Showcasing his second collection at LFW this weekend, Michael Stewart talks craft, being inspired by ancient Ireland and not giving up
Opening day of London Fashion Week saw Michael Stewart's Standing Ground label deliver 13 luxury evening wear looks with the Fashion East audience reacting immediately to his lotus pink velvet gown, hip padded sculpted jersey gowns and a garnet red, double duchess satin cut on the bias gown with a neckline echoing an ancient dolmen.
“I like my work to talk for itself. It is a combination of craft and beautiful workmanship with a contemporary aesthetic. I think it has struck a chord with people and they find it interesting because it isn’t noisy.”
Designer Michael Stewart has a particular fashion point of view wrapped heavily around craftmanship and remains steadfast in his conviction to “take the time to do it properly and redo it if needs be until you get it right”.
At 33, Stewart’s career trajectory could be described as a slow burner, but the Co Clare native is finally getting the platform, and public recognition, for his dedication to producing handcrafted luxury modern eveningwear.
It is 10 years since Stewart graduated from Limerick School of Art and Design. Last September, he made his debut on the London Fashion Week (LFW) schedule, launching his fashion brand, Standing Ground, on the Fashion East stage.
Fashion East, a non-profit talent incubator, has also provided Irish designers such as Simone Rocha, JW Anderson and Robyn Lynch with their first step on the LFW ladder. They have all gone on to have their own standalone shows and international success.
It’s been a hectic six months as praise poured in for Stewart’s made-to-measure eveningwear pieces, which have been described as works of art, and yesterday he was back again with Fashion East support, showing his latest collection of jerseys and velvet on the opening day of the LFW AW23 season.
“The craft element of the work is why I do it,” Stewart explains. “It is about the artisanal, creating beautifully handcrafted pieces and making it desirable.”
It’s no secret that Edward Enninful, the influential editor of British Vogue, is a fan of Stewart’s sculptural designs. The magazine recognised the Irishman’s distinctive design style as being something special. Last season, it flagged him as one to watch and predicted “the statuesque grace of the long, couture-sculpted pieces by Michael Stewart would give a new jolt of surprise to the LFW audience”. Critiquing his “meticulously draped” gowns padded in 3D, it said his designs “represent a one-man conceptual design renaissance that hasn’t been seen in London for years”.
Stewart strenuously avoids clapping himself on the back at the bon mots from British Vogue but does admit he is happy that they “got it”.
In the run-up to his AW23 show, there have been requests from international fashion bibles to discuss his latest work, his influences and his references.
That’s important to me to stick to my guns in what I like and what I think is important
Growing up in Kilkishen in Co Clare, Stewart was exposed to prehistoric sculptures and ancient burial sites from an early age.
“The whole thing comes back to the landscape,” Stewart explains. “The name Standing Ground comes from the standing stones. They are literally standing ground for millennia, and it’s also the double meaning of standing your ground on something and holding firm onto something. That’s important to me to stick to my guns in what I like and what I think is important.”
The Irishman with the distinctive red beard has done plenty of sticking to his guns, and certainly hasn’t allowed himself to be derailed from his long-term vision in an industry where the landscape has changed massively in recent years.
The column inches garnered for Úr, his debut collection, speak glowingly of his gifts at manipulating jersey fabric with subtle tailoring and beaded ornamentation, all techniques he developed himself.
There were no fashion connections in the family, and growing up with his two siblings, he attended the local national school and painted a lot as a child. Stewart later attended the comprehensive school in Shannon, where he struggled with maths, but it did not prevent him from doing very complicated technical work in fashion.
In Standing Ground, he uses traditional tailoring techniques with canvas cut on the bias, moulded and pad-stitched by hand onto the form. He never sits down to sketch or work on the flat. His approach is always 3D, and he sculpts and moulds the fabrics on a mannequin.
Volume in silhouettes last season recalled the mounds of the megalithic passage tomb Knowth, while in another singular hip pad, the garment evokes striking stone figures of antiquity. Spiral carvings of Newgrange’s Neolithic stones were loosened into supple, undulating beadwork, which spread out across the contours of the body. By translating these sculptural relics into a garment, Stewart is reimagining ancient things and “giving them a body”.
Recalling his childhood, Stewart says, “Above our house at home, there’s a hill, and on the hill, there is the recess of a ring fort, and I remember being told about that as a kid, and it fascinated me. I remember thinking about and imagining what the people were like who lived there 3,000 years ago or even further back. Who were those people? I’m not superstitious in the slightest but I love why people are. I think that’s why a lot of those sites like the Burren are preserved because of the superstition in Ireland.”
Stewart’s palette last season came in for lots of comment and featured soothing silvery grey, pale green, red and yellow. A jersey dress worn by supermodel Jourdan Dunn on a red carpet featured striking padded bands interwoven at the waist that referenced the soft, ringed recesses of the ancient burial site on the Hill of Tara.
Showcasing his latest work yesterday, Stewart also extended his eveningwear offering into corseted wool coats, with one distinctive piece in a burgundy and grey tweed. The one photograph hanging on his studio wall in east London is of Kilclooney More, a portal tome or dolmen, prominent on the skyline near Ardara in Co Donegal, which dates from circa 3500 BC. The curve and line of the dolmen intrigues him, and incidentally, the tweed he chose for the coat comes from Molloy & Sons, sixth generation weavers based in Ardara.
It’s been a busy few months with two fashion weeks, the launch of his new brand, his win of the overall Future Makers Emerging Maker Award from the Design & Crafts Council Ireland, and he also moved into a new studio at the Sarabande Foundation in Haggerston. The foundation was set up by the late designer Lee Alexander McQueen to support the most creatively fearless minds of the future. McQueen left the majority of his estate to support creative and visionary talent.
The hub is home to a plethora of artisans, and Stewart has one of the 15 studios which form a creative community with designers and artists from multiple disciplines. Hundreds apply each year and he was accepted on his first application.
“It is fantastic because it is a subsidised space. Trino Verkade, who is the CEO here, was CEO at McQueen, Thom Browne and at Mary Katrantzou, and she runs the foundation and gives mentorship.”
Stewart works with stylist Tallulah Harlech, who has been very loyal to him and his vision over the years, and like so many creatives in the business, they had to put plans on hold during the pandemic.
Reflecting on his journey to date navigating the tricky and competitive world of fashion, Stewart says, “I just think, if you do what you like to do, and you do it well, and properly, for long enough, you just can’t be ignored.
“It’s very easy to drop out of this industry very quickly and you might do it before you get any recognition. Now it’s very tough. I think you have to be around for a long time, and it’s not possible to be recognised unless you make big sacrifices.”
He admits there were “lots” of times when he thought about giving up. “I am glad I stayed with it because it’s easy to just say, okay, I really tried for a very long time and I have to stop now and do something else, but I didn’t do that.”
Stewart was awarded a bursary from Kildare Village to do a masters at the Royal College of Art in London. He says “the fact that Kildare Village has stepped in again after the bursary to support me and fund my latest collection has allowed me to do my work and elevate it, and I’m so grateful to them for that.”
Last night, Kildare Village hosted a dinner in London for Stewart to meet the visiting international press, and there are plans to bring his latest collection back to Kildare so Irish customers can see his pieces.
Has Stewart any advice for others with a dream of building a fashion brand and getting it onto an international stage?
“You really have to think about what are you actually really doing, what is interesting about it, and how are you elevating it and if it’s worth anything. If you don’t think it’s special, and you don’t really love it, then no one else is going to love it. I think there’s too much tailoring to what you think people will like and going down a route like that. The key is you must do what you really like, because then other people will respond to it.”
With two collections behind him, Stewart’s plans are to develop his eponymous brand “and keep the beautiful luxury handcrafting and the artisan approach”.
“I feel a bit of freedom of what I can achieve. I have so many ideas and further plans and, one day, I would love to work in haute couture, because it is the pinnacle of our craft.”