Tuesday 23 July 2019

'I did my first internship at the age of six!' - Irish designer Emma Manley knows all about hard work

Emma Manley
Emma Manley
Ellie Donnelly

Ellie Donnelly

For Irish designer Emma Manley success has not been easily won, but hard work and getting the best from internships has paid off for the recently crowned VIP Irish Designer of the Year.

The child of an entrepreneur and a designer, Emma said that she got into the industry because she knew no different.

"I was in the lucky position that I got to do my first internship with my mum when I was six and I got my first sewing machine!"

Growing up, she says that she had originally wanted to go to art college, however, "I got rejected two, three years in a row."

And so she followed in the footsteps of her mum and went to the Grafton Academy.

After doing a course at the Academy, Emma said she got straight on a plane and did her first (official) internship in the fashion mecca of New York with luxury fashion wear brand VPL.

"It was amazing, I look back on it now and I wish I could go do it all again."

From there she went to London where she interned at the legendary Alexander McQueen.

A model wears clothes from the Manley collection
A model wears clothes from the Manley collection

In order to pay the bills, Emma double jobbed managing a bar and restaurant in the evenings.

"Eventually that gets all too much, so the internship had to give."

But this did not deter Emma, (who today designs clothing, handbags, and jewellery), and while continuing her restaurant job she began creating what was to become the first ever Manley collection.

Looking back on the internships, Emma says they were invaluable.

The 'Aubree' dress for Manley
The 'Aubree' dress for Manley

"You are drafting a pattern in college, and then you are actually working in a business, and you learn that it is a whole brand."

"It was all the facets coming together to make this business, it wasn't just the design, it was the production, it was the photo shots, it was the everything."

"For the first time you are understanding what the ins and outs of a fashion business are and I loved every second of it."

We discuss career high points and Emma highlights her recent VIP Style Awards 'Irish Designer of the Year' accolade, which she says left her "just in shock."

"You are seven years trying and I had never won anything, and when you are working in the fashion industry, which is so unsupported, particularly in Ireland, just to know that there are people out there that said 'you are our choice', that's pride, that was amazing."

On the subject of whether more could be done to promote Irish fashion designers, Emma says that at the moment there is very little support.

"Speak to any Irish designer and they will tell you that it's so under supported, it's insane."

"What I can't understand is that fashion is so much a part of our culture and our history...we are crying out to get supports so that we can positively produce in Ireland, but there is nothing out there."

In a move to increase cash flow Emma organises the IDSS, which is the Irish designer sample sales.

The samples, which are items used for look books and so forth, are ever so slightly altered for real production and so can't be sold online as they are not exactly matching the collection.

Designers have started doing sample sales, which she says enables them to generate cash flow used to help with the next season's collection.

"I realised after my first one, why am I doing this just for Manley, why don't I do it for a group of us? We are very much spreading the work of Irish design."

"Now I organise them in Dublin, Cork, Galway, and we have our first trip to London at the end of the year."

"It's 15 designers under one roof and it's a big celebration."

"But it would have been cool if there had have been some support system in place like that, or some kind of funding to help us put the sales on but there is nothing."

Overall, she says that any Irish designers biggest challenge is cash flow, "because we are producing so far in advance."

"We are essentially competing with the high street and conglomerates, to even use the word "compete" because we can't, we are just being crushed by them."

Despite the challenges however, Emma is unable to imagine what it would be like to work for someone else now.

"I love the mix of what I do."

And Emma is very much hands on in all aspects of the business, not only looking after design and production, but also the marketing, the photo shoots, the selling, and the customer care.

"I think a lot of people who go to art college think that they are going to come out owning their own brand, and that's not the reality of it."

In this respect, Emma says that interning has been key in giving her a good grounding and business understanding.

"You get to see all the different processes going on and you realise okay if I want to do this then I need to be all of those people, and it starts to sink in, learn from all of those people."

"I know people have negative things to say about interning but for me it was an extension of my education."

"While it is incredibly hard for people to support themselves, I felt it was the only time in my life when I could have done two jobs and give it my all."

"It also, in a little way, weeds out the people who are maybe not so dedicated about it [designing] because there was no way I was giving up either of those internships, I wanted to get everything out of them."

In terms of where she gets the inspiration for her designs, Emma says that it comes from everyday life.

"It's what's going on in my world, I would be very inspired by Ireland and the trekking around that I do."

The next sample sale will take place in Galway's G-Hotel on the May 12 and 13.

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