Introductory Address

Introductory Address by Eddie Shanahan, Chairperson of the Council of Irish Fashion Designers.

Launch address ‘Second Skin’ at the National Craft Gallery, 7th November 2014.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, ‘Second Skin’ is an inspiring project… full of hope for the Irish fashion industry. So it is a real privilege for me to be invited to launch this exhibition.

We, like many countries in the European Union, are suddenly waking up to the social and economic impact of the loss of skills and production facilities in the fashion industries across our continent.

We are waking up to the importance of heritage, craft & craftsmanship,  production skills and knowledge in adding value and a competitive point of difference especially in the luxury market – a market that delivers margins to enable us to work to live rather than to live to work .

So I am certain this is a seminal event.

I read Louise Allen’s curator’s essay with sheer delight because it reminded me of why I am so passionate about the business of fashion – its spinners, weavers, printers, knitters, shoe makers, pattern cutters, milliners, garment and accessory designers, its magicians and alchemists.

As a small boy I learnt an appreciation of skill and good tailoring from the cut of my father’s hunting jackets and from the propriety of dressing up for family gatherings, weddings, funerals, horse shows or even a day in town. I was proud of the sweaters knitted for me by my mother or my aunts who it appeared – to borrow a phrase from the curator’s essay – could knit at the speed of light. Could many now, I wonder ?.

But it was when I went to work for the International Wool Secretariat that I became enthralled by fashion, by the textile designers who conjured rivers of colour to run the length of a warp and used the inspiration of Irish landscapes to interrupt their flow, across wefts full of texture.

There were many big mills in Ireland then - well over a dozen. I easily remember… Castleisland, Connemara Fabrics, Emblem Weavers, Hills of Lucan, Mahonys of Blarney, John Hanly, John Molloy, The Weavers Shed, St. Patrick’s Wollen Mills, Foxford , Magees, McNutts . Their locations spread all over the country and their reputations spread all over the world. 

In Paris where the fashion business had coined the phrase ‘Stile Irlandais’ (Irish style) IWS in association with the then named Coras Trachtala organised Tissus D’Irlande, an annual exhibition of Irish fabrics  presented on a barge on the Seine. The great and the good came to buy –  Anna Marie Beretta, France Andrevie,  Karl Lagefeld, Claude Montana, Gianfranceo Ferre, Marc Bohan, Yves Saint Laurent .

Back in Dublin we exhibited excerpts from some of the resultant collections  as a feature on our annual IWS Student Design Fashion Show. Labels like Cerrutti, Luciano Soprani,  Dejac and the inimitable Madame Gres made in exquisite  Irish fabrics.

I recall a morning back then too,  in the company of the designer Michael Mortell as we wound our way perilously round northern  cliff tops at what seemed like the very edge of the world. To our left  we saw a helicopter banking high over the wild Atlantic swell.  In it was Yohji Yamamoto departing his rendezvous with the local fisherman weavers who seemed capable of combining all the colours of heaven and earth in bolts of cloth designed by John McNutt at Downings in Donegal.

Good design answers the needs of the market place and for a time these mills did it better than anyone. Unfortunately many did not evolve with changing environments and lifestyles and despite our entreaties at IWS for them to make lighter, softer yarns and fabrics over a period of a short few years many of the weaving sheds fell silent .

The crafts of ages once passed from mother to daughter, father to son, mentor to apprentice became the lost legacy of upcoming generations.

In those years too whole parts of Dublin were given over to the production and wholesaling of Irish fashion and around the country too several production facilities provided the scale needed to produce fashion knitwear and accessories . Again the names come easy… Henry White, Michael Gall, Jimmy Hourihan, Patrick Howard, Michael Jacobs, Michel Ambers, Morris Speedie, John Bentley, Peter Fitzsimons, Max Pierre, Libra, Brian Tucker, Gaeltarra, Loretta Bloom,L S Ramsay, John Hegarty, Lisa Lovell.

But then we began to export more fashion design graduates than fashion collections, there was insufficient investment in innovation and evolution and many of the cutting rooms and production lines fell silent too ……we lost thousands of jobs.

Today a new generation of Irish fashion and textile designers wants to stay in Ireland. Several are already showing their mettle. The Irish Designers Create Project at Brown Thomas has proved consistently over the past 4 years that Irish fashion & accessory designers can sell side by side with the best in the world.

I know from my work with the Council of Irish Fashion Designers that many would like to source, sample and produce more in Ireland.

So we must learn from history, not repeat it.  We must leverage that history too and not forget the heritage and skills that may still rest, however barely, within our reach.

We may be facing the final chance to save and co-ordinate the skills and the knowledge that will regenerate dozens of jobs, that will convert us from buyers of production in the world markets, to sellers of production to the world markets.

Hermes, Gucci, Chanel, McQueen, Louis Vuitton and other leading luxury brands promote heritage, craftsmanship, imagination, creativity as the core elements of luxury. These are our trade marks  - with a little support, imagination and innovation surely they can be our trade.    

The lure of luxury lurks even on the high street with Primark/Penneys promoting Harris Tweed and Marks & Spencer promoting British heritage fabrics from Moon & Sons.

Ladies & gentlemen it is time to stand up and say luxury is an Irish brand value.

Why must we so often strive to compete with the cheapest when in reality we can compete with the best. 

At a moment when the consumer is moving from conspicuous to considered consumption, buying less but buying better…. at a moment when quality is the best route to sustainability…. at a moment when price is no longer considered the only arbiter of value…at a moment when connoisseurship has replaced curiosity - has our time not come ?.

Has our time not come for dialogue, the dialogue that Louise Allen calls for in her essay.

We are stronger together. So it is the duty of everyone, absolutely everyone associated with our industry to answer that call – everyone from the people who work the ledgers to the people who work the looms, from the people who draft the policies to the people who draft the patterns, from the people who teach design to the people trace silhouettes – to create a new fashion initiative that leverages and protects our heritage, craftsmanship and point of difference .

So please look, look closely at the work of the designers featured in Second Skin. And look closer still at the alchemy in their co-operation with the textile makers and technologists who are such an essential part of the creative and production processes .

The ultimate challenge of course is to commercialise this proposition, this co-operation…to fill the gaps in production and scale, to leverage craft & craftsmanship, to develop technical skills and a sense of value that engages and converts saavy consumers to the economic and social benefit of our country.  The prize is more than worthy of the challenge.

Initiatives by the Design & Crafts Council – creating the stimulus of Irish Design 2015, auditing production resources  and opportunities in Ireland, engaging with industry networks and supporting projects like this provide motivation.  The work of Louise Allen, Natalie Coleman, Jennifer Rothwell, Joanne Hynes and Sonya Lennon on ‘Second Skin’ provides inspiration. 

All deserve our gratitude and congratulations.  

Patti Smith, in her introduction to a book on the work of iconic fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester  asserts – ‘Freedom exists in the soul of ones work’. Let’s make sure that Ireland does not lose its soul.

Ladies and Gentlemen enjoy and be inspired by Second Skin.