Saturday 19 August 2017

Irish designer Helen Steele: 'It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a designer in Ireland'

Helen Steele launches the One4all ‘Design a Gift Card’ competition.
Helen Steele launches the One4all ‘Design a Gift Card’ competition.
Fashion designer and artist, Helen Steele. Photo: Anthony Woods
Models mark the launch of DesignIreland.ie launch
The milliner Philip Treacy’s €9,300 blue hat. Photos: Marc O’Sullivan
Candice wears Helen Steele; Juddit wears Carolyn Donnelly at Dunnes Stores; and Alicia wears Lennon Courtney at Dunnes Stores. Photo: Barry Murphy
Designer Helen Steele. Photo: Kieran Harnett
Helen Steele and Saoirse Ronan at the Irish Premiere of Brooklyn in 2015
Yvonne Connolly and Helen Steele at Dublin City Hall to celebrate the launch of New No7 Lift & Luminate Triple Action Serum. Picture: Kieran Harnett
Helen Steele at the Peter Mark VIP Style Awards 2017
Saoirse Ronan, wearing Irish designer Helen Steele, attends Talent Junket Interviews during Day Two of 18th Annual Savannah Film Festival Presented by SCAD on October 25, 2015
2015: Wearing Helen Steele at the Irish premiere screening of Brooklyn.
Caitlin McBride

Caitlin McBride

Irish designer Helen Steele is a favourite with celebrities, she has a colourful collection of couture clothing that would make Carrie Bradshaw jealous and she is well respected in her field: but like most jobs, it isn’t as glamorous as it sounds.

Steele, a mother of three, has been working as a designer for more than a decade and said it can be "disgracefully impossible" to make a successful living in Ireland, citing a lack of industry support and funding.

She was recently nominated in the Best Designer category at the Peter Mark VIP Style Awards, a gong which Theia creative director Don O’Neill eventually took home; and it was during his acceptance speech that he highlighted the number of talented individuals in Ireland who shouldn’t have to show in Paris and New York to be taken seriously on the world stage.

"It’s a big world out there and to really make a name for yourself…to be brutally honest, to live in this country and continue as a designer is nearly impossible. It’s so difficult," she told Independent.ie.

"I’m a firm believer in you float your own boat. It is just disgracefully impossible – the funds being given to the Craft Council [of Ireland] are minimal and everything you get, you have to fight for."

The talented designer said the majority of sales happen in Paris and there's a growing market in Los Angeles, where there’s a "pretty fast sales revenue".

Steele, whose designs have been worn by Irish style stars like Saoirse Ronan and Laura Whitmore, said the temptation to show at London Fashion Week (LFW) is always there for any designer, but the cost tends to be out of bounds for those who aren't considered "heavy hitters" on an international scale.

"To put on a show at LFW, it costs upwards of €25,000 - that could be your sales revenue for the year; that’s your turnover,” she explained.

Helen Steele at the Peter Mark VIP Style Awards 2017
Helen Steele at the Peter Mark VIP Style Awards 2017

"I do a sales showroom at Paris Fashion Week, it sounds very fancy, but sometimes it’s selling in a hotel room out of a suitcase.

"That’s the reality for an awful lot of designers. It depends, sometimes I show with a group of other designers in a showroom and that’s quite good because there’s quite a lot of footfall. Unfortunately I would love for it to be a bit more glamorous, the idea of putting on a show is brilliant."

While Steele acknowledged the obstacles facing creatives, fashion remains her main passion and she's optimistic about a resurgence in support.

Much like London Fashion Week’s groundbreaking inaugural event in 1984, which has since turned into a multi-million-euro revenue stream in the UK, a Dublin Fashion Week would take at least another 10 years to get off the ground, she said.

Helen Steele and Saoirse Ronan at the Irish Premiere of Brooklyn in 2015
Helen Steele and Saoirse Ronan at the Irish Premiere of Brooklyn in 2015

"Like the British Fashion Council (BFC), when they decided to turn around the BFC and turn London Fashion week into something really substantial in the ‘80s, that drew a huge amount of money. The fashion industry in the UK is worth £8bn, it’s absolutely huge, I really don’t think for young designers, there’s enough help out there," she added.

"I think if we’re going to get funding to make the industry more viable within 10-15 years time, we can do something like that [host DFW]. It’s really expensive to do something like that."

In 2015, the Craft Council celebrated the Year of Irish Design at LFW and she hopes for similar showcases in Paris and LA.

One way to ensure you’re ahead of the pack is a commercial partnership – Steele has paired up with One4All for the fourth year in a row to launch their Design a Gift Card competition. The winning design will be turned into a gift card and sold in An Post outlets nationwide and online at www.one4all.ie in 2018.

"I absolutely love working with them, they have their finger on the pulse with running a competition like this- you see the level of talent out there, it’s really incredible. They’re really giving a budding designer a step up and a great platform. And I got to work with Joe Caslin and he’s such a lovely guy. He’s just amazing and an incredible talent," Helen added.

Would she consider a collaboration with Dunnes Stores, which now houses collections to Irish designers like Lennon Courtney and Paul Costelloe?

"I’d never say no," she explained. "I admire what Dunnes are doing, there’s no other retailers in Ireland that are doing it."

Fashion designer and artist, Helen Steele. Photo: Anthony Woods
Fashion designer and artist, Helen Steele. Photo: Anthony Woods

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