With another season of graduate shows now forthcoming, five fashion talents – each having wrapped college five years apart – recount the daze of final-year deadlines and call ‘industry success’ into question.
“In the end, your inherent need for creative expression will never lead you down the ‘wrong’ path”
For a sector whose infrastructure feeds upon the ephemeral, graduate season (stretching from April to June on Irish shores) is nothing short of a godsend. Those enamoured with the new, be they members of the public or press, can feast their eyes – and sometimes their wallets – on blood, sweat and tear-embossed garments, all conceived from sleepless nights soundtracked by the whirr of a sewing machine. That description could seem hyperbolic to some, but is searingly accurate for the students themselves still in the throes of this fashion fever-pitch. Once several years separate them from their college curtain call, however, does that maelstrom of stress and uncertainty remain a vivid memory or is it relegated to the back of their brain?
For Emma Collopy, who graduated from Griffith College in 2014, the frenzy encircling her end-of-year fashion show feels tangible as ever. “It was a super busy time! Everything you do is going towards the final-year showcase, and there’s a lot of pressure to really impress. It’s your last chance before college ends to be super creative, because it can be challenging to do so after that. You’re typically entering into high-street or high-end markets [to obtain work], so it’s an important time to push yourself.”
Lorna Daly, a Sallynoggin College of Further Education grad from 2009, strongly connects to the emotions of ten years ago. “The support I received from the faculty was overwhelming, at a time when I very much needed all the support I could get. Design is a daunting, judgmental world, and it can make you very anxious that you are ‘not good enough’. That was never the case in SCFE.”
Karen Kealy, a 2004 graduate from the Grafton Academy, paints a vivid picture of her final collection’s tactile catalyst: “I remember being in London, with my friend at a flea market, and I was very much at that mental stage of going, ‘What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do? This is my last college collection!’.
The pressure was on, for sure, but it’s so important to switch off and look around you, observe everything… suddenly I spotted this amazing pair of velvet curtains. They were a gorgeous, Prussian blue and I ended up buying them, which thankfully kickstarted the whole collection.”
As the years stretch further back, only minimal memory-jogging is needed: Lucy Moller, from SCFE’s Class of 1999, recalls her art and architecture-centred project where she “developed fabric prints from looking at pavement cracks and building silhouettes… I learnt so much about how to develop an idea from an original source into a fashion design,” while Andrea Cleary (who, having scored a first class honours BA in NCAD, wrapped up her studies around ’94) recounts the “long days and nights” put in towards the latter stages of her degree, debunking “[the stereotype] that when you go to art college you just sit around – that is far from the reality.”
Each of these creative talents emerged from fashion schools of a similar structure; their respective collections bursting at the seams with conceptual innovation and technical precision. It seems a shame, by consequence, that gifted Irish design graduates are scarcely revisited by the press (even if still professionally active) unless their post-college timeline is adorned with accolades or weighed down by multiple, bountiful bursaries. In ways they could not have anticipated, their subsequent routes have proved sinuous, industrious and ultimately very successful – not necessarily because they ascended to Treacy or Rocha-style heights of acclaim, front and centre of a beloved fashion label, but because creative satisfaction and determination remained at the core of their decision process.
Having based her graduate designs on the contrasts between bodily restriction and movement – strongly influenced by her nursing background – a single phone call soon after graduation sent Collopy on an eye-opening path. “Ryanair picked up my name and contacted me directly, asking if I wanted to work on their uniforms with them. The day after that phone call, I was getting a full brief in their head offices. I worked on the project and its product development for around eight months, which was huge for me at the time having just come out of college. After I wrapped up with Ryanair, I worked freelance for another uniform company in Ireland before moving to the UK, and quickly realised that bespoke uniforms are a huge industry [over there].”
Now a prolific product developer with Studio 104, an award-winning specialist in hospitality clothing, Collopy has fashioned comfortable, durable wares for a multitude of five-star hotels, ranging from central Scotland to the Caribbean. “It’s very different to high-street or typical high-end; you might not think it ahead of time, but it’s a very creative process. Each hotel is looking for a very bespoke design, and you’re constantly working towards different concepts, different mood-boards, crafting bespoke fabrics and branding… When you see people in a uniform they don’t like and aren’t comfortable in, who then feel so excited to have something high-quality and well-fitted to wear – even just a shirt they know they won’t be sweating in – it makes all that work so worthwhile.”
Daly, founder of Capel Street sewing school When Poppy Met Daisy, delved into themes of dance and movement for her graduate collection. She “had no intention at all in ever starting to teach – in fact, I doubted I had the patience,” but after a disillusioning flirtation with LFW, a chance encounter with a creative-course company based in Islington led her to bring a similar concept back to Dublin (these were pre Block-T days, when pickings of this kind were especially slim). “We now run everything from 12 Week Pattern Drafting and Dressmaking courses to Corset Making and Alteration classes, having recently branched out to hen parties and corporate clients… we’re constantly evolving.”
Fellow SCFE graduate Moller has skyrocketed through the ranks of River Island to become Head of Design, having secured its NCAD-backed bursary in 2006, and now judges that same bursary’s finalists each May: “The student designers of today have grown up in a digital world and are incredibly skilled in digital media, which my generation wasn’t. While their knowledge of digital creative programmes gives them an edge in this industry, the core training is the same – the ability to always generate new ideas is invaluable and that is a talent, not a taught skill.”
Cleary shifted through “ramshackle warehouse” studios and a dalliance with Drury Street, during which she and Om Diva founder Ruth Ni Loinsigh staged the first incarnation of another sewing school, the Sip and Stitch Academy – “we called ourselves the Earthy Originals… we sat on the floor and, of course, there was prosecco involved!” – before an industrious period as a self-employed fashion designer gave way to teaching Art at Drumcondra’s St Patrick’s College, home to prospective primary-school teachers. “In my heart of hearts, I felt like I could make more of a difference by teaching and bringing that design and creativity to children, the next generation coming up. It made me think about what I’m doing in life… Fashion is transient, and the whole premise of the fashion industry had very much changed from when I first graduated. The whole ‘buy, buy, buy’ mindset wasn’t sitting so well with me.”
As she now embarks on a practise-based PHD, drawing upon years’ worth of process art and community-driven projects in DCU, collaboration has remained a constant throughout her eclectic career path; a trait kickstarted by her Comme Des Garçons and Issey Miyake inspired graduate designs. “Because of my friendships with people in different industries, I collaborated with two graphic designers, who are still really good friends of mine. One of them, now in LA, was really into photography and shot the collection for me in the Japanese Gardens – my pieces had a very Oriental appearance. The other designed the labelling for my final collection, and the packaging, while my father created the interior look; what the collection rails would look like in a shop and so forth.”
Conversely, Kealy has thrived under the velocity of consumer appetites, unravelling the psyches of both domestic and international customers from her buying position in Primark. A penchant for up-skilling and self-challenging has characterised her every career move – during one several-year stint, she paired 9-5 work in Irish manufacturing with night-time lecturing at her alma mater: “I didn’t ever want to give up the teaching, but in the end I just didn’t have the time! The Grafton Academy students are so great, and I really bounced off of that. Yes, I was knackered the next day, but you would get so much energy from those sessions. Teachers play such an important role [in the development of students], between their enthusiasm and introducing routes you wouldn’t have previously thought to go down, and I was sentimental about the wonderful lecturers I’d had. It was really nice to show people the formula of a process, how they can take something from a concept to a three-dimensional piece”.
As for what advice soon-to-be graduates can garner from these fashionable forward-thinkers? Each concurs that the lack of certainty surrounding this time can be as thrilling as it is daunting, propelling your creative drive forward in the process. These designers, artists and all-round creatives prove that that post-grad success comes packaged in all manner of shapes and sizes. Provided you trust in your talent and creative intuition, they conclude, “you may not end up doing something you started out with, but that’s exciting! Fashion is a huge industry with a lot of moving parts, not just what you see on the catwalk… In the end, your inherent need for creative expression will never lead you down the ‘wrong’ path.”
Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady