Linen was the lifeblood of the economy in 19th century Belfast. The quality of the product coming from the mills, which dotted the landscape, was known far and wide. Spurred on my mechanisation, an inexpensive labour force and increased demand from America, then in the midst of a bloody civil war, the trade grew year on year.
The secret to the success of the linen trade in Northern Ireland, however, was the climate: the damp and the low temperatures, though cursed by homeowners these days, meant a long, fibrous stem to the flax plants grown in Ulster, from which the highest quality of linen could be woven.
The group behind the Unify – Collective Fashion Studio hope to create a climate in Belfast that allows for the flourishing of a robust fashion industry in what was once a world-beating epicentre of textile manufacturing.
The collective's studio, which launches with a fashion show at the Fitzgerald Hotel in Belfast on Thursday, August 30, seeks to provide a place for young clothing designers to hone their talents, to use the best materials and equipment available and to market themselves and their work in order to get a leg up in the competitive world of fashion.
What started out as a plan for a few designers to get together and exchange ideas has since evolved into a fully fledged studio, with space for eight full-time designers and any number of part timers and drop ins, all located just north of the city centre in a converted library on Donegall Street.
Each paid up designer, either full- or part-time, will be permitted access to machinery that most couldn’t afford on their own, explains designer and studio manager David Henderson.
'You walk into the new studio and have absolutely everything,' he says of the space, which will include industrial sewing machines, industrial overlockers, mannequins, cutting tables, common threads, as well as bits and pieces that all designers need. 'There's quite a lot of money invested in it.'
Much of that investment has come from Mandy Baxter, the owner of Pollini Fashions in Moira. Her desire to see more Northern Ireland-designed clothing in her boutique helped spur the creation of the Unify collective, and Pollini will function as an important endpoint in the group’s vertically integrated setup.
'All the equipment in the world can’t make Unify a success' Henderson acknowledges, before explaining that there is a plan in place to develop a whole network of boutiques that will stock the collective’s work. Starting with Pollini, more shops will be added and the clothes will rotate through stores so that the selection stays fresh.
Henderson is adamant that retail is an important and essential part of the collective’s setup, because 'nobody can find out about the wealth of talent hidden in plain sight in this country unless a retailer is willing to take a chance on an independent designer'.
'You could go down to St George’s Market and set up a stall,' he adds, 'but if you're aiming for high-end fashion you need a retailer to take you on, just to target the right people. It's hard to do it on your own. If you go to a boutique, they already have a clientele there, so if you're targeting those boutiques they're coming in to see your range.'
In the midst of the economic challenges that Northern Ireland continues to face, one of Unify's main goals is to give designers the ability to make a living doing what they love.
To that end, the pricing structure for space rental is being kept as low as possible – Henderson describes it as a 'break-even proposition' – and support and mentorship on the sales and marketing end of the business will be available from a variety of sources. Find a general price list on the UCFS Facebook page.
'There are so many designers coming out of university in Northern Ireland and there are no jobs for them to walk into,' Henderson laments. 'I spent a year looking for one. There just aren't any.
'We want to get the designers into the studio, get them independent and get them started in their own businesses. That's the idea: they'll be starting their own brand in our studio. It's about giving people a chance to become successful.'
Visit the Unify – Collective Fashion Studio website below for more information. The main photograph is by Gavin Byrne Red River Studio. Designer: David Henderson. Stylist: Carmel Daly. Make up: Julia Clements. Hair: Gemma Managh. Shot at The Fitzwilliam Hotel Belfast