Drawing on the artist within
WHEN Ciaran Sweeney told me he was only 32 I nearly fell off my chair; he seems to have been a figure on the Irish fashion scene for ever.
Ciaran came to everyone's attention because of his exquisite hand-painted, treated and printed fabrics. His trademark look was floor-sweeping gowns and evening coats in silk velvets, and satin in fabulous colours, with his dreamy drawings as print. He won the Late Late Show bridal designer of the year award in 1998. But in the last few years he pulled out of fashion altogether, and I wondered why.
"It takes a while in the fashion industry to find where you belong," Ciaran told me as we chatted about his new printing 'factory'. "Just because something works doesn't necessarily mean you are where you belong.
"Basically what I love to do is draw. What I am doing now is drawing on fabric. You can get caught up trying to be the next whatever, whoever. But really you should be where your ability is and not where others think you should be. This is where I am and I am at my happiest. I would never be happy selling 50,000 units of a top. I think it's good to change - you have more ideas and you've more to offer."
Increasingly Ciaran had found that he was enjoying the fabric end more than anything else. Working with architects and designers, developing prints for all kinds of things - from Georgian house restoration projects to commissioned artwork for landmark buildings. But he was always limited by physical space and technology.
Now he has opened a textile and design studio in the Coombe area of Dublin, in Newmarket Square. "I commissioned a print table seven metres by two, made from rubber and steel, so we can work on a piece of that size and cover more area, more efficiently.
"I can work with silk, silk velvets and all fibres - rubber, paper, silk, artificial fibres as well. If a client wants us to do a particular thing, say, working with a leather fabric they wanted to embellish, I can do it." So now there are three areas that Ciaran can work in: fashion, interiors and fine art, and all of it is produced in Newmarket Square.
"I went to NCAD, I worked in Guinness. This is the Tenters, a traditional textile area. I am producing in Ireland. You know, most of the stuff with Irish labels is now produced abroad - Aran knitwear is made in China, crystal in Yugoslavia.
"It makes me so annoyed that we keep hearing about companies going bust here - having been given loads of IDA money - but no one here, indigenous industry, is being supported. The Government doesn't support home-originated industry.
"The only time to date that we got aid was the time the British foreign office sponsored myself and Mary Gregory to show in London. So many graduates have to leave Ireland for work, because the manufacturing end is gone."
Ciaran works closely with NCAD graduates on their graduate shows and he has taken on one graduate of textile design to work full-time. Occasionally he has Fas recruits helping out, if he has a meatier project."Fas have a great centre in Abbey Street in pure construction, the emphasis being on how to sew a trouser, a top. A lot of colleges are too concept-based. I think Fas are doing a very good job. "I think it's a shame that the apprenticeship has disappeared out of the industry. But I think it will change. Fashion is a potentially high-revenue career if there is proper training."
The fashion work consists of wraps and throws, simple shapes but highly decorative prints. The interior work is house by house - at the moment he's producing a unique fabric for an area in a building. He shows his paintings at the Origin gallery.
In November Ciaran will be showcasing his work in Dublin Castle in aid of Irish children living with HIV and their families. "I still do the occasional one-off piece. I do a couple of unusual weddings a year. They tend to be people who specifically want what I do with fabric. But I wouldn't be looking for brides!"