'I knew I wouldn't be happy until I started my own label'
Designer Emma Manley gained a rich insight from top names before living her dream, says Andrea Byrne
'She was the silent force and you didn't p*ss her off. She was a bloody hard worker. She was very direct, she told you exactly what needed to be done, you did it. She critiqued it. It was always constructive."
So says Irish designer Emma Manley, who is telling me about her close experiences with Sarah Burton, the British woman at the helm of fashion house Alexander McQueen -- the woman who became a household name after she created the stunning gown Kate Middleton wore on her wedding day.
Emma worked for more than six months with the luxury fashion label in London. "It was very intense," she remembers. "Really hard work, incredibly long days, you could never do enough, you could never be good enough, but that made you push the boat out even further. It gave me a lot. If I hadn't done it, I think I would be very different."
Prior to McQueen, she trained with luxury sportswear label VPL in New York. "I went in, started work the next day," she says. "It was at the height of fashion week, it was mental. They chucked me on a sewing machine and pretty much left me there."
All of this training has succeeded in making Emma quite the designer. Despite the surname -- Manley -- her work is anything but androgynous -- a mix of ultra feminine materials such as chiffon combined with harder fabrics like leather. It's affordable too, with dresses and separates averaging about €100.
Emma, 25, has lived and breathed fashion from an early age (she got her first sewing machine when she was three). Her mother Sheila was a well-known bridal designer and the person, Emma tells me, who kickstarted her obsession. "I'd rush in after school, drop my bag and the first thing I would want to know is whether my Mum had a client in," she says, smiling.
"I think more than anything I was just fascinated by the process. She used to work with a lot of vintage lace and beading. I was too young to understand patterns, so I never understood why she would cut something a specific shape, and then it would go on somebody's body and totally transform them. Hence, why I went on to study and to learn it."
Emma designs her eponymous label from her mother's old studio in their Castleknock home. "[My Mum] is really great at the fit and finish of things. Now more than ever, I am learning off her. She knows a lot more than I do and it's great to have that support network."
But Emma admits that her Mum wasn't altogether enamoured initially at the thought of her following in her footsteps. "She didn't want it for me, because she knew what a struggle it was."
Nonetheless, after finishing school, Emma defied advice and did a course in fashion and textiles in Colaiste Ide. By the end of the year, she had won the Young Achiever Award. "I was in love with [the industry], even more so than I thought I would be," she says.
Emma worked as a style advisor for Topshop before doing further study in the Grafton Academy. "Looking back now, I do believe that [Topshop] gave me that extra oomph when I went to college," she says. "I knew about body shapes. I learned what people are looking for as opposed to what I want to design. It made me be less selfish as a designer."
That said, Emma's wonderful personal style is quite reflective of the label.
Despite working alongside international fashion heavyweights, Emma always knew she wouldn't be happy until she was designing her own label. The first collection, which people immediately took notice of, was designed while she was still living in London. The unprecedented media and customer interest in Ireland spurred her into making the move home, which she undertook last August and which she describes as "the best decision she has ever made".
With three collections under her belt, each one growing in size and substance, she looks set to be a permanent fixture on the Irish fashion scene. "I am madly in love with the work. I really am. Sometimes it is really hard to see the light and sometimes I think, God, by the time I am 28 I am going to be looking for another job. You can get like that at times, but, more than anything, I know that right now I am moving forward.
"And as long as it's going in the right direction, and even if they are only teeny tiny steps, that's fine, once they're heading somewhere."
Manley is available in Bow, Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, D2;
tel: (01) 707 1763; www.emmamanley.com
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