Pleasure as well as profit will heal the nation's soul
The Irish fashion industry is putting its anger at being ignored to good use, writes Constance Harris
I can't help wondering if the ongoing ignorance and indifference of our government to the Irish fashion industry is as much to do with the fact that it is an industry largely worked in by women and gay men -- and therefore doesn't appeal to our government alphas, who adore Brian O'Driscoll and would rather sit at the sidelines of a scrum than a fashion show.
It might not be the obvious casting couch of Italian politics, but the Irish political establishment is just as sexist and recidivist.
If one was to visit Enterprise Ireland's website, the government agency responsible for supporting Irish businesses in the 'manufacturing and internationally traded service sectors', fashion is not listed as a heading in their companies directory.
But I won't lay all the blame at our Government's door. Irish retailers are proving unsupportive of Irish fashion, too. Small stores are squeezing Irish brands, hard, for credit terms, and practicing deceitful payment strategies in ways they wouldn't attempt with foreign companies, while some big department stores just aren't interested in Irish, full stop. Clery's especially, and Arnotts, are consistently good. But House of Fraser now only stocks one Irish fashion brand and Brown Thomas stocks about four.
So potential for home market growth for Irish fashion brands, let alone emerging talent, is slim to none.
Yet in Britain, stores such as Liberty, Selfridges and Topshop are proud to stock British. Their windows are given over to celebrate the best of British design on a regular basis. Liberty has open days and invites new and/or young designers, without limit or censorship, to come in, show their wares, make a pitch, and get some feedback. Some even find themselves picked up for the following season.
Irish retail doesn't consider it has to give anything back. It supports foreign labels, while expecting all to be thrilled at their lack of understanding and support of an indigenous industry.
No wonder Irish designers are angry. But that anger has been put to good use, resulting in something brilliant with huge potential.
Last Thursday morning saw the exciting launch of the Council of Irish Fashion Designers (CIFD). In the absence of an Irish fashion council supported by government, as in other countries, the aim of the CIFD is to provide a platform for Irish fashion design to be seen abroad, as well as a united, strong voice at home.
The brainchild of designers Eilis Boyle, Helen James and Edmund Shanahan, brand consultant to companies such as Arnotts and Nina DiVito, supporter of student talent as well as established companies, the CIFD is a collective group from the Irish fashion industry.
"We believe we are part of creative Ireland, that we offer creativity capable of engaging consumers, capable of adding to the profile and brand equity of Ireland abroad and the self-confidence of Ireland at home," Edmund Shanahan told us.
"We are not claiming to be the acorns of Ireland's economic recovery, but we are a part of the biodiversity' that can contribute to its future wellbeing. Every new job saves welfare payment, raises tax and encourages economic activity."
The CIFD also sees itself as a nurturing ground for emerging talent for the future. In the elegant Georgian environs of the Palatine room in the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, designers, Aideen Bodkin, Eilis Boyle, Tyrell & Brennan, Lucy Downes, Ruth Duignan, Heather Finn, Delphine Grandjouan, Heidi Higgins, Jen Kelly, Caroline Kilkenny, Richard Lewis, Edmund McNulty, Mia O'Connell and Sophie Rieu were all in attendance with their models, presenting stunning ensembles, illustrative books and mood boards of their creative paths, to educate those who were in attendance about the inspiration and hard work that goes into a collection.
"Fashion is a serious business. It is a challenging business," said Shanahan.
To work in fashion is a bitch. It has none of the heroic recognition of, say, medicine, and all the stresses and angst of being head of a cash-starved NGO working in a third-world crisis. Yet, fashion provides essential functions -- it covers our bodies and it feeds our souls. What do we do when we want to cheer ourselves up, or celebrate an event in our lives? We buy clothes. Fashion is life-affirming. It is inspirational.
The lack of government and retail support is not.