Weaving together our heritage
Sophie Rieu mixes the traditional with modern to create an new era of fashion sustainability, says Constance Harris
IWAS chatting to Sophie Rieu -- the French born, Irish-based designer of Unicorn, Ireland's most successful and well-known sustainable fashion label -- last week about the purpose of fashion.
"Baudelaire said fashion reflected an era," Sophie told me. "If you look at a painting and the fashion in it, what the people are wearing tells you everything about that era. He was a dandy and knew it was all about how you were seen or perceived; it was largely down to how you were dressed."
In spite of those among you who hate that fashion typecasts people and seems so superficial, the fact is we get most of our information in life visually.
We judge a healthy child by how they look, we tell our friends they look great. Looking is a primary reader for us.
So, yes, we are a superficial breed. But we get a lot of enjoyment out of our visual feasting.
This season, fashion is in a very nourishing, natural mood. The colours of autumn are prominent in all collections -- burning gold, flaming red, russet, green, brown and black. Heritage is a big buzz phrase -- think traditional tweeds, wool flannel and crepe, and gorgeous, traditional prints, such as paisley, looking sumptuous in silk satin.
Sophie has always been inspired by heritage.
It is a huge part of what sustainable fashion is about: supporting traditional, indigenous skills and resources, as well as local industry, such as mills and weavers.
Done too literally, heritage looks like it came out of a costume box. Modern application is what makes fashion of its era -- and modernity is essential to older women who want to look vital and relevant.
"When you use heritage fabrics, you appreciate their wonderful quality," said Sophie. "For example, the Donegal tweed I use is pure lambswool. It is so soft, so well woven. It is a beautiful fabric.
"The Kerry woollen-mills organic tweed -- it is beautiful quality. When you look at it closely, the speckles of colour in the weave are exquisite -- it's a mix of teal, Jacob [natural sheep wool colour] and black."
The fabrics used in Unicorn by Sophie are so soft to the touch, they make me realise how most of the fabrics we are generally offered might look the biz, but aren't. The older I get, the more I require quality fabrics, but often they come at too high a price -- not so Sophie's designs.
An organic silk satin blouse will cost you about €190; her organic wool tweed jacket €330 and matching trousers €275, a pure organic wool coat, €255. All for clothing produced in Ireland or Poland, using fabrics that were mainly produced in Ireland, if not then in fair-trade conditions in Italy, China and India.
That assurance is part of what you buy with Unicorn by Sophie Rieu.
This season, you will find some gorgeous dresses, from gently fitted, cut a-la-Hitchcock femme, in fine brown tweed, to her stunning cap-sleeve, black dress with full skirt -- very much heading in the 1950s direction towards which Marc Jacobs is moving Louis Vuitton.
"All my dresses have sleeves," she said. "It is one of the lessons I have learnt. My customers are 30-plus. They want to cover their arms. And it is nicer, more dressy. It gives a nice identity to the piece."
Since I find all of fashion too short at the moment and hate leggings, I fall on Sophie's dresses because they are, with few exceptions, cut on or below the knee. There is the most stunning waterfall jacket in silk satin, paisley print and lovely high-wasted, wide-leg, turn-up trousers.
There are also suits, skirts, coats and silk tops. So confident and competent is the collection, it strikes me as being perfect for working women.
"I take lessons from each collection before, and what customers like about them," Sophie explained. "This collection is very much about the woman as a powerful woman -- wearing powerful suits to work and then looking fabulous in the evening as well. It's very functional but also very different, very attractive, very designery."
Apart from doing a great collection, Sophie's big news is that she is opening her first Garden of Unicorn by Sophie Rieu salon, in Greystones, Co Wicklow. It's on Church Road, opposite the Happy Pear cafe. Officially opening on September 7, her salon will offer a made-to-order and special commissions service, have samples and previous years' pieces available to buy, and will also sell other organic and fair trade ranges, such as rain wear, silk underwear and cotton lingerie.
"I love Greystones," she said. "I love being by the sea. Everywhere you go -- it is so nice. The gardens are lovely. The schools have drawings about taking care of the environment. People go around town picking up litter as a hobby. People care around here."
Which makes it the ideal home for a designer who cares so much for people and the environment. I wonder what Baudelaire would make of that?