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Drama along the silk road

THERE is more than a touch of drama at Judith O'Sullivan's stunning atelier, Roisin Cross Silks. Not only has it supplied the silks for the magnificent costumes of Henry VIII, as played by Jonathan Rhys Myers, and the rest of the cast of The Tudors, but also for Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest recently at the Gate Theatre with American actress Stockard Channing as Lady Bracknell suitably garbed in magnificent heavily embroidered peacock silk. President McAleese also wore Roisin Cross silks in the striking outfits designed for her by Deborah Veale on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth's recent visit to Ireland.

However, the drama at Judith's atelier is not only for state occasions and theatrical productions. Roisin Cross Silks has also supplied magnificent silks for the participants in many of those weddings and red carpet occasions you have read about through the years.

"It's like an Aladdin's cave," I exclaimed to Judith as we stood in her showroom, a high-ceilinged room in a Georgian building which also houses Image magazine, overlooking Dun Laoghaire seafront. The elegant room was a perfect backdrop for the 966 varieties of magnificent silks, chiffon, dupions, laces, organzas, silk velvets and brocades in glorious colours and patterns.

There is something reminiscent of the television series The House of Elliott, in which Edwardian ladies called on sisters Beatrice and Evangeline Elliott for their bespoke finery, for this is the type of personal service and attention to detail you get at Roisin Cross Silks from owner Judith O'Sullivan and designer and couturiere Anne Flavin, and all at a very attractive prices. Silk is the ultimate natural fabric, created from threads spun from the cocoons of silkworms. It was once the prerogative of the aristocracy and uber-rich but is now totally accessible.

Judith O'Sullivan is a very highly organised nurse by profession whose involvement with the legendary Roisin Cross Silks began when, as a young girl, she used help out Mrs Cross, a friend of her mother's, looking after the business for her in her absence on buying trips to the Far East. "This was in the late Eighties, it was very simple then. I would pop over for three weeks, it was in Mrs Cross's house in Clonskeagh, there were no emails, it was mail order, it was pleasantly chaotic. It was run from one sitting room, where there was a beautiful array of silks, but I suppose at that time the business would mainly have been very geared towards the bridal end. I absolutely loved it."

Judith left school and studied nursing followed by intensive care nursing so couldn't fill in at RCS but they were always in touch. "After about 15 years, I asked Roisin one day as to what colours were in vogue that year, where she was travelling to, and so on, and she said she was thinking of retiring and selling the business. I was very happy doing what I was doing in hospital life -- and I like to think I bring a lot of that to here -- but I couldn't help think too of what I could, and would love to, do with the business. I knew her silks were magnificent, the Roisin Cross Silks name was very strong. I loved the simplicity of a good product and good name. This was November 2006 and there wasn't any sign of a downturn. Up to that point, the business of RCS purely sold the fabrics and would recommend a number of top dress designers to suit people's requirements, but regarded Anne Flavin as one of the finest in the country."

Having taken over in late 2007 and relaunched the business in Dun Laoghaire, Judith realised that everyone coming in wanted to know where to go next with the fabric, so she asked Anne Flavin to move her workrooms in with her.

"Every year I brought an increasingly more beautiful collection of silks home. However, within six months of taking over RCS, the writing was on the wall re the recession so the business plan had to be changed radically. I was still just bringing in silks, I had increased the collection and the range, Anne was here, and it was a lovely integrated service which seemed to be working. Then quickly, maybe late 2008, I realised that teaching would be a natural evolution from just having a service and a product. Phone calls were coming in from people about patterns, asking could we teach them how to sew, so we introduced the dressmaking and sewing classes, including classes for transition year students and children, all of which are a huge success. The teaching is done by Sarah Foy, formerly of the Grafton Academy, and who also has her own design practice in Clontarf. She is just superb and gets the dynamics right with both adults and children, which is as important as the teaching itself," said Judith.

"There is a huge demand as mothers who are now in their late 30s and 40s didn't have sewing classes in school and are anxious that their children should have the skills they missed out on -- this too I think applies to cooking. The classes are kept very small so each person gets huge attention and the silks and pattern are included in the price. You can also learn to pattern draft and handbead -- all of the skills are taught -- whatever you wish," Judith added.

Apart from the sewing classes, the silks and the in-house couturiere, Judith stocks Butterick, McCall and Vogue patterns, so you can also go in and browse the pattern books, which are changed four times a year, keeping up with the seasons and trends. Judith also visits the colleges and gives young designers a "little seminar" on how the silks are created so that they don't buy silks that are too expensive or unsuitable for what they are doing.

"It has been an awful lot of work but our organisational efforts have been paying off and another of the reasons that RCS is successful is that so many other dress designers are very much part of our world. I supply them all with silks and the 40 designers who support us all received a sample pack holding 950 different silk swatches, all coded, so they can show these to their clients, and just order straight away from us from all over the country. It was a big job, I had 10 people sitting here making up sample packs, but this has also created more business for these designers as they can see how different fabrics work together. They in turn brief me as to the particular type of silks they need -- say perhaps in Kildare , fabrics suitable for lots of race meetings. It is in their interest to guide me as to what to buy."

Another aspect of the RCS business is soft furnishings and it did the wonderful cushions and silks for Rasam Indian restaurant in Glasthule. As I departed, Judith was also departing on her buying trip to India two months early so the new collection will arrive this year in September.

Top Limerick-born designer Synan O'Mahony has recently arrived on site and is also operating from his studio at Roisin Cross Silks.

Judith's love of silk is a true affair of the heart, and it shows.

Roisin Cross Silks can be contacted on (01) 284-6282

Sunday Independent