A panoply of colour in our boutique capital
A weekend showcase is bringing Kerry's wealth of skill and flair to national attention, discovers Liadan Hynes
'WE started Kerry Fashion Week to promote Kerry designers and those working in the boutique industry. We would do a lot of ladies' day events and fashion events, and then we realised there was no platform for them to achieve wider national sales and profile. So we decided the easiest thing to do would be to create one," says Orla Diffily.
Kerry Fashion Weekend is the brainchild of Orla, a one-woman dynamo, and the founder of Upfront PR and Upfront Model Management.
Originally from Portmarnock, Orla has been living and working in Kerry for 15 years in PR and event management.
A tall, slim blonde, she is a non-stop whirlwind of enthusiasm and incredible energy, a perfect example of the sort of strong work ethic, self-starting business acumen, entrepreneurial spirit and joyful creativity we saw on display at last week's Kerry Fashion Weekend.
Now in its second year, Kerry Fashion Weekend, held between the Aghadoe Heights and Ross Hotels, combines boutique and designer shows with an awards ceremony, this year awarding Young Designer of the Year (Catriona McCarthy), Accessories Designer of the Year (Lisa O'Connor) and Kerry Designer of the Year (Caroline Matthews).
Incidentally, it also proved a fantastic showcase for the fabulous sense of fun, love of colour, and expert accessorising with which Kerry women approach their fashion.
From the moment adopted Kerry woman Marie Chawke greeted us on the sun-bleached terrace of Aghadoe, in her canary-yellow cardigan donned in honour of the good weather, to Orla's own beautifully tailored Victoria Beckham-style cream dress by local designer Karen Moriarty, worn at the awards' ceremony lunch, we were greeted by a constant panoply of colour.
"Kerry women love dressing up. They're not afraid of fashion. I'm a Dub," Orla laughs. "I tend to be more conservative in my fashion. Kerry women love their style, but they really love their accessories." Indeed at the designer show in the Ross Hotel we were blown away by the array of amazing shoes on display both on, and off the catwalk.
Winner of the Kerry Designer of the Year award Caroline Matthews agrees. On moving to Tralee four years ago from her native Leeds ("a man!" she laughs) she wasn't sure what reaction to expect for her bridal line. "The bridal dresses I do are more contemporary. I wanted girls to feel like they could be fashionable, not just typically bridal, on their wedding day." Her signature style is a backless dress.
"In moving here I was expecting brides to be more traditional, but I'm always getting phone calls from brides saying they're looking for something different, but that they couldn't find anything up to now.
"Kerry women want something different, something unique. They love one-off pieces."
After a difficult 2009, Caroline nearly gave up altogether, but decided to stick with it for a few more months. Lucky she did, as so far 2010 has been a watershed year.
"Last year was tough," says Caroline. "I wasn't getting enough orders. Maybe it was too much emotional and financial strain. But I decided to see how it went at the Wedding Fair in Dublin."
After years of trying, she recently acquired two stockists, the prestigious Dublin bridal boutique Myrtle Ivory, and a Sheffield bridal salon. She also launched an evening-wear collection, one of whose dresses was worn by Xpose's Aisling O'Loughlin at the recent IFTA awards.
Caroline's ingenuity and determination are typical of all the finalists at this year's awards. Designer of the Year finalist Matt Doody, and Accessories Designer of the Year finalist Margaret O'Rourke of MoMuse, have, in the last year opened Bow Boutique in Dublin's Powerscourt Centre along with Eilis Boyle and Wendy Crawford.
There were two finalists in the Young Designer Of The Year Award. Both are student designers who have recently completed work placements that could lead to further, post-graduation employment; Orla O'Connor with Cooperative Designs in London, and Young Designer winner Catriona McCarthy with Irish designer Sharon Wauchob in Paris.
Claire O'Connor, Designer Of The Year finalist, recently got her Lil'c Couture label placed in international fashion magazine i-D on a trip to New York. Accessories Designer winner Lisa O'Connor displayed an impressively strong signature aesthetic for one whose label is still in its early days.
Caroline Leahy, another finalist, whose handmade crochet designs are a staple of all Kerry ladies' events, recently studied millinery and launched her new line of headpieces at the Kerry Fashion Weekend.
Fellow finalist Kathleen McAuliffe's business, a longstanding stalwart of the Kerry fashion scene, continues to thrive in its new premises.
In these tough times, the sort of support, encouragement, and profile an event such as Kerry Fashion Week can bring to boutiques and designers is invaluable.
Several boutiques, including MacBees of Killarney, Hannons of Castleisland, Fran and Jane and Gold of Killarney showed gorgeous collections' at both shows over the weekend.
Orla is already full of plans for developing the event next year. "We'd like to integrate boutique fashion. Kerry is the boutique capital of Ireland. This year individualism was celebrated. Going forward, we'd like dual emphasis on the boutiques. In the last 12 months a lot of boutiques have closed. Hopefully we've bottomed out, it's slowly changing, and hopefully by this time next year, things will have improved."