful not to devalue the support she has received here, most notably from Gemma Williams and Aisling Farinella, and their work on the aforementioned In The Fold exhibition, which MacNeice’s designs were also presented alongside Michael Stewart and a handful of others. She commends the Irish Design 2015 programme and the doors it opened for designers here, though she maintains that “as far as fashion design, I don’t think it’s being paid the attention that it should.” At the end of the day, MacNeice says, “you need cold hard cash”.
Andrew Bell, 25, another NCAD graduate, knows this struggle well. Bell took a job in Dunnes Stores as a commercial designer straight out of college to pay back his parents for the money he had borrowed for fabrics for his graduate collection. After a year, he left to pursue a more creative endeavour which became his Pulling Strings exhibition. On the dole and living back home in Dundalk for the first time in five years, Bell would bring his bike on the 6am bus to Dublin everyday to work on the project, meet collaborators and pick up materials. At a loss of fashion grants to apply for, he applied to more general craft and design grants before eventually taking the DIY route and running a crowdfunded campaign.
Bell was dismayed to have been rejected for by the Design and Craft Council of Ireland after filling out a 14 page application form without ever expressing his idea to anyone in person. Bell did receive a grant of €200 from Louth County Council, of which he was appreciative, but admits, “It’s still so little in the scheme of things.” Even at that, he had to let on that he was an artist and not a designer. “I knew the guy in the arts office. He kinda said, ‘you’re an artist aren’t ya?’ giving me the nod.”
Pulling Strings was a huge success and six months later Bell is still being contacted about it. “I would love to be have been able to say I was funded by the DCCoI or the Fashion Council of Ireland. I would love to impress that on everyone. I would love to be proud to say that, but I’m not.”
Despite the satisfaction and sense of achievement Bell felt following the completion of the project, the experience has affected Bell. “This project scared me so much about money, because I pumped money into it. It costs so much. I’d love to be Andrew Bell for Balenciaga. I don’t want to be Andrew Bell for Andrew Bell. I just think it’s so much pressure.”
With plans to move to Paris himself, Bell is aware that fashion is a global business and that the opportunity to travel and learn is an important step to broaden oneself professionally and personally. He affirms that people leaving isn’t the issue, it’s the fact that no one else is coming here. “It’s like ‘Irish graduates for export’,” says Bell.
Despite faults in the system, Stewart, Bell and MacNeice aren’t turning their backs on Ireland, recognising the cultural and artistic resonance with their work that lies here. “There’s a renaissance happening. Irish people really value it and look for it, for handmade. ‘Made in Ireland’ is a stamp of approval.” But they affirm that designers can’t be left with no other option than to take a DIY route to funding themselves, especially given the economic realities production costs and Dublin rent. So what is the solution? Support needs to happen sooner rather than later says Bell. “Once you reach your mid-twenties the realities of life start setting in. There’s bills to pay and responsibilities to stop ignoring. You’re no longer just a kid having a go. It needs to be at college level and early graduates. There’s a narrow window of when you’re going to do it and there needs to be some kind of organisation that can see young talent and actually support it.”
Ireland needs a centralised body supported by the government, an Irish Fashion Council if you will, that will provide graduates with funding opportunities, mentorship, and a branch dedicated to scouting new talent. A council couldn’t support itself independent of external commercial funding. Hence we need more commercial organisations to follow the lead of Kildare Village by championing emerging Irish design talent and helping to pave the way to a strong native fashion industry. It’s a positive association for these brands to have, to be seen to be supporting our native industry and to be part of the emerging scene.
There may be more opportunities in London, but with the growth of the e-commerce sector, it is possible to run a business from Ireland. If anything our proximity to London is an advantage with the growth of online. Take Helen Steele and the global fashion business she runs from a duck farm in Monaghan. Our designers aren’t shunning Ireland. Their eyes are open to the value of growing an industry here. We just need to give them the tools to allow this to happen. Stewart is the perfect testament to how long standing bonds can be formed between designers and the industry here when we support them. “There’s a cultural and artistic value to Ireland. Obviously you’re not going to flee and never come back. I want to be involved in Ireland, I really do.”
Words: Róisín McVeigh
Images: Michael Stewart Kildare Village, Andrew Bell, Caoimhe MacNeice Johnny McMillan