Drawn to the Sea

Fusing fashion with intricate illustration and Irish mythos, artist/designer Sara O'Neill is taking her unique, coastal style to the international stage

For a fashion designer, receiving a commission from one of Ireland’s most iconic department stores is surely a dream come true. Indeed, having your work under the same roof as many world-famous brands is the stuff of fantasy, but for Sara O’Neill, it’s about to become a reality.

The Portrush artist/designer will launch an exclusive new collection of luxury silk scarves from her Éadach textiles range at Dublin’s famous Brown Thomas store on July 5, as part of Brown Thomas CREATE 2016. Now in its sixth year, the CREATE initiative celebrates ‘the very best in Irish design and craft’ and will showcase O’Neill’s designs at the prestigious Grafton Street location over the summer.

O’Neill, who’s delighted her work will be featured in the same store as designers such as Isabel Marant, JW Anderson and Vivienne Westwood, says it’s 'a huge privilege' to be selected. For her, she adds, being in Brown Thomas is the 'ultimate accolade in Irish fashion'.

'For Brown Thomas I’ve created four exclusive new prints which I’m very excited about,' she says. 'As always, I’m taking inspiration from the North Coast, with Kinbane Castle being a huge influence on one of the prints.

'As my current Éadach range is very blue-based, I wanted to broaden the colour palette and have brought in lots of pink and red hues - from the softest candyfloss pink, to darkest rose; inspired by the colours of clouds at sunset and hardy little sea pinks. There’s also warm neutrals and splashes of yellow.

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'The prints range stylistically from very soft and feminine to quite dark and rock ’n roll. All will be revealed when the range launches in Brown Thomas on July 5. It will then be more widely available later in the year.'

Passionate about Irish culture, the storytelling tradition and keen to celebrate the beauty of the coast, O’Neill weaves all of this into her distinctive pencil-drawn designs. Using local myths and legends, she fuses everything together to create 'wearable art' which not only looks great, but also tells a story.

'Having heard many of these stories as a child while staying with my grandparents in Dublin, I feel like it's kind of come full circle, now having the final product, the silk scarves, in Dublin's most prestigious store,' she says.

O’Neill began working on her first Éadach collection five years ago, having operated solely as a stylist up until then. Graduating from Ulster University in Fashion and Textile Design, she felt she 'wasn’t ready to design' and instead, started styling for magazines and ad campaigns.

'That worked out very well for me,' she says. 'There was no real styling going on in Northern Ireland at the time. I was waitressing and got chatting to the photographer Gavin Millar. He asked me to do a shoot in the Merchant Hotel, which was quite risqué and got a lot of attention…

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'Then I met the photographer Khara Pringle and she started putting me forward to her clients and it just built from there. I found I was good at it and it’s been going now for 10 years. I love styling, as it’s nice to work with a team. Design can be quite isolating.'

O’Neill then met art consultant Carrie Neely, who was organising group exhibitions for local artists and providing them with a platform to showcase their work.

'I think the art scene was quite difficult to break into and she got lots of up and coming artists to exhibit,' says O’Neill. 'From there, I scored a couple of solo exhibitions, which got me drawing again, as I hadn’t drawn since college. I started exhibiting and then went down the more commercial route. I also got signed with an illustration agency in London.'

Now producing illustrated t-shirts but not quite sure where she was headed with her work, O’Neill regained her focus after receiving support from the Arts Council NI through their Creative Industries Innovation Fund. 'I thought I’d create something that brought together my styling and illustration, so I applied for that and got it,' she says. And so, Éadach (Irish for ‘fabric’) was born.

Sarah O'Neill Queen of the Seas

Queen of the Seas, by Sarah O'Neill

The first wave of Éadach designs was inspired by pirate queens, banshees and other coastal legends, and fashionistas can expect more in this vein from O’Neill’s Brown Thomas collection. The debut collection was also recently shortlisted in the Accessory Designer of the Year category of the 2016 Irish Fashion Innovation Awards, while Sara just picked up a Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year award for Fashion and Beauty.

With the Brown Thomas launch just around the corner, O’Neill is busy organising a precursory exhibition at the Arcadia in Portrush, which will open on June 17. The month-long exhibition, entitled Drawn to the Sea, will feature new sketches and silk wall hangings from her Éadach range, exemplifying some of the inspiration behind the Brown Thomas collection. Tracy McAllister from BTS Interiors + Concepts in Coleraine will also dress the space, showcasing simple coastal living styles with a Nordic twist.

'I’ll be showing a new body of work inspired by the coast, pop culture and some local characters,' says O’Neill. 'For example, I’ve reimagined my previous pirate queen design and have created a Brigitte Bardot face with a Marie Antoinette hairstyle and a ship on top… it will be a mash-up of all sorts of things. My friend Geoff Fulton, an illustrator, is also showing his work, and photographer Robert Malone, will exhibit some of his landscape shots.'

As for what’s next, well, there’s mention of menswear and skinny scarves, and inspiration from the Salmon of Knowledge and the Children of Lir. It seems for Sarah, there's no end to the fantasy just yet.

The Drawn to the Sea exhibition launches at the Arcadia, Portrush on June 17 between 7.30pm and 10.30pm, and runs for one month. The Brown Thomas Éadach collection launches on July 5.