Style Fashion

Saturday 20 October 2018

Irish accent once again rings proudly at LFW

This year's London Fashion Week recalls memories of Ireland's pioneer designers for Constance Harris

David Koma
David Koma
Helen Steele
Julien Macdonald
Christopher Kane
Pam Hogg
Vivienne Westwood
Osman Yousefzada
Osman Yousefzada
Betty Jackson
John Rocha
Jonathan Saunders
Helen Steele
House of Holland
Joanne Hynes
Joanne Hynes
Burberry Prorsum
Simone Rocha

Constance Harris

I feel like answering the Leaving Cert English "compare and contrast" question today except applying it to my experiences at London Fashion Week. So my question would be: "Compare and contrast London Fashion Week a/w 2011/12 with that of a/w 1998 when you first started attending the event. What, if any, are the similarities? Describe the content of the exhibits using examples."

Back in 1998, when I first started attending London Fashion Week it was at its peak of importance in the global fashion scene. It was positively churning out talent that would go on to be internationally famous -- Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Julien Macdonald, were following closely in the footsteps of John Galliano. The supermodels were on the catwalks -- Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Helena Christensen. Every fashion show was a battle ground for too few seats and front-row prestige. It was pashminas and Hermes Kelly bags at dawn.

But what was especially wonderful was that Irish designers also had a place in this exotic, powerful at-that-time, fashion epicentre. Paul Costelloe and John Rocha were on the London fashion catwalk schedule (and still are) which was a tremendous feat. It was difficult to get on the schedule and to put on a show was rumoured to cost a couple of hundred thousand pounds.

Renegade that she is, Lainey Keogh came to town and launched herself at an off-catwalk-schedule site where she undulated and seduced the world's media, fashion industry and celebrities with her mind-blowing creations. She was the first Irish designer to pull off the "Versace effect" of having several supermodels in her shows, and thus attracted a huge celebrity-following, paving the way for it all to follow her (and U2) back to Ireland -- putting us on the map as "a cool place" to be.

Philip Treacy did his 'Jessica Rabbit' show, which I still remember as one of the most exciting events I've ever seen -- because of his superb designs and the perfection of the presentation.

The exhibition halls were alive with the sound of Irish voices -- Louise Kennedy, Orla Kiely, Lyn-Mar, Ciaran Sweeney, Vivienne Walsh, Mary Gregory, Alicano were all there.

To be Irish was not just a mention, we were a fashion movement.

We were an especially big hit with the discerning Japanese because ours were romantic, imaginative designers with exquisite craft skills.

Not too many years later, just after the Millennium, another wave of Irish talent came to London, less well-heeled but extremely confident.

Pauric Sweeney opened his first work room in Hoxton, Joanne Hynes graduated from Central St Martins, Mickey Doyle was a shoe designer I was keeping an eye on.

But then it seemed to fade away. London Fashion Week was trumped by Paris and the Irish were doing so well at home with the Celtic Tiger they didn't need to be in London anymore anyway.

But it is all change again. As with New York last week, London was a celebration of fashion generations and evolution, and testimony to survival.

Paul Costelloe, whose women's wear line nearly folded last month, went ahead with his show and happily, was able to announce that the label has been saved by his Portuguese manufacturers of many years, Calvelex.

John Rocha, who has a loyal following for his romantic, Zen aesthetic, thrilled and delighted them with the dramatic power of his collection.

Four days later, Simone Rocha, John's daughter and a 2010 graduate of St Martins, showed that she was not allowing any dust to settle, by quickly launching herself on the international scene. We featured some of her work in LIFE two Sundays ago. Simone's look is naturalistic, yet masculine and deconstructed and feels very "right' for what is coming through in fashion in the long term.

Also that day, Joanne Hynes finally made her way back to London's catwalk, where I feel she belongs, sharing the stage with colleague Helen Steele.

Helen Steele does the most incredible digital prints in shapes and styles -- the show was a revelation to me.

Joanne's collection exhibited perfectly why being Irish is a unique and wonderful thing. The clothes were beautifully shaped to flatter women, but the fabrics were all about reflecting our romantic, passionate hearts -- and in Joanne's case, combining her own Irish heritage and the Indian one of her husband's. Beautiful, elaborate, Indian silk brocades and embellishments, were mixed with Irish tweed, fur and divine bottle-green Aran sweaters.


Though this was an off-main-schedule fashion show, Shelly Corkery and Paul O'Connor of Brown Thomas were there. I was glad to see them. As important buyers in the fashion business (Brown Thomas is part of the powerful and prestigious Selfridges group), it means they are paying attention to Irish fashion designers and not just international labels. That is critical for Irish design and its future.

And I was heartened to see so much of Ireland's best and brightest young creatives at London, liberated from the doomsday atmosphere of home. From stylists such as Angela Scanlon and Aisling Farinella, to fashion writers Jess Whyte and Kirsty Blake Knox, to designers such as Pauric Sweeney, Merle O'Grady, Electronic Sheep and former designer now actress Antonia Campbell Hughes, to photographers David Poole and Andreas Pettersson.

Brendan Courtney with his Off The Rails film crew nabbed me backstage at Joanne and Helen's show. "Why is it so important the Irish are at London Fashion Week?" he asked me.

Why? Because we brave our secret fears about our inadequacies, yet still we pitch ourselves up alongside the outside world and from facing our fears, we realise we are good, we are of value, we can make it.

Anyone can make it abroad. Irish fashion chooses the more difficult option to do it from our own beloved land.

That to me, is as romantic, mythic and inspiring as any piece of literature on our illustrious Leaving Cert syllabus.

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