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Cutting it in the world of Irish digital fashion

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CUTTING EDGE: Designer Emma Manley launched her own label in 2010. Photo: Colin Keegan

CUTTING EDGE: Designer Emma Manley launched her own label in 2010. Photo: Colin Keegan

CUTTING EDGE: Designer Emma Manley launched her own label in 2010. Photo: Colin Keegan

The business of fashion has taken many twists and turns in recent years. While the Celtic Tiger boomed throughout Ireland, many small fashion franchises opened up and thrived, but where are they now?

Since the demise of the Celtic Tiger and the lavish spending many budding fashionistas have had their day.

It's only the strong-willed who survive in the digital era of fashion, and three of Ireland's most well-known and hard-working young designers tell us what it's like to be a designer in today's ever-increasing digital fashion world.

Designer Emma Manley has made a name that has been cropping up everywhere in the past year on the fashion scene. A fresh face in the designer world she opened up on the struggles facing many young designers in the business.

Manley studied fashion design in Dublin and then moved to New York, where she interned at sportswear label VBL. She launched her own design label in 2010.

"School was always somewhat of a struggle for me. I knew what I wanted very early on and couldn't but focus on that. Everything else seemed like a waste of time."

Manley's passion won in the end but the emerging designer has no qualms about telling it how it is to be a working designer.

"If I'm honest, it's really hard. When I started out there were many other emerging young designers on the scene but now there are very few of those original ones left.

"There isn't a lot of support in Ireland to protect and encourage flourishing talent, it's not like the UK where the British Fashion Council is a real support system for those with a flare for fashion."

Manley describes herself as a 'one-man band' when it comes to her label and business.

"I have a lot of interns who work alongside me as they are looking for the experience and the big break, but with an emerging label, it's extremely difficult to pay a staff. When it comes to profit in the early years, any that is made is pumped straight back into the business."

Manley does admit that many of the emerging designers that drop off the radar are naive when it comes to costs and the actual business side to being a designer.

"For me, every cent counts, to do a sample collection you're looking at around €15,000 and then you have to do the travel roadshows which I have been doing alone as I can't afford to bring an intern with me.

"To be in the game you have to spend big and it takes until year four or five to get noticed by buyers at the roadshows, they promise every year they will come back the following year, and around year five is when young designers really start to get noticed because buyers realise you are serious and have that dedication."

Manley added that social media has been a huge factor in helping her own label get established. "Our online shop is a great benefit for us and we hope to grow this even bigger."

"I want to be here and want to stay relevant as a designer, to do this nowadays you're going to have to move the goalposts a little further each time and push yourself to try different things.

"You're not just a designer, you're also a business owner and this is a mistake many emerging designers fall into."

Another emerging designer is 27-year-old Niamh O' Neill. She was voted the top fashion designer of the year in 2013 at the Irish Fashion Innovation Awards.

The Dunleer, Co Louth, native honed her design skills in New York.

She returned to Ireland in 2012 to launch her own label and shared her experience to date as an emerging designer.

"Financially, it can be very difficult for young designers at the beginning. Young designers are so focused on creating that they often forget about selling. It is about striking the balance between creating your vision and realising that you have to bring it to the market to be able to continue doing what you love.

"At the beginning, there are a lot of costs involved as you have to buy your materials, invest in good pattern-cutting, source excellent production as well as create branding, a website and some kind of PR such as a photoshoot.

"Material costs can be very high. There are definitely losses to be incurred; however, it is how a designer builds on their foundations which determines profits after a couple of starting seasons."

Niamh added that above all, Irish consumers are looking for quality. "Irish consumers really understand the need for good quality and Irish designers are answering that need."

A favorite with such A-listers such as Lady Gaga, Margaret O' Connor hails from the tiny village of Tubber in the middle of the Burren in Co Clare.

Named as Millinery Designer of the Year 2014 at the annual Fashion Innovation Awards, she opened up on the future of the Irish fashion business.

"There is always space for new talent as long as you are extremely focused and driven and it does not matter if it takes you 10 years to get there as long as it happens.

"There is funding in the UK more readily available for young designers; The Prince's Trust are a great organisation for young people starting up as they not only give you scope for funding but they also give you mentoring and business training.

"I found the Prince's Trust invaluable in helping to launch my own business and label. It can be daunting for young designers who are starting up but if you get the right advice initially and know what help is available then it's a lot easier to gain funding for a start-up.

The modest Clare woman added: "Like any business out there you generally have to invest money in your business in order for it to grow and succeed, so generally a new business no matter what it is is never going to be profitable from the beginning, it's not just because we're designers."

While the Celtic Tiger fashionistas may have long since moved on, it appears that the cutting edge of Irish fashion are eager young designers who know it's not all just about the bright lights and fabrics, but more about the value of the Irish consumer and investing in the growth of their budding empires. Watch this space.

Sunday Indo Business