April 1964. It’s all happening at Ireland’s newest and biggest hotel, the Dublin Intercontinental. Six hundred fashion buyers and writers gather for the Irish Export Fashion Fair. The Minister for Trade & Commerce, Jack Lynch, arrives and poses with a group of models for a photo shoot. He greets the audience and tells them the fair is the first of its kind in Ireland. A testament to the achievement and ambition of the Irish fashion industry. He opens the fair. Reps hurry to their stands, unsure, but ready for what lies ahead.
It turns out to be a very good week. The Fashion Fair surpasses all expectations. Orders of almost £1 million are placed with the seventy Irish suppliers. One company, Clodagh, receives more sales in the week than in the preceding twelve months. The sponsors, Córas Tráchtála (the Irish Export Board) decide to run the fair the following year. The 1965 event is an even bigger success as the fair becomes an annual event. Prominent Irish designer, Jimmy Hourihan, says it has “revolutionised the Irish fashion industry.”
It was the government’s First Programme for Economic Expansion of 1958 which kick-started the Irish fashion industry. In 1952, fashion exports were less than £50,000. By 1958 they totalled £1 million and by 1964, £5 million. Exports continued to rise during the years of the fair and by 1969 they had reached £13 million. The healthy figures reassured the fair’s sponsors Córas Tráchtála, but they were aware that the Irish fashion industry faced some criticism. At the inaugural fair, one British journalist wrote, “there was not enough fashion: skirt and cardigan outfits were overdone and a bit dull.” Another thought Ireland ought to “ally our wealth of native talent and materials to a more international look.” In 1966, Terry Keane at the Irish Times wrote, “Many of the coats and suits had rather a depressingly ageing effect on even our youngest models. If we’re going for international markets, we should move with the trends that are fashionable at the moment – and, at the moment, the youthful look is in.”
Following a drop in sales at the 1967 event, Keane then challenged the format and strategy of the fair. One of her suggestions was to invite other countries to exhibit in Dublin. Another was to host the fair outside of Ireland. Neither happened. The fair remained in Dublin and continued to run at the same hotel until Jurys bought it in 1972. The preview fashion shows became the main attraction in the early 1970s. These lavish shows at the Abbey Theatre, Bunratty Castle and Powerscourt, were often ridiculed by the domestic media. The Irish Export Fashion Fair faded, and was eventually replaced by the Futura show at the RDS. One wonders what might have happened had the fair moved to a location abroad. To somewhere like Lisbon perhaps?
Poster for the Irish Export Fashion Fair. Hardback (38cm x 25cm) No credit given for the designer but does say “Printed by Charles Doyle & Sons”.
Advert for Jimmy Hourihan: Jimmy Hourihan was one of the leading fashion exporters in the 1960s. His company was a regular attender at the fair since 1964. This advert is from 1969.
Advert for Sunbeam: Another regular attender at the fair was Sunbeam’s Wolsey based in Milford, Cork. This advert is from 1968.
Words: Brian McMahon