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Selling the best of Irish to the world

Showcase Ireland provides a global shop window for our traditional crafts, writes Emily Hourican

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A model wears a skirt and top by luxury Irish knitwear designer  Ros Duke

A model wears a skirt and top by luxury Irish knitwear designer Ros Duke

A model wears a skirt and top by luxury Irish knitwear designer Ros Duke

'Stick to your knitting," the phrase used by writer Tom Peters, is a kind of unofficial slogan for Showcase Ireland, says Brian McGee, marketing director of Design and Crafts Council Ireland.

"I think that's a great phrase," he says. "Both metaphorically and factually, that's what we should be doing - sticking to what we're good at."

In practical terms, this means taking many of the traditional crafts practised for centuries among communities around Ireland - knitting, yes, but also weaving, crochet, wood carving, metalwork and so on - and elevating them to the kind of luxury items, such as Irish tweed, cashmere, Aran sweaters and ceramics, that are in high demand around the world.

Showcase Ireland is effectively both a shop window and a hot-house for exactly this. Attracting high-end international buyers, it is an opportunity to highlight the best the country has to offer, as well as a host of emerging talent. "It's a trade fair," McGee says, "but trade fairs dictate what consumers see ultimately in stores."

And it is now perfectly in tune with global trends. Showcase started in 1977, and has run every year since then. "It was quite small when it started, with largely domestic buyers and very tourism-focused," says McGee.

"In 1980 it had orders after the show of £450,000. In 2019 it had orders of over €25 million. It is in a completely different place now, and very much focused on the international market.

"Craft and craft businesses have always been here, but they have had a very strong period in the last eight years."

The truth of this is evident in the kind of diverse range on offer, including AA McEvoy award-winning luxury organic children's clothing, Athena traditional Aran knitwear and accessories, Rathbornes candles, Irish Linen House, Ballyshane woodturning, Belinda Northcote fashions, inspired by the countryside around her studio in Shanagarry, Co Cork, and many more.

It is partly a case of right place, right time.

"The long-term trend around provenance has really favoured us," says McGee. "Irish craft has always been the same, but the world has started to recognise it. We're respected and acknowledged for our heritage but also for our quality.

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"The products and brands we show are innovative in themselves, but at the same time, we're very proud of saying that we are not fashion.

"The very fact that Chris Evans can wear an Aran jumper (in recent film Knives Out) that could have been worn by his great-uncle is proof of that.

"These don't go into landfill. They are worn and reused; they are the ultimate sustainable products, and provide sustainable employment in villages and towns all over Ireland."

However, it isn't just happy coincidence and lucky tail-winds.

"It's a competitive world out there," says McGee. "To get buyers to come to Dublin, you've got to have a really compelling offering, and do some clever marketing."

This, he says, Enterprise Ireland have done. "We work hand in glove with them. They are very supportive."

Last year, they commissioned Perry Ogden to make a film, Fí (an Irish word that means to weave, and is also used in the context of weaving stories, and close-knit communities), about heritage, tradition and contemporary design in Irish textiles, that was shown in Paris, New York and Tokyo.

McGee also cites great support from "local enterprise offices all around the country. They work to bring micro-companies to the show for an area called the Local Enterprise Showcase - which is small, start-up businesses, and we find that it is a great hot-house for talent."

In the ongoing conversation around who we are, as a nation and a people, some of the answers at least are to be found here - among the best and most beautiful of what Ireland can produce.

Showcase Ireland is at the RDS 19-22 January; www.showcaseireland

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