Sunday 4 December 2016

Material girl

The wedding dress has become an international fetish, a bride's hopes and dreams made fabric. Sean Byrne, the rising star of the Irish fashion scene, had never considered making one until his friend, fashion historian Sinead Furlong, came to him with a very special request. Kirsty Blake Knox tells the story of the huge emotional investment that went into just one dress. Photography by Kip Carroll

Published 11/04/2010 | 05:00

Sinead Furlong and Sean Byrne
Sinead Furlong and Sean Byrne

'This will be my first and last wedding dress," Sean Byrne confesses. We are in the bar of the Shelbourne, and the 28-year-old designer seems both anxious, and highly focused: today is his final fitting with fashion anthropologist and soon-to-be bride Sinead Furlong.

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"To be honest, bridal has never been something I wanted to do," Sean continues. Perhaps it's understandable that Sean is wary of this branch of the fashion industry. While designing wedding dresses can be an extremely lucrative career, it's also one surrounded by bouquets and bridezillas.

Sean grew up in Stillorgan, Co Dublin. His formal training as a designer began with a City & Guilds qualification from Sallynoggin College of Further Education, before he moved to the Grafton Academy, where he specialised in womenswear. He also worked part-time at Brown Thomas, which is where he met Sinead, who was also working there. He credits BTs with helping him to understand what women want to wear. After graduating, Sean began to showcase his work at the Design Centre, and he was named Young Designer of the Year in 2009.

Despite his concerns about the wedding industry, Sean was more than willing to design co-worker Sinead's wedding dress. "One of the reasons I decided to do the dress was because I know what kind of person Sinead is," he says. "If anyone else had asked me, I would have said no, but Sinead's not your typical bride."

We head upstairs to the hotel room where Sinead is getting ready. She is flitting about, full of excitement and anticipation. Sinead is strikingly beautiful, with thick black hair and an open, fresh face. Naturally, I am eager to see the dress, and ask if I can take a peek. "Don't you want to wait till I have it on?" she blurts out. I nod reluctantly, and perch myself on the edge of the sofa as she describes her academic background.

Sinead's love of fashion began when studying art history at TCD, specialising in 19th-century French art. After graduating, she moved to Paris to study, before applying for a PhD at Trinity. Everyone can claim to be a fashionista or a shopaholic these days, but it's rare to meet someone with such a deep understanding and appreciation of style. Sinead is exceptionally articulate about her passion, describing jackets and skirts with a precision and ease that makes it a joy to listen to her.

This may explain why, 18 months ago, the prestigious New York publishing house, Carnegie Mellon, decided to print her PhD. Usually, post-grad students are considered lucky if they find a few people willing to plough through their thesis. However, Sinead's pioneering study, Women in the Parks of Paris: 1848-1900, will soon be available in bookstores across the world. As fate would have it, the day Carnegie Mellon told her they wanted to publish her thesis was also the day she met her future husband, Gareth Clancy, a pharmacist from Sligo. "The girls in work said we had to go for a drink to celebrate," she recalls. "So we went out, and he was there, and that was it." Six months later, Gareth proposed, and Sinead began planning her dress.

"Dior said: 'We invent nothing; we always start from something that has come before','' she explains, ''so that was the feeling I wanted behind the dress." Sinead sought to emulate Dior's classic Forties silhouettes, but without the structure. Considering that early Dior dresses consisted of reams of netting, hoops and pinning, this was no mean ambition.

Sean and Sinead had worked together at BTs for years, but it was only when she saw his collection on display in the Design Centre that Sinead realised he was the designer she wanted. "As soon as I saw his collection, I had complete faith in what he'd do. I didn't even go shopping for wedding dresses -- it was kind of a no-brainer for me."

"I like my clothes to be tailored and sexy," Sean says, "and I like women to look feminine." It was his understanding of fit that drew Sinead to one of his dresses, a black evening gown with a sweetheart neckline. "She didn't want anything frou-frou, which was perfect," Sean explains. They began to work on the dress, and by the second fitting Sinead was certain Sean could deliver her dream dress. "There was a moment of recognition. I stood in front of the mirror, and thought, 'That's the one,'" she says.

There is something about wedding dresses: they seem to possess some special power. A friend of mine worked in a famous bridal shop and she told me that there was a small room at the back of the shop called The Graveyard, filled with wedding dresses that had been made, but never worn. How terrifying, I thought -- a room stacked with taffeta and jilted dreams.

This sort of emotional investment was new to Sean. "It nearly feels like there are three people in the room when you're doing a fitting. The dress becomes a living thing. I mean, I've done commissions for other people before, a cocktail dress or a suit, but there is so much more emotion in a wedding dress." Despite that, Sean wasn't able to attend the wedding last month. He is moving to London to join Christopher Bailey's leading design team at Burberry Prorsum. He feels a degree of anxiety about the move. "I do have this fear; I think it may be an Irish thing, that people will say: 'Ah, no, now. G'wan home, you're grand.' I know I'm capable of being a good designer but so are 10,000 other people," Sean says, "so it's a matter of trying and seeing how it goes."

Such concerns seem far from his mind today. I wait as Sean helps Sinead into her dress in the next room. I can hear them chatter nervously, and a hushed excitement fills the air. As he steams her skirt and fixes her bow, it feels like this is their day: a celebration of the evolution of the dress and their relationship. "To be honest, I don't think it was ever my dress," Sean says. "It was hers from the beginning. What I'll take from it is the time we spent together. She's a lovely person, quite gentle and soft, very thoughtful."

Almost every stitch in Sinead's dress has its own story. The sage-green ribbon she wears around her waist, for example, recalls Gareth's impromptu proposal at the Electric Picnic. Without a ring, Gareth knelt down and burnt a piece of cord off his new green wellies, before wrapping it twice around her finger and asking her to marry him.

Since the dress has such personal and historical significance, I wonder if Sinead would consider putting it on display. "Part of me thinks it should be in the Musee de la Mode in Paris, and another part of me thinks it's a dress that needs to have a life of its own," she says. "You have to consider the life and afterlife of clothes -- they inhabit us as much as we inhabit them. My mum passed away when I was 13, but part of the way I knew her was through clothes."

Sinead's mother worked as an air hostess for British European Airways. These were the days before discount airfares, a time when air hostesses dressed like Russian princesses, and Balenciaga designed their uniforms. "She was always a very stylish lady. I remember her fur coats, and being very, very young and hugging her knees, and that feeling of the fur against my face." Sinead's voice catches slightly, and she takes a sip of water. "Then she was sick, she had a brain tumour, and her ability to wear lovely clothes diminished."

It's only then that I feel that I can understand the importance of clothing in Sinead's life, and the significance of this dress. "Clothes can hold memories," she goes on. "You can touch and feel them. It's lovely to have a tactile sense of that, especially when you've lost something."

It's easy to dismiss the fashion industry; it's materialistic, exploitative and may even promote anorexia. But clothing has a much deeper resonance. In a way, all our lives are punctuated by dresses; christenings, confirmations, the day we meet someone, the day we lose someone. Fashion acts as a touchstone to our past.

Sinead steps out of the room, and I can finally see the dress. Strapless in a heavy silk crepe, it drops to the ground; deep panels in the skirt give it a sense of movement without volume. The bodice references Dior -- beautifully tailored, you can barely see the seams. It has no embellishment, apart from the green grosgrain ribbon tied in a neat bow around her waist. On her shoulders, Sinead wears a small capelet which sits, as she says, "like a mille-feuille of tulle, organza and small knife-pleating in a rich buttermilk". In her hair, she wears a single white rose. All the knowledge and history Sinead has accumulated over the years seems to have been distilled into the apparent simplicity of this classic gown.

As I stare at it, I begin to understand what Sinead saw when she looked in the mirror during her second fitting. "It was all the elements coming together. It was me as a little girl. It was me missing my mother. It was all the things I'd learnt from her. It was all the things I'd learnt from studying," she says. "When I looked in the mirror and it was on, I felt it couldn't get any better. There was nothing more I could have wished for. The only thing that will beat it is when Gareth sees me."

"Do you think he'll cry?" Sean asks.

"He'd better!" she laughs.

Flower, The Flower Box, 67 Mespil Rd, D4, tel: (01) 660-9470

Photography by Kip Carroll

Assisted by Zoe Whitmore and Jessie Hayden

Make-up by Seana Long, Make Up For Ever, 38 Clarendon St, D2, tel: (01) 679-9043

Hair by Trevor Hynes, Peter Mark, 74 Grafton St, D2, tel: (01) 671-4399

Shot in The Shelbourne Hotel, 27 St Stephen's Green, D2, tel: (01) 663-4500. The Shelbourne Hotel is currently running The Shelbourne Moments Package, with rooms from €189 per room per night, including full Irish breakfast in the Saddle Room restaurant. For more information, see www.theshelbourne.ie

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