NCAD Now and Then: Embroidery in Fashion / Young Designer Spotlights
Originally published 30th May, 2016
With the global fashion industry currently entranced by the workings of dyed-in-the-wool "maximalists" (Gucci's ever-ascending reign of vibrancy and Dries Van Noten's baroque-print clashes spring to mind), there could be no better time to celebrate this rise of unhampered creativity. When Alessandro Michele made his jewel-toned womenswear debut as Gucci's creative director in early 2015 - setting the tone for a refreshing gender-fluid ethos - naysayers may have chalked up the feverish enthusiasm of onlookers towards Michele's texture contrasts and ethereal colour palettes as a short-lived endorsement in the fashion cycle, invariably stamped with an expiry date. The reality was quite the opposite, however; not least because the collection pioneered a vision wherein gender neutrality was prevalent and, crucially, normalised. In a year where barriers in society were challenged unabashedly - perhaps with greater solidarity than ever before - Michele's sartorial stance captured the essence of modern-day style enthusiasts with ease. In tandem with this is a commercial viability that has already transcended Gucci's Kering-owned contemporaries. Despite general speculation that consumers' high-end buying habits have become visibly pared back - fuelling the increasingly instability of luxury markets, as recently noted by Alexander Fury - the Italian powerhouse has managed to keep profits from heading southward, with own-store sales and wholesale yields up by 3% and 10% respectively.
What does this era of maximalism signify for the wealth of experimental design graduates emerging from third-level this year? With such pivotal figures in contemporary fashion proving that a lucrative collection can equally spearhead creative innovation, there could be no doubt that now is a truly exciting time for designers to pave dynamic pathways in their sector of choice. In the case of NCAD's long-standing Textile Art & Artefact course, forward-thinking concepts and emphasis on individuality has permeated each graduating class over the last number of years. The attention-to-detail within each creation, moreover, is a (typically multi-coloured) breath of fresh air. From voluminous, sculptured designs in eye-popping hues, peppered with embellishments that resemble hard-boiled sweets (more on these unique adornments later) to garments inspired by the intrigue of Cluedo, the imagination of these freshly-inaugurated degree-holders is truly limitless. So when NCAD Textiles' head tutors Helen McAllister and Nigel Cheney announced they would be showcasing a special end-of-year display in Dublin's Chocolate Factory - bringing together college alumni from across the globe and Textiles Class of 2016 talents - fashion purveyors accurately foresaw the showcase as one of the most dynamic events in recent Irish design history:
Now and Then's matinee was opened by a selection of prosperous NCAD fashion alumni, many of whom using the Chocolate Factory's light-filled space to tease onlookers with new-season collection glimpses. Effervescent Textiles alumna Morganna Murphy displayed her penchant for detailed embellishments and impeccably-tailored pieces to evocative effect, while Andrew Bell trail-blazed a reinvention of 21st-century silhouettes through his Pulling Strings capsule collection; a striking follow-up from his critically-acclaimed exhibition of the same name (further insight can be found in Bell's detailed Spring feature "here"). An additional, colourful favourite was bespoke-print aficionado Aisling Duffy, whose new-season creations (which will be explored in greater depth later) piqued considerable interest from catwalk onlookers. From Blathin Ennis' intricate jewellery pieces to David O'Malley's awe-inspiring headgear - the latter paired with garments fit for Mongolian royalty - each masterfully-crafted design was a testament to NCAD's championing of diversity in fashion. Tying in with the multifarious nature of Textiles courses, arresting audio-visual clips were juxtaposed with more "traditional" catwalk-show formats - an ultra-sensory experience entirely in tune with recent debates on the decline of conventional runway shows. Now and Then's trajectory couldn't have been further removed from run-of-the-mill showcases - this became even more apparent as the afternoon's eclectic Class of 2016 segment commenced:
Now and Then's second instalment plunged its captivated spectators into a colour-bursting display of design prowess and unconfined creativity. Each carefully-crafted graduate collection was even more spellbinding than the last - from Laura Earley's floral adornments on transparent Perspex (alongside a show-stopping tasselled coat in fuchsia and crimson) to George Murray's unique geometric prints and all else in between. Vivid-orange embellishments appeared in the form of luminous craters on mint fabric - the masterful work of Sarah O'Neill - while Carolyn Gannon Osborne wove a colourful narrative encircling the household environment. Garnering the chance to speak to a handful of designers that instantly captured my attention during Now and Then, I realised that while their diverse approach towards creation may have produced entirely unique pieces, a common bond was forged in their ability to tell meaningful stories with unusual designs:
Image via Instagram: @princesscca
2016 Textiles graduate Malena McQuarrie's designs landed on my radar prior to Now and Then: upon first glance, I became convinced that her collection's theatrical proportions and colourful details would be the ideal candidate for a Style Bubble feature. While certain labels choose to hone in on detailed adornments in lieu of architectural silhouettes - and vice versa, as it can be said respectively for Gucci and Dusseldorf-based label Vetements - McQuarrie's creations embody both elements effortlessly. "My visual research began by analysing flat packs, photographing packaging in a still life setting," says McQuarrie whilst speaking of her creative process. "I became obsessed with the take away noodle box and take away bag. We package ourselves in clothing everyday. I took a satirical approach to this notion and made garments which resembled packaging we are all familiar with. These forms offered so many possibilities such as types of closures on garments.
"My embellishments were inspired by hard boiled sweets. From my visual research I found sweets usually had the most exciting colourful packaging. A few designers which played a part in my collection would be Westminister graduate Valeska Jasso Collado, who created very sculptural garments, and gender fluid designer Bas Kosters. Mixing form with kitsch. My work is not concept driven but rather driven by what looks aesthetically pleasing in photoshoots."
An equal purveyor of embellishment is Carolyn Gannon Osborne, a fellow Class of 2016 graduate whose collection explores domestic activity in an incredibly detailed manner. A number of thought-provoking inspiration bases manifest as undercurrents beneath her collection's aesthetically-playful surface:
"Storytelling through items found in the household environment is the main focus of my practice. I enjoy the process of changing the form of everyday objects and transforming them into wearable pieces. As my collection is constructed from found materials, it takes me back to my childhood where the limit of exploration through recycled materials was endless. For this collection what inspired me most was family. The role of cooking, cleaning, child minding, and doing laundry in the home has drastically changed since the Middle Ages. Within a family or partnership, it is the norm that at least one person stays home to look after the children, prepare meals and tidy the house from top to bottom. Growing up in a home where I once watched my father work from 8am-5pm and my late mother wash and iron clothes, do the school runs, hoover and mop the floors, feed her family to now living with two males, my dad and brother influenced me to explore ‘Who does the cleaning within the home?’ in modern day society as nowadays every family is different, i.e. Stay-at-home dads and single-parents.
"The story of my collection begins with ‘The Hoarder’ outfit, a fluffy, textured, pink, dressing gown which is displayed and modelled open, revealing many transparent pockets filled with treasured items the wearer can not let go of. The exterior of the outfit displays a football net like structure made from rope and cable ties to illustrate a shield to protect the individuals’ possessions. This outfit overall became the starting point of my collection to represent the compulsive disorder known as hoarding, where the individual is unwillingly able to part with a variety of objects which leads to the build up of invaluable items such as newspapers, plastic bags and tissues, creating a cluttered environment to live in. I watched a couple of documentaries such as 'Britain's Biggest Hoarders' by the BBC and 'Hoarding: Buried Alive' on Youtube to help me visualise how I could go about creating this outfit that would convey the compulsive disorder.
"For other outfits in the collection titled ‘The Obsessive Compulsive Cleaner’ (orange tunic) and ‘The Doctor’, incorporating elements of repetition was important to me to develop the narrative. Sources for these structures started from photography at The Botanical Gardens as they house a lot of linear and globular cacti allowing me to experiment with a range of patterns. I then developed these qualities through digital manipulation using Illustrator and Photoshop. Looking at elements of geometric forms, Jane Bowler is a fashion and textile designer I am really drawn to for the repetitive and transparent qualities in her outfits, particularly from her 2014 Autumn/Winter collection."
Photography and design:Sarah O' Neill
Makeup: Cliona Campbell
Assistant :Sorcha O' Raw
Sarah O'Neill's colour-popping graduate designs marry texture contrasts with state-of-the-art technology, resulting in a tactile capsule collection forged from O'Neill's remarkably industrious work ethic. Harnessing the medium of 3D printing to craft unique embellishments and eye-catching footwear - her neon-yellow 3D-printed hells prompted gasps of delight upon their catwalk debut - her inventive approach is at the Irish vanguard of modern-day 'digital design'. "What interested me most in textiles was texture, however I also had an interest in technology and experimentation," states O'Neill. "In third year I taught myself how to make 3D prints and I made a small fashion project with them. However this year, I felt that most 3D prints in fashion were embedded in an architectural style (parametric in style) and used non tactile materials and little colour. My initial research was taking photographs of colourful, mashed up, exploded food! I have created a four piece outfit collection which aims to soften, morph and give colour to the digital aesthetic associated with 3D printed fashion, with a materials led approach. The materials are highly tactile and explore the idea of the body under attack by textiles.
"I was lucky to win this years Staff Prize which helped to fund a 3D printer. In February I finally got the machine and intensively taught myself how to manipulate it for about two months. It was a very time consuming process. After a lot of trial and error I developed four techniques ( two 3d printed and two inspired by 3d printing) which are in each of the outfits. After this I had about two months to make the collection.
"Not all the outfits contain full 3D printing. I 3D printed with silicone and foam for the first outfit. The final outfit is 3d prints embedded into fabric. The other two outfits were non-3D printed techniques I developed (both inspired by 3D print). I couldn't have designed this collection without the support of my tutors Nigel Cheney and Helen McAllister. They never tried to change my crazy ideas and supporting me in everything I did!"
NCAD alumna and imaginative illustrator Aisling Duffy debuted her vibrant new-season collection in Now and Then's initial instalment; the mid-afternoon sunshine pouring onto her sparkling garments was a treasured feast for the eyes! Speaking of her latest designs following their first show appearance, Duffy revealed the thought process behind her idiosyncratic creations:
"For this collection I was inspired by childhood and how history and experiences you have growing up ultimately shape who you become. This collection became quite a personal journey as I explored my own childhood and history for the collection. I also wanted to design the collection from a child's perspective, I wanted it to capture the playfulness and creativity we have when we are young. It was interesting when watching my collection on the catwalk that the reaction from older people and children sitting in the audience was the same - both were equally as amused and entertained.
"The most prevalent source of inspiration running through all my work focuses on exploring personality -the elements we hide and reveal about ourselves - and how environment and previous experience shapes who we are now and how we portray ourselves.A process I use to explore this is layering. When starting to design collections I begin by making collages with photographs and painting, when I paint I build up layers of colours and hide/reveal parts of the photograph that is below. Equally in my collections, which incorporate digital prints of my paintings, I layer up fabrics - transparent and heavy - as a way of playing with the theme of 'hiding and revealing' parts of ourselves.
"I do design with a consumer in mind, but not necessarily a particular age group or gender. For me my customer is someone that I envision as very much in tune with and open to their own individuality. They enjoy experimenting with style and colour. For them the experience of getting dressed, of creating a look that represents them and how they are feeling is an important part. Think Iris Apfel, the New York style icon. Her attitude towards style and how much it embodies her personally is very inspirational to me."
Duffy's conclusive thoughts hark back to Alessandro Michele's gender-neutral design ethos: pieces devised for a modern-day world unshackled by pre-conceived notions of masculinity or femininity. Alongside sharing characteristics as talented vestiary storytellers, these young designers all forge their creations without archaic perceptions of what gender signifies. But with certain parts of the globe lagging behind in welcoming gender fluidity as a societal norm, how do these creative individuals think Ireland is faring? The subject is a matter close to McQuarrie's heart, having combined both male and female symbols to create an Agender symbol seen on some of her garments: "I actually wrote my thesis on the emergence of gender neutrality in the fashion industry and this in turn inspired me to create work which is Agender. From my thesis research I think Ireland is quite slow onto catching the gender fluid movement. From having friends who identify as Agender, I don't think the general public are quite accepting of this. By that I mean men dressing as what we perceive to be feminine without being a cross dresser. Most designers who are quite involved in this movement would be from my generation and situated in cities such as London, Amsterdam, Berlin and New York. I think the reason for this is that those cities are quite liberal in comparison to Dublin.
"Another reason could be that most emerging creatives in Dublin usually flee to these cities for work, therefore there is no one in Dublin to continue this gender fluid conversation. I wanted to be part of this conversation and created garments based on form rather than highly gendered garments such as the generic dress. My garments sit away from the body so they do not reveal the wearers' gender." Having professionally based herself in London, Duffy firmly agrees that international design metropolises are naturally more open-minded: "Living in London, I feel that gender fluidity is a lot more prevalent. Even walking through parts of London, the style of males and females is so interchangable.
"I think a big part of this is the rise of streetwear brands. The likes of Carharrt and Palace, for instance, sell the same collection to both genders. The models they use in their campaigns can have boys and girls wearing the same clothes. I also think this something Kanye West explores in his newest collection. I think a lot of Irish based labels still focus on designing with one gender in mind, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be really great to see a rise in gender fluid labels. In my opinion I don't think it's due to the Irish fashion industry not being open to non gender specific work. I think sometimes smaller countries can be slower to catch onto trends, so I feel in another few years we will see the rise of gender fluid brands - and I very much hope to be part of that!"
With these thoughts in mind, do graduate design innovators view Ireland's emerging sector as a feasible location to base their newly-launched labels? It's an enquiry that greatly divides opinion in most instances: while O'Neill would love to establish herself in Ireland, "there isn’t the funding or facilities here to forward my career at present. I feel like there is not so much funding or support in Ireland for young designers, particularly from the press. Of course I believe anyone who has the determination and ambition to set up in Ireland will go ahead and do it. It is a very different market in Ireland than in London at the moment.
"When you think of it, a lot of successful Irish designers are filling up London’s Fashion Week schedule which highlights how much talent we have here. London has a Fashion Week which makes it kind of a beacon for designers. There is much more support and funding in London-based colleges and many schemes set up immediately for those who have talent after they graduate over there. I think London gives designers more of a chance to experiment and make mistakes than Ireland at the moment." While Gannon Osborne holds a similar stance on the wealth of Irish creative talent, her perspective on the country's design industry somewhat differs: "I feel because Ireland has a smaller community in the fashion world as opposed to London which is so huge - you could walk for ages and still be in the one place - there is always on going support from local businesses, as well as the blogging community which helps new designers form connections - giving them the confidence to establish and grow their brand overseas.
"There are so many growing innovative ideas and creations by students and graduates in this country. We have so much to contribute. I feel that over the years there has been an up turn for newly graduated designers like myself. I feel there are many awards, competitions and organisations that are really supporting students and giving them many opportunities to showcase their work. This also gives students and graduates a bed of confidence and encourages them to take part in these events. Fellow students in many departments of my course have really benefitted in taking part in awards like the Fashion Innovation Awards and IDI Graduate Awards and have been very successful in doing so. I feel these awards as well as the blogging community are doing an amazing job creating a platform for new Irish designers."
What of the viewpoints of Now And Then's head orchestrators? Both Helen McAllister and Nigel Cheney played indispensable roles in shaping the event's dynamic line-up - with the latter showing his own richly-hued designs during the showcase's latter stages - and with 2016 marking over two decades of Cheney's involvement with NCAD's Textiles department, there couldn't have been a more apt occasion to commemorate the course's multi-faceted exports: "We saw this as a timely point to do this unique event, 22 years was reflecting Nigel's time to-date with NCAD - a generation of embroidery, but it also celebrates what has been a very active pathway of study at NCAD that has expediently grown to what it is today. It is the end of the 4 year embroidery Textile course but also the first of the 3 year degree to graduate. So for all these reasons, it seemed if we were to showcase our current students and alumni, this was the time."
When it comes to weighing up the pros and cons of Ireland's design domain versus its international equivalents, McAllister's perspective is refreshingly balanced: "I think Ireland produces many great designers, and I would even say it is healthy and good for all designers to go out, be international of which our students do to great success. I think the issue is more to how to encourage any of our designers to come back - unless there is real focus on manufacture and production this may be something that Ireland can not compete with. Niches markets in fashion and textiles have the potential for Ireland to compete in.
"I don't think it is bad that artists/ designers gravitate to creative centres, so I encourage any such opportunities. The fact our students canthrive in these very competitive fields and in very competitive contexts is a testimony that what they learn is transferable / relevant and contemporary. To be in the creative industries one should expect that students want to experience and to be a part of these networks as a given. It is more in the long term, where some designers wish there were options that would allow them back to work and develop design careers here in Ireland that is the issue."
While design enthusiasts hoping that Now and Then will enjoy subsequent incarnations will be left sorely disappointed - McAllister affirms that the showcase was devised solely as a once-off event - in many ways, its one-time occurrence made this unique gathering of newly-emerged and well-established designers all the more memorable. "As a 'once-off' [Now and Then] was made all the more special an occasion because of the Alumni who so generously gave and supported the event. It would be a very difficult thing to ask of them again in this way. This was always to be a 'one - off' where it was fresh and original, and in that context I was more than happy to be involved." However, as far as the showcase's burgeoning creatives are concerned, their participation in Now and Then is just the beginning of a multi-dimensional career path.
O'Neill is already primed to chart international waters - "I won the Thomas Dammann Trust fund so I plan to go to Japan sometime over the Summer. I’m taking a year to get experience in the industry , learn and to develop my work more. I keep getting requests for the 3D print embellished shoes from the collection so I might try to develop them to sell them on a small scale in Ireland. I would really love to work with Prada developing textiles so I'm going to go to Italy and drop off a portfolio sometime over the summer!! Then my plan is to apply to both Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art to study for a Masters degree." - while Gannon Osborne is equally enthused to develop her creative skillset: "Taking part in the recent fashion event ‘Now and Then’ at The Chocolate Factory, Dublin has really pushed me to adapt my work for a particular setting in such a busy environment. It gave me an insight of what working in a catwalk event is like and I’ve come to the realisation that my work belongs on the body, whether for catwalk or editorial purposes, that’s where I wish to view my work in the near future. 'Squeaky Clean' is such a vibrant, fun collection that my next step is to focus immensely on the styling, the photography and the editing aspects of my work to highlight the playfulness to build up my portfolio but also to improve and expand my digital skills." Wherever these dynamic creatives ultimately settle, there could be no doubt that Now and Then has gifted them a truly inimitable launchpad.
Malena McQuarrie, Carolyn Gannon Osborne, Sarah O'Neill + their Class of 2016 contemporaries will be showing their degree collections in National College of Art And Design (the exhibition space is on the second floor in the Textile, Art and Artefact area) on Thomas Street from the 18th-26th June - in the meantime, clicking "here" will transport you to Aisling Duffy's colourful website.