Ten designers from Ireland hoping to break into the American market, came to New York this week for the “WearingIrish NYC” event, a new platform for promoting Irish fashion.
They also came to break stereotypes of Irish design being mired in tradition and lacking modernity. Tweeds and knitwear are iconic to the region, though organizers of WearingIrish NYC say the participating designers are adept at both giving “a nod” to Ireland’s heritage and maintaining a contemporary appeal.
Selected from 170 qualified candidates, the winners included Aine, Alison Conneely, Bláithín Ennis, De Bruir, Inner Island, Jennifer Rothwell, Natalie B. Coleman, Sands and Hall, The Tweed Project and Triona. Each showed their fall 2018 collections to American retail buyers, editors, business and fashion leaders at WearingIrish NYC, a mini trade show at the Bank of Ireland, one of the sponsors of the three-day event, that also featured panels and networking. None of the designers currently sell American retailers, but some have sold products online to American consumers.
“We are firmly rooted in tradition and we work with weavers on the West Coast of Ireland. But our design philosophy is filtered through a modernist lens. Our cuts are very contemporary,” said Conneely, who utilizes Donegal tweed and Connemara lace in her designs. Displaying a fine lambs wool tweed women’s coat with a contemporary cut and a top with contoured paneling, Conneely acknowledged, “I feel a little unsupported in Ireland, but being part of WearingIrish is beautiful for me. It’s amazing to be here.”
When it came to contemporary women’s wear, Coleman and Conneely’s works proved strongest. Conneely’s designs have been worn by Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Her work was clean and polished, while Coleman’s designs leaned toward eccentric, with fun quilted black and red skirts and bold statement Ts. Conneely showed sharp-shoulder capes, offered in Donegal tweed and kidskin, and silky tops and runners. Other highlights included Blaithin Ennis’ unconventional jewelry crafted from mesh, metal and crystal as well as The Tweed Project’s handmade, one-off “home wear” tweed wraps and blankets, Irish linen T-shirts and a beautiful, sleeveless knit jumper.
Each brand, whether it was from De Bruir’s minimal yet strongly structured leather bags to Sands and Hall’s beautifully crafted tweed outerwear for both children and adults, held strong quality pieces with great craftsmanship. Molloy’s showcase was the perfect setting to bridge the gap between the New York “fashion world” with the emerging Irish brands. “Few people outside Ireland can name an Irish-based designer,” Molloy said.
Garvan de Bruir, a former furniture-maker, creates “modern-classic” leather goods combining wax cotton, leather and simple, pared-back construction techniques. De Bruir said he takes a “structural” approach to making his leather bags, jackets and vests. “I highlight the strengths of this natural material.”
“There is a preconceived notion about Irish fashion, but the level of modernity and youthfulness really surprised us,” said Heather Shimokawa, Bloomingdale’s vice president and fashion director for women’s, who was one of the 25 judges in the WearingIrish contest. Bloomingdale’s has already bought its fall fashion, but Shimokawa suggested there’s room for late entries into the assortment.
“Natalie’s designs have feminist overtones and strong silhouettes,” said Aileen Carville, commercial adviser to designer Natalie Coleman, who utilizes opulent fabrics, appliqués, whimsical hand-beaded and hand-painted surface decoration. Carville displayed a basket weave coat in Irish tweed, with frill sleeve detail, deep scallop pockets and drop shoulder, as well as long cardinal red silk taffeta voluminous dress.
“Getting money up front to buy material for something that might be sold 12 months later is not easy,” said Ciaran Madden, the Consul General of Ireland.
The event also had the support of Tony Dunne, U.S. country manager for Bank of Ireland, and Catie O’Riordan, vice president for consumer retail, Enterprise Ireland and Anne Keating, former senior vice president for public relations for Bloomingdale’s.
During a Thursday morning panel, Frank Doroff, vice chairman of Bloomingdale’s, offered some advice. “At Bloomingdale’s, we’re manic about how many new things can we get into the store, because people’s tastes are changing and we want newness, newness, newness all the time,” he said. “I will try to balance that with, ‘Can I sell it? Can we make money?’ By the way, we don’t think we have to make money on everything. But again, we won’t be in business if we don’t make money on anything. You guys won’t either. You need profits to sustain your business.”
Karen Giberson, president of The Accessories Council, addressed some of the challenges new designers face trying to land accounts. “Keep in mind it might take a few meetings with retailers. Sometimes patience is involved. They may see you and like it but may watch how your next collection evolves before they make room on the floor. It’s risky putting a new designer in,” she said. “They may want to watch you for a while. Trying to figure out the best way to connect may be a combination of things — in–person visits, trade shows, e-mail follow-ups that are personalized not cut-and-paste messages. Really think about who you’re trying to reach out to.”
With annual sales “a couple million,” Kieran Mulhern of Triona said he planned to stay in New York to try to break into the U.S. market. From “a family weavers,” he said more “upmarket, fashion-focused” styles are being offered to go in a new direction.