Style: Standing the test of time
Mariad Whisker tells us about her new fashion collection launched at Create this week - and how her motto in life is 'it's never too late'
Tuesday night at Brown Thomas on Grafton Street produced one of those time-traveller moments you hear about when, after 31 years in business, a designer becomes an overnight sensation… again.
This week, Mariad Whisker acquired a whole new audience of customers, enthusiastic young fashion consumers who probably never heard before of the Irish designer in the Irish style lexicon, and are now smitten by her artful, architectural aesthetic and layering sensibilities.
The whole experience of fame second time around for this 63-year-old, mother to two grown-up daughters, brings a wry smile to the face of the Belfast-born designer whose penetrating, ice-blue eyes crinkle up with amusement as I point out the irony of her attracting a new generation of fans amongst the daughterhood of women who she originally dressed back in the 1980s and 1990s.
The coveted Late Late Show Designer of the Year Award was once the holy grail of the Irish fashion world and Mariad Whisker won it first in 1986 and again in 1993. The following year, she moved to LA with her family. After returning from California seven years later, Mariad did a collection for House of Fraser which sold in the UK but of late, she's been mostly designing for private clients like Ali Hewson, Morleigh Steinberg (who is married to U2's The Edge) and artist Anne Madden Le Brocquy.
When I discover that Mariad was awarded a First in Creative Writing when she did an MA at UCD, I suggest that she might like to pen this piece about a return to high-street retail.
"I would never talk about myself," she hoots with laughter. "I always feel inadequate when I hear other designers talking about their muses and their inspiration," explains Mariad. "I know what I like and really, my inspiration comes from architecture and I love the work of Rudolph Schindler, Paul McClean Le Corbusier and John Lautner. My ultimate inspiration is Louise Bourgeois, the French-American artist and sculptor."
Clean architectural lines resonate in Mariad's new collection of 30 pieces which came about through what the designer calls "serendipity".
"I bumped into [fashion consultant] Eddie Shanahan and he was going in to meet Shelly Corkery, fashion director of Brown Thomas, to discuss Create. He said 'you should do something like this' and Shelly liked the idea." There was a very organic feel to the invitation because Mariad started out with Shelly in the Design Centre "and Shelly has been a vein right through my career," explains Mariad.
"My new pieces are in black, ivory and charcoal, and they are all co-ordinated so you can wear them on their own or four pieces at once. In fact, the more layered it is, the better it looks," Mariad declares.
Multi-layered looks can be a pain, not least because they cost more to 'get the look' so I set off and explored Mariad's rails of building blocks in solid colours.
And true enough, you can get your look in one, such as the sleeveless dress with a fluted hem, which looks fantastic on its own or worn over a bias-cut, ankle-length skirt. Another head turner is the smart parka-style long coat (pictured left), worn here with tops in two lengths and a skirt with slanted hemline. This outfit, like the black tunic with wide ivory, asymmetric hem over short culottes (pictured right), are made with the same fabulous fabric that featured in Pippa Middleton's memorable royal wedding bridesmaid's dress. "This fabric drapes so beautifully, it's a four-ply silk and I'm still reeling from what it cost," Mariad half laughs, quickly pointing out that she also used a less expensive viscose, which also drapes like a dream, in the dipped hem top and long skirt she wore for our Weekend shoot (pictured previous page).
Mariad started her own label in 1984 after studying in Manchester and at Limerick School of Art and Design. She was one of the founder members of the Irish Design Centre and opened her second store on the corner of Dawson Street in 1987, in the former Alice Glennon shop where Dublin ladies used to buy twin-sets.
Attracting an international audience, Mariad was stocked by Liberty London and Harrods. Our photographs show just how far Mariad was ahead of the curve, doing zen minimalism long before top designers began that path and before Zara and COS bewitched us on the high street.
Today, Mariad doesn't profess to have reinvented the fashion wheel and openly admits, "a lot of my stuff, to be quite honest, I could nearly take a piece out from one of my collections 10 or 20 years ago and there would be similarities. I don't tend to change the shape, it would be the details that would change. The big detail in this collection is the gathering and drawstrings that feature across tops, pants, skirts and dresses. The two coats are based on parkas so there is a drawstring on the waist of the long ones and a drawstring on the hem of the shorter one. Because the look I go for is a layered, architectural silhouette, I go for fabrics that drape. I love parachute silk, Irish linens in summer, and floppy, wool gabardines."
When I enquire what brought Mariad back to the cut and thrust of high-street retail, she replies, "I didn't really ever go out of fashion. When I came back from Los Angeles, I thought it would take me another 10 years to build up the brand again, but it was just there for me, it hadn't gone away."
However, what had gone were all the CMT (Cut/Make/Trim) units where Irish designers went to manufacture their collections. Now Mariad designs, makes patterns, cuts, presses, and a girl does her sewing. The designer's daughters - India (32) who trained as an actress and is based in LA, and Domino (26), who is a DJ in Ireland - both worked as managers for Anthropology in LA, but neither have plans to join mum in her business.
Mariad is full of praise for fellow designers and among her favourites are "Ann Demeulemeester, Yohji (Yamamoto), COS, Peter O'Brien, John Rocha and Simone Rocha. I like that she has taken probably everything she has absorbed growing up and gone off and done something totally different."
Has she herself felt the need to be different with this new collection? "I actually don't think that my aesthetic has changed," she says. "I don't follow fashion. I don't even understand fashion. I just do what I like best. I prefer working in neutrals, like black, ivory and grey. Those colours kind of inspire me. It is a blank canvas. I don't feel dictated to by a print or a stripe." The designer's photograph albums featured here reveal fascinating pictures from over the decades, with her sister Michaela modelling for her in 1986 (previous page). The 1991 shoot (pictured above) on Dollymount beach with a 1950s Porsche featured former top model Maura McMenamin, who went on to marry Mariad's brother, property investor Paddy McKillen. Maura also features in the 1992 image (above) and our cover.
While this new collection in BTs plays to her love of block colours, Mariad recounts how, at the invitation of her pal, Ali Hewson, she did a collection for the Supermodel Show in 2000 and surprised all by sending looks created with wedding saris from LA.
"I've always had a real grá for India," says Mariad. "I've been there a lot and called my first daughter India. Recently, I've spent time in France, working on my dad's memoirs and I worked with Morleigh on costumes for a dance performance based on the work of Louis le Brocquy."
Life is good for the designer who first captivated Irish women 30 years ago and is poised to do it all over again, driven by her philosophy and motto in life: "It's never too late."