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'It's time for a renaissance' - how the Irish fashion industry is coping with COVID-19

Ireland's rich talent pool of creatives are facing an uncertain future in an already precarious industry. Caitlin McBride speaks to designers about how they are adapting

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Helen Steele

Helen Steele

Designer Laura Jayne Halton

Designer Laura Jayne Halton

Showstopping: Fashion designer Laura Jayne Halton shows off her navy and gold creation. Photo: David Conachy

Showstopping: Fashion designer Laura Jayne Halton shows off her navy and gold creation. Photo: David Conachy

An illustration by Laura Jayne Halton

An illustration by Laura Jayne Halton

Helen Steele in her athleisure range

Helen Steele in her athleisure range

Eamonn McGill

Eamonn McGill

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Helen Steele

As the world continues to cope with a new reality of COVID-19, industries around Ireland are closing shop and re-evaluating their futures.

The fashion industry in Ireland is already a difficult one in which to break through: a few golden names have cracked the upper echelons, but for aspiring creatives without big brand distribution deals, it feels like they are facing extinction.

Eamonn McGill, who specialises in evening wear and is preferred by Love Island superstars Maura Higgins and Molly Mae Hague, said he began to feel the economic effects before Government directives were introduced.

"Like most businesses in Dublin city centre, we thought it would be irresponsible to stay open," he told the Irish Independent. "But we have felt the sting of COVID-19 measures long before the Taoiseach made any announcements. Since a large part of our revenue comes from clients attending events like weddings, red carpets and festivals abroad, we've had all our bookings for March and April postponed until further notice.

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Eamonn McGill

Eamonn McGill

Eamonn McGill

"We have taken a huge financial hit; however, we are all trying to see it from a positive outlook. Negativity is what will destroy small businesses at this time. We are all in the same boat and we will get through it."

He and his team will now adjust their gaze towards long-term projects and getting a head-start on their new collections. "We're working on filling our brand-new showroom with gowns that we can make with fabrics we had previously stored for a rainy day. Now isn't the time to be wasteful of negative."

JUVI Designs, a contemporary jewellery brand run by Julie Danz and Vincent Tynan, said their brand has effectively "gone into hibernation".

"We're lucky in the sense that we don't have our own premises or rent, so we're not losing money - but we're not earning any either,” Ms Danz said.

"We operate from a workshop near our house and someone is coming in there every day, taking turns one at a time, to facilitate any online orders. We've introduced 20% off everything since Wednesdays from our website to bring in as much revenue as possible. All of our staff have been very understanding about it."

MoMuse, the luxury jeweller in Powerscourt Town Centre, has closed but will be keeping its online store open.

Helen Steele runs dual operations - both her athleisure line with Dunnes Stores, and high-end eponymous label built on bespoke orders. “Since the virus hit China, it hit fabric bulk orders to digital printers in Europe, which hit small fish like me. My printer’s fabric order is sitting in a container in Hong Kong port since January waiting to be processed. Half of my high summer orders have been cancelled, and I’m still waiting to be paid on some orders - which hits both my manufacturer and me. I don't know how many of my customers will survive this."

Steele, like the rest in her industry, remains grateful for her and her family's health and is using the time she would usually spend commuting between Monaghan and Dublin to spend precious time with her children, and strategise for her next chapter.

"I’m not spending four to six hours commuting daily which has its benefits. This gives me back half a week that I can utilise in a more productive way here in my studio. And be with my kids to make sure they are studying and in a healthy routine," she said.

Laura Jayne Halton, best known for her red carpet designs for Irish nominees at the Oscars, is committing to her reputation as a renaissance woman and will spend the coming weeks additionally working on her illustrations.

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An illustration by Laura Jayne Halton

An illustration by Laura Jayne Halton

An illustration by Laura Jayne Halton

"It's definitely not business as usual," she said. "I work in a studio, so it’s not a brick and mortar store and because I technically work in self-isolation most of the time, there’s a reassurance there and I'm implementing the best practice possible. I'm working on a contingency plan.

"This isn't magically going to be over in two weeks' time. We need to think months ahead, it's unpredictable and unprecedented."

But Ms Halton is used to degrees of uncertainty. When she moved back to her native Kildare from New York - where she led the illustrations for Sarah Jessica Parker's fragrance line - in 2010, Ireland was still in recession.

Her usual commission lead is several months in advance which gives her clients a "little bit of leeway", but she will also be focusing more on fine art watercolours, one of which she was commissioned to gift former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"The scope is huge with what you can do. I'm putting it out there that I'm happy to help. I don’t know how I can make myself helpful, but I’ll find a way."

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