Vancouver Fashion Week.: How to make 32 dresses in 30 days
Thirty-two dresses in 30 days -- that was the challenge set for gifted young designer Claire O'Connor when she was singled out to present a collection at Vancouver Fashion Week.
The rapidly emerging Irish visionary has already made dresses for Michelle Obama and is a firm favourite among glamorous RTE presenters such as Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh. She dreams of international acclaim and moving to New York, finds Emily Hourican on a visit to Claire's garden shed in Dublin, but her dressmaking talent is woven from homespun family values.
As she sews against the clock, she thanks her deep-rooted Catholic faith and tea with the homeless for keeping her feet on the ground. Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Liadan Hynes
The first time I meet Claire O'Connor, she is almost halfway through her epic endeavour. Fifteen dresses down, another 17 to go. That's 32 dresses, in 30 days.
One-and-a-bit a day, every day. No weekends, no starting late one morning because you have a hangover, no finishing early because it's Sunday night. Thirty-two dresses, from concept to pattern to finished piece; some with hand-beaded embellishment, others with worked leather corsets worn over them; created without any help beyond the practical decency of her brother and sister, who are feeding her and keeping house.
And these aren't simple shift dresses, they are complex, intricate pieces, telling their own story, each with that power to transform the wearer that only a few designers ever achieve. Making them up at an average of one a day seems too intense, impossible, but, hey, it's worth it, because every one of these pieces will be shown at Vancouver Fashion Week almost as soon as the last thread is knotted. As Claire says cheerfully when I ask if she's come close to losing her mind over it all, "If I knew I could have done better, it would be sickening. At least I'm happy, I've done my best and I've given it my all."
In contrast with the delicate creations, Claire herself is wearing a bobbly cream jumper, jeans and boots and looking very unfashion -- although I've seen photos of her dressed to impress and she scrubs up beautifully. She's making me tea in the kitchen of her comfortable family home on the southside of Dublin. There are large framed baby photos on the wall, of Claire and her sisters and brothers, all the normal clutter of family life and a large number of religious pictures and statues. There are two Popes, Padre Pio, the Child of Prague, various saints; some old and faded, some newer-looking; this is not just religion, it's Irish, Catholic religion. But there's nothing ironic or self-conscious about the iconography, and Claire makes no move to distance herself from the scene by attributing responsibility to her mother, who is currently away in Medjugorje -- as she so often is -- praying. For the O'Connors, Claire included, religion is real and an integral part of life.
Outside in the back garden is the shed that doubles as Claire's studio; hence the bobbly cream jumper -- it can get pretty chilly out there. Small and cramped, but ordered, with bolts of fabric in rows and the tools of the trade -- scissors, sewing machine, pins, tape measure. There are copies of French, Italian and Japanese Vogue. "I buy them in languages I don't understand," Claire says. "I was never much of a one for reading."
So what actually happened? How did this still young -- 32 -- Irish designer come to be preparing her spring/summer 2012 collection to be shown at Vancouver Fashion Week, halfway across the world? "I was contacted a few weeks ago by Vancouver to say that they do this," she says. "They sponsor an emerging international designer to do a show and they had short-listed a few people. So somebody must have nominated me." She's not exactly sure how that came about, but believes that the enthusiastic write-up her clothes received in Canadian Elle last May -- she was singled out, along with Philip Treacy and John Rocha -- must have had something to do with it. "They just said, 'We like your work and this is a programme we do. We'll be back in touch.' So then they got back to me a little while later, to say the show is November 6, do you want to do it? That gave me 30 days."
Bingo, just like that. No audition, no form-filling, no pitch, just a place at what is fast becoming one of the edgiest, most dynamic of the international fashion industry's showcases. So then? "Then I went, 'Oh dear God!'" Claire laughs.
Actually, I don't think she was nearly as thrown as she gracefully suggests. Claire is one of those rare people who is ready for her destiny, a destiny she recognised aged nine when, on a half-day home from school, she saw one of John Galliano's dresses in Hello! magazine. "It blew me away," she says now. "I knew then . . ."
The actual skills took a little longer. "I have quite a technical mind," she says. "If I had a pattern, I could figure it out. No one sat down and taught me but my mum did knit and she could sew." The real catalyst came after a flood of tears: "My class were all going to Wesley for the first time, and come hell or high water, my mother wasn't letting me go. After I'd cried and cried and cried, she said, 'Come on, will I show you how to sew?' And the very first thing I sewed was a pair of black trousers." Tempting as it is to see a moral in this story -- 'Stand firm, stick to your beliefs, deny your children the things you don't agree with and they will develop character and ability' -- I suspect that Claire is more a one-off than a blueprint.
The invisible lattice of family support is evident everywhere with Claire. The brother and sister who are cooking for and minding her; the mother who taught her to sew, currently away praying; and her father -- dead five years now -- who encouraged her to follow her heart. "He was always very supportive," Claire says. "He worked in the ESB for years, purely because you had to pay bills, and a mortgage, you had to raise a family. But he was always really into decorating, making curtains, that kind of thing -- very unusual for a man of that generation. He always wanted to be a chef. So a few years before he died, he got a voluntary severance package and went off to train as a chef. He always said, 'If you want to be a fashion designer, do it.' My mother as well, the whole family say, 'Just keep at it.'" So there are no beady eyes on Claire's shed? "No, they definitely don't want the shed." She cracks up laughing.
Claire studied fashion at the Grafton Academy, then worked with Jen Kelly, Pauric Sweeney and Marc O'Neill at various times before starting her own label five years ago. "At the beginning, I did a lot of made-to-measure. I did it for a song -- completely. A lot of the time it was costing me money." She started selling to a shop in Dalkey, since closed, and the Design Centre. "But the whole time I was doing that I didn't have a style or a signature," Claire says. "It was a mish-mash of everything. It's only really in the last couple of years that I've found my signature and my style, so I know now what I work with."
There is a level of long-sighted acceptance to Claire that is part pragmatism -- born of her experiences in a notoriously tough industry -- part inner serenity. Because without dissembling or making a big deal about it, Claire has faith. "As a family we are quite religious; it hasn't done me any harm," she laughs. But she's serious too. "I think in an industry that's so cut-throat, it's important to have something. When things in fashion go against me or don't go my way or people are rude or they say one thing and do another, that's all over my head. I probably wouldn't be like that if I didn't have some kind of belief that keeps me grounded. I just get over it and get on with it."
It's not just from the bad behaviour of others that Claire's faith protects her, it's also from the temptation to behave as badly as is the norm. "It's not OK to treat people like that, it's not acceptable," she insists. "You have to have some kind of moral code of conduct. I'm in this for the long haul. Right now, people might take advantage, but in the long term, it'll stand to you."
However, anyone who thinks Claire is a pushover because she's soft-spoken, fresh-faced, nicely brought-up and Catholic, will be making a serious mistake. Her drive and determination may be quiet but are none the less steely for that. She may be gentle, but she is also implacable, and her self-belief is already carrying her forward. When Michelle Obama came to town, last May, Claire made two dresses for her, packaged them up beautifully, and delivered them to the American Embassy as a gift to the First Lady. "It made perfect sense to me. People might think, 'Ooh, that's very crafty,' or whatever, but to me it was just common sense." And in return, she got a hand-written letter of thanks from the greatest girl-crush of all time. She is also a favourite among the more glamorous RTE presenters, ever since Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh wore one of her dresses for the final of The All-Ireland Talent Show. "She was looking for something to wear, and Anne Harris [Sunday Independent deputy editor] met her and said, 'Why don't you ask Claire?' And a few people in RTE picked up on that." Among them was Kathryn Thomas, and then Niamh Kavanagh, who wore a stunning floor-length purple number for last year's Eurovision. It's a perfect example of the way in which Claire impresses people and inspires them to want to promote her.
Currently, Claire sells through the Design Centre in Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, and Project 51, a design collaborative on Dublin's South William Street, but her ambition is huge and entirely unobnoxious -- which is a difficult combination to pull off.
"My ultimate dream would be to be a well-recognised international designer. I want to be one of those designers that people ask, 'What's she going to do next?' Or that the ideas filter through to the high street. That's the ultimate goal."
Can she do that and continue to live in Dublin though? "I don't know," Claire says. "I know John Rocha is still working out of Dublin, and he's an international name, but there's nobody else doing it. He could be an anomaly. I'd be happy to move if the need arose." Preferably to New York. "If I could, I'd move tomorrow," she laughs. "I haven't really travelled -- some designers will produce a collection and say, 'Oh, I was inspired by my travels in Outer Mongolia.' I don't have that luxury. I'm inspired by my back garden." She cracks up laughing again.
With her strong moral code and durable faith, Claire may be unusual for a designer, but she is still very fashion. She likes models to be thin and faintly anonymous. "The clothes look amazing," she explains, "and it's all about the clothes. You don't want people looking at the model." But once a collection is finished and presented, she's over it. "I'm always excited up until I show them, to the first time they're presented. After that, I'm done, I'm like, 'That old thing . . .' I do tire of them easily." She is ready to do what it takes to fulfil her ambitions, but she'll do it her way, and in a way she can live with.
On my next visit, all but two dresses are finished. The rail of pieces has grown substantially, with a couple of coats added, a jacket-and-skirt combo and, of course, more dresses. The new additions have the same sophisticated lines and assured finish that I can now see is Claire's trademark; the tug between structure and fantasy. Claire herself is wearing the same cream jumper -- "I rotate this and another one, which is on the line at the moment," she laughs -- and is looking distinctly pale, the pallor of someone who hasn't seen daylight in a while, or bed at a reasonable hour. But she is still very much herself, making jokes, happy to take time and chat, full of calm energy. It's the remarkable sangfroid of someone who knows it will all come together just the way it should.
She apologises for the smell of fish, and there is indeed a faint whiff. It lingers days after some cooking done for one of the homeless people who regularly call to the door of Claire's house, knowing that they will be treated with respect and decency, given a cup of tea, a sandwich, or somewhere to rest for an hour or so. "We've always been told that you shouldn't really turn anyone away, so they do call to the door -- once a day, twice a day, two o'clock in the morning, six o'clock in the morning!" she laughs. "One of them called to the door, and he'd three fish and he asked my brother would he cook them. So he couldn't say no." These men and women, have been calling in steady streams for 25 years now -- "since we moved in". Some are from those early days, others are newer. One, a kid of 13 or so, is the son of a man who has been calling for years. Without trying to fix them, or interfere in any formal way, Claire and her family simply do what they can, at the time. "If someone calls, it costs nothing to be nice and that's all they want," says Claire. "They just want someone who's kind. They need food, tea. My mother's very good to them, and my father was, too. It's a simple thing. That's what they want and I can do that."
She has no desire to be seen as Mother Teresa and is perfectly matter-of-fact about something that seems extraordinary by most of our standards. "Ah sure, it keeps you grounded," she laughs. "They're not worried about the latest Gucci shoes or the latest Marc Jacobs bag. And when my stuff is selling alongside, they won't be worried about that either, they'll still want a cup of tea!" Maybe this is part of the Claire O'Connor appeal, evident in her clothes as much as her personality: it's the extraordinary, made real.
So, back to fashion. What will she wear to Vancouver? "At this stage, I don't have anything. Anyway, designers always wear jeans and a T-shirt. I'll compromise and I won't wear this" -- indicates the bobbly cream jumper -- "or my other cardigan!" And what happens after Vancouver? "Well, when I get back, I'll probably go to sleep for a day or two. Then I'd better do a bit of housework, too -- my credit will have run out! I'd better cook a dinner for my brother and sister."
Once shown, Claire's spring/summer 2012 collection will be selling at Project 51 and the Design Centre, with different pieces in each, of course. And then? "Well, I'll see what comes out of this," she says. "And then I'll get cracking on the next. I would like to show at the Exhibition Area at London Fashion Week, or Paris." But that's not for right now. In the meantime, there are two more dresses to be made. "One will be a kind of a navy chiffon, that's as far as I've got . . . the other one, I don't really know yet, but sure, we've another few hours to make that one yet."
And then we realise that the clocks are going back, that there will be a whole extra hour on Sunday morning. Given what Claire can accomplish in a month, an hour is genuine bonus time. It is, we agree, a small but perfectly formed miracle.
All shoes, Brown Thomas Dublin.
All hats, Design Centre
Claire O'Connor, available at Project 51, Sth William St, D2, tel: (01) 679-5551, Design Centre, Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, D2, tel: (01) 679-5863, or see www.claireoconnor.ie
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Assisted by Suzanne Kelly
Make-up by Kate Synnott at www.morgantheagency.com
Hair by David Cashman, Reds, 21 Dawson St, D2, tel: (01) 678-8220
Model: Christina Toal at Assets
Shot at Odessa Club and Restaurant, 14 Dame St, D2, tel: (01) 670-7634
Sunday Indo Life Magazine