Irish designers are channelling a new-found freedom and optimism into their colourful new collections
If restraint defined the mood of pandemic dressing, then exuberance is the tone of post-lockdown fashion, as designers channel our new-found freedom and positivity into their collections. Miuccia Prada once explained: “When I design and wonder what the point is, I think of someone having a bad time in their life. Maybe they are sad and they wake up and put on something I have made and it makes them feel just a bit better.” This is at the heart of why fashion matters; because it can boost our mood as effectively as mascara brightens our eyes. And if ever we needed clothes to make us feel good, it’s now, as we recalibrate mentally, emotionally and sartorially for the outside world.
Comfort remains key this season, but to get our endorphins going, it’s been cleverly repackaged in everything from saturated pop-art shades and punchy slogans to adrenaline-pumping prints and tactile knits. Irish fashion brands have captured the mood as much as any of the global players, using their local knowledge and personal relationships with clients to offer items that make us feel good in multi-faceted ways. They don’t simply create optimistic designs and upbeat aesthetics, they mindfully source materials, and nurture communities that entertain, inform and support customers. This is where the real value of Made Local lies.
Incorporating a little tongue-in-cheek into your style will not only lift your and others’ mood, it will bring an agelessness to your look without compromising any of the desired sophistication.
Kenmare-based brand Begley & Bowie creates clothes that do just that. Founder Doireann Healy’s signature piece is a witty take on uber-cool New York brand Anine Bing’s ‘City Love’ cult-classic sweatshirt. Healy punctuated the list of fashion capitals — New York, Paris, London, Milan — printed on each of her sweatshirts with some of her favourite Irish locations, from Dingle in Kerry to Drury Street in Dublin.
Healy, who launched the unisex and kids’ casual clothing label in the latter half of 2019, explains that her original idea was to celebrate Ireland, its people, places and playwrights and to reframe how people view colour.
“I’ve always worn colour,” the mother of two explains, “and when I was younger, people would say to me: ‘You’re gas with all the colour!’ Colour was seen as quirky and comical, but it can look cool and contemporary too.”
An illustrator and art enthusiast, Healy drew inspiration from the street art of the United States and printed most of Begley & Bowie’s sweatshirts in arresting shades of bold neon so that the slogans firmly stood out. Other sweaters in her brand display rallying Oscar Wilde quotes, such as “Every woman is a rebel” and “When it rains look for rainbows”. The vibrant colours, cute motifs (a hand-drawn rainbow sits above the latter quote) and cheering phrases combine to give the Begley & Bowie brand an optimism and an energy that customers clung to in lockdown, and still love.
Each sweatshirt is made in Belgium from 85pc organic cotton. and 15pc polyester made from recycled plastic bottles, which makes them as tactile as they are visual. This has been as strong a selling point for the brand as its kaleidoscope of colours. “In the beginning, my husband thought nobody would pay €90 for a sweatshirt,” Healy explains. “But we tested the product at a local market by offering Begley & Bowie sweatshirts alongside poorer-quality alternatives. The former sold out, while the latter were all left behind at the end of the day.”
According to image consultant Maria Macklin, founder of Monaghan-based colour consultancy House of Colour, “There’s a mountain of psychological research that indicates wearing colour can affect how we feel about ourselves and how others perceive us.
“A male client of mine recently discovered that electric blue is very flattering on him. Now he says he plays his best round of golf every time he wears this colour T-shirt.”
Polish-born, Cork-based artist Joanna Kaminska, who transfers whimsical drawings onto silk scarves, eco-friendly cushions, notebooks and tote bags, reveals that she looks at everything in terms of colour; it’s her artistic compass. Ironically, this beautiful and joyful brand — Jokamin — was born out of feelings of loneliness and isolation suffered by Kaminska when she first relocated to Cork 16 years ago.
“My mum suggested that getting creative would help lift my spirits, and, from there, my style just happened. I never went to art school,” Kaminska says. That style is playful and spirited with colour combinations that challenge, excite and uplift. Her naive drawings have a characteristic childlike simplicity, which immediately inspires a type of nostalgia rooted in the honesty and purity of our early years. “My work seems to connect customers with their memories.”
Kaminska is a storyteller, and many of her crêpe de Chine silk scarves are like visual fairytales, featuring exotic characters such as cockatoos, flamingoes and warrior women. They transport us to an ethereal, almost Alice in Wonderland-like place, full of interest and intrigue. Yet while in the Lewis Carroll novel nothing quite makes sense, Jokamin’s tales are vital and grounding. The ‘Eden’ scarf, for instance, encourages us to find peace within ourselves; the ‘Balance’ scarf promotes the notion of equilibrium in our lives; while the ‘Protector’ scarf highlights the importance of the natural world to our existence. Kaminska, mother of two boys says there are “specific vibes” in Cork that nurture her creativity. “There’s beauty and ease, bridges and leaves, the River Lee... it’s an inspiring place to live.”
While Kaminska’s adopted homeland feeds fiercely into her creativity, Florence Olufemi-Ojo draws on her African roots when designing for her online brand M.I.O Prints. The Nigerian-born, Dublin-bred designer founded
her label in 2018 to fill a gap in the Irish Afro market as more women embraced the natural-hair movement. Olufemi-Ojo initially launched hair bonnets lined with satin, which lock in moisture and protect coarser hair textures at night, but she quickly expanded the range to include pillowcases, robes and pyjamas. Each piece is created from vibrant African prints that celebrate Nigeria’s rich textile heritage, but the young designer’s passions extend beyond making beautiful things.
“M.I.O Prints is more than a fashion brand,” she says. “I’ve worked hard over the years to create a sense of community around the label, because making people feel welcome, appreciated and valued is something I cherish.”
She adds, “I want customers to feel this way when they experience M.I.O Prints — perhaps this is my Irishness coming out!”
The 27-year-old says she feels at her most powerful when wearing red and believes that colour is a powerful communication tool. “It influences both our actions and moods. Sometimes I have to wear colour just to help me get in the right mood for the day that lies ahead.”
M.I.O Prints aims to inspire satisfaction with the simpler things in life, from the perfect silk pillowcase on which to rest your head at night, to an elegant robe that will make you feel as chic in your home as you do when you’re ‘out-out’. “From our carefully chosen colours and patterns to the message inside each thank-you card that’s sent to every customer along with their purchase, we want to promote positivity and lift people’s spirits because our customers are like family.”
Whether you crave a second family or not, we’re all looking for our tribe, aren’t we? And often fashion is a very good place to start. We’re drawn to certain labels because we admire not just the aesthetic of its creative directors but their ideology and lifestyle too.
It’s no surprise to me, then, that Karen Birney has made such a success of her recently launched knitwear label Miss She’s Got Knits (MSGK). Follow her on Instagram and you’ll find her personality as infectious as her knits are cosy.
One of many fledgling brands born in lockdown, MSGK began as a way of passing the time after Birney was furloughed from her job in travel in 2020. She came up with the name while queuing for coffee. “It made me giggle. It’s silly. It’s very Irish, I think; a bit cheeky. It sets the tone for my designs, which are fun, bright and colourful. MSGK is about not taking things too seriously — it’s about feeling young and carefree and enjoying what you’re wearing.”
The brand offers four styles of knit, including The Big Pink and The Big Sleeve, as well as a turban and hairband. Each piece is hand-knitted by Birney and she believes that the narrative of a handknit item appeals hugely to today’s consumers. “In a world that’s all ‘now, now, now’, handknitting represents patience and time. It’s a beautiful craft. There’s a romance to it, a warmth, and a tangible connection with the past. It makes many of us feel nostalgic, and this is a feeling I think we’re all craving at the moment as we reassess what’s important in life, what we support and what we would like to see more of in the future.”
Birney is an enthusiastic runner and runs trails and hills with her partner, Andrew. She is bursting with energy and so are her beautiful knits. Colour is key to her designs and the pieces are customisable in certain cases so you can commission a wholly individual item if you like. “I think now, more than ever, colour is needed in our lives and our wardrobes. The world is such a sombre, serious place at the moment. Colourful clothing gives people a bit of control, I think, as well as injecting some fun.
“When we were in offices 9am to 5pm, five days a week, people would grab the easiest, quickest, cleanest thing in the morning — probably jeans and a black top! Now we can dig out those colourful, funky bits from the back of the wardrobe and just see how they feel for a day. Many of us are finding that colour isn’t something to be afraid of, and people won’t take you less seriously if you wear something bright and cheerful.”
Certainly, freedom from the traditional nine-to-five has prompted many of us to take the measure of our wardrobes and rethink the kind of clothes we feel our best in. Steven Murphy, founder of basics brand Fresh Cuts Clothing, believes consumers also want the feel-good factor that comes from fully sustainable and ethical clothes, two core commitments of the label he established in 2015. “The brand started as and always will be ethical and sustainable,” he says. “This involves using fabrics such as organic cotton, but also managing closely how the garment is produced and the manner in which workers and farmers are treated. This sends a message to customers that we are all equal and we all deserve safe and clean working environments. When an individual buys from us, they know they are making a positive contribution.”
Fresh Cuts has come a long way since Murphy set up a market stall in Cow’s Lane in Dublin six years ago as a side hustle from his full-time job in finance, in which he didn’t see a future. The brand has grown year-on-year and in 2019, Murphy’s wife, Lorna, joined the business, and despite plenty of bricks-and-mortar stores being under threat of closure, the couple opened a new retail space in Castle Market earlier this year. It stocks own-label basics as well as a variety of international brands with the same ethos and commitment to sustainability.
The couple, who recently welcomed their first child, seem to have an instinct for what works. During the pandemic, they launched a collection designed around a ‘Smile & Relax’ theme and it went down incredibly well with those looking to spread a bit of positivity in whatever way they could. “It might have been a timing thing, but it definitely resonated with people.”
Murphy describes the brand as “obsessed with colour”. “Our main mission with each collection is to trial colours and have something that is vibrant, uplifting, but also different from bigger brands, in each range. Adding a small bit of colour to an outfit can lift you for the day, and if Fresh Cuts can be a part of this, well that is something special.” Despite his background in finance, Murphy never speaks about Fresh Cuts in cold, commercial terms. Like each of these Irish brands, the label’s relationship with its customers is not merely transactional. Instead it’s warm and mindful and anchored in respect as well as a desire to improve their customers’ wellbeing.
Faye Rochford, founder of slow fashion brand FéRí, tells me immediately that her designs are created to bring joy to the wearer. This is first and foremost. The former NCAD student left a job designing for Free People in Philadelphia to set up her own label in Ireland and be fully hands-on in the creative process. “It would have been easier to continue working for someone else,” the designer admits, “but I knew I’d be most successful by following my heart and being myself.”
FéRí clothes feature handpainted prints and intricate embroidery and are made from deadstock, repurposed textiles, organic fabrics and Irish linen.
“I like to make sure each item has a novel aspect. Although I studied fashion in college, I’ve always been very textile focussed, and I learned while working for DvF [Diane von Furstenberg] in New York exactly what high-quality fabrics can bring to the customer experience.”
Rochford grew up on a Wexford farm with her three sisters and says this is where she learned to be resourceful. “We were surrounded by antiques, salvaged furniture and old textiles as children and the importance of being creative with preloved items was instilled in us.”
Despite the earnestness of her ethos, Rochford likes to be playful with fabrics. “Sometimes fashion can take itself too seriously.” This lighthearted approach has imbued her designs with a freshness that’s gained FéRí a devoted following. Just like the Jokamin brand, she explains that customer feedback indicates FéRí pieces evoke a lot of childhood memories.
“Many of my customers have an instant connection with the clothes they buy,” she says.
I can understand this. Elements of her collection evoke images of outfits my mother wore in the 1970s, while some of the embroidered detailing reminds me of cotton-poplin tops I played in as a child in summer. They instantly bring a smile to my face.
Fashion is a serious business certainly, but each of these brands has demonstrated that it can be fun, too. By creating an original product and finding an authentic voice, each label has not only survived two of the most difficult years in retail, but thrived. They seem to have found the sweet spot between commercial success and design integrity.
Isn’t that the holy grail of retail, for us and them?