Fashion Designers in Northern Ireland

An overview of designers hailing from or working within Northern Ireland

Belfast is becoming an important regional centre for fashion. Nevertheless, Northern Irish fashion designers, such as Jen Kelly, Miriam Mone, Mariad Whisker and Sharon Wauchob, had to work in Dublin or abroad to become successful. Only Michele O’Doherty and Maggie Jackson have established strong businesses in Northern Ireland.

Ireland’s domestic market is not large enough to sustain a fashion industry in its own right, and therefore relies heavily on the export and tourist trade, with the UK being the biggest export market. Irish fashion is still very focused on Dublin, which had been an internationally renowned fashion hot-spot in the 1950s.

Significant designers in the 1950s were Jack Clark, a pioneer of Irish clothing export, trading with north America, wool designer Neilli Mulcahy, and Irene Gilbert, famed for her hand-woven fabrics. At a time when hats were an integral part of formal or outdoor wear, the milliner John Green ran a successful business on  Wellington Street, Belfast, from 1961 to 75.

At present, a high proportion of Irish designers are women. One of Ireland’s long term contributions to the international fashion scene is the addition of customized craft in dress. This includes the use of fabric that has been individualised by painting, printing and dyeing, and by the insertion of another handwork, such as crochet, embroidery or applique.

Rural Ireland still influences Irish fashion whereas in most countries fashion is predominantly an urban phenomenon. Often Irish design has a sense of allusion to history, literature or Irish culture, which also tends to be its strong selling point. At the same time, Irish designers have to be aware of contemporary global trends and need to possess an international outlook to be successful. They also need good business skills to succeed in a very competitive industry.

The Institute of Designers in Ireland (Dublin)

The Institute of Designers in Ireland, situated in Dublin, is the professional body representing the interests of Irish designers. Its function is to promote high standards of design.

Formed in 1972, the Institute is recognised at national, EU and international level as the representative body for the Irish design profession. The Institute represents designers from different disciplines who practice in Ireland (including Northern Ireland). Currently there are over 300 members from a wide range of disciplines, including graphic design, product design, interior design, fashion and textile design as well as design management and those involved in design education. The IDI acts like a cooperative, with designers helping each other for mutual benefit.

Belfast Fashion Week

The Northern Irish fashion industry tries to increase the profile of local desingers in various ways. Belfast, for instance, hosts an annual Fashion Week. Recognisable names who have participated in the shows include Dolce et Gabbana, Paul Smith and Betty Jackson, and Irish designers Mariad Whisker, Maria Cardenas, Miram Mone and John Rocha. High street stores such as Miss Sixty, Rio and Brazil, LTD Cothing, Emporio Y2K, Hobbs and Topshop have also appeared with a host of celebrity models.

Fashion Awards

There are many fashion awards and competitions for design students and young designers. Since 1985 in Ireland and 1992 in Northern Ireland, the Satzenbrau Awards have been granted annually to student designers of clothing and accessories. The Smirnoff Young Designer Award started in England in 1984. Winners of the Irish award have the opportunity to compete in the Smirnoff International Fashion Awards.

The UK Skills Competition is hosted by Skill-fast UK, the council for the apparel, footwear and textiles. The council selects the top nine students from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and tests their dexterity in commercial pattern drafting for two days in November.

The degree shows of both the Belfast Arts College and Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education are opportunities to see upcoming young designers. At the BIFHE show, the Irish Linen Guild presents the winner of its annual student competition for the Irish Student Designer of the Year.

Ambitious young designers still in secondary education can participate in the Coca-Cola Form and Fusion Design Awards.

The Confédération Européene du Lil et du Chanvre (the European linen promotional body) awards the prestigious Fil d’Or annually in Monte Carlo, with previous recipients including Paul Costello and Mariad Whisker.