Fashioning Joe Carlin

How Derry~Londonderry's year as UK City of Culture helped the designer to realise a dream

There’s a building about halfway up Shipquay Street in Derry~Londonderry, just inside the city walls, that has recently been acquired by the Inner City Trust. Planning permission has been received to renovate for new use, and the funding for the work is currently being sourced.

The idea is to turn it into a fashion and textile hub. Not a museum or a gallery, but a place of production, a home for fabrics, materials, designers, makers and business and marketing experts all under one roof. It will draw on the city’s history as a place where clothes were made, harnessing existing talent to drive the city’s future.

One man who is desperate to see it come off is Joe Carlin. Aged 29, Carlin was born and raised in the city. He has seen countless friends leave, but he has stayed, because he is passionate about the place. He yearns not just to see it succeed, but to play a part in that success, and is convinced there are contributions that only he can make.


Utter conviction, a love of fashion, a desire to create, a commitment to Derry~Londonderry: these stripes run through Carlin like words through a stick of rock. Carlin left St Columb’s College at 18, with A Levels in Art and Art History. A succession of jobs followed – laminating memorial cards, office work, clothes shops, shoe shops, jewellers, call centres. All the while he, like many others in the city, sort to satisfy his creative impulses in his free time.

Along with a cousin, Marie-Therese Martin, Carlin dressed the Christmas window of a city centre fashion outlet, working for free. It was a high fashion Nativity, Joseph in denim and skatewear and a Miss Sixty Mary. As soon as it was finished the shop told them to take it down. Only when it won an award for best-dressed window from the City Centre Initiative did they decide they’d liked it all along.

That led to Ciara Martin enlisting Carlin’s help for a fashion show to promote her business, and before he knew it, Carlin was designing the set, dressing and styling the models, organising the choreography. The success of this show led to another and another. The creative work continued to come in, as Carlin’s reputation for a knowledge of fashion and the ability to put on a show grew.

He did more fashion shows, used his calligraphy skills to craft invitations, helped Salon Syenna with their model search project, dressed the Foyle Pride ball. His development was organic, as others recognised what he had always known – that fashion was in his DNA, just as it was in the DNA of the city. 'There’s a history of style and fashion in Derry,' Carlin explains. 'The shirt factories, the styling, the pride in appearance, the designing, and the making. I feel part of that ethos.'

In 2010, Carlin’s father died. He was subsequently made redundant. He did, however, receive his first paid commission, from Derry City Council, who asked him to produce a show on the walls for the first Culture Night Derry. The following year the council asked him again.

'It was slow and hard, though,' recalls Carlin. 'I was attempting to maintain a reputation as the fashion man, but all that was only ever on the sidelines.' So he took another job in another call centre. 'I had no idea if I was going backwards or forwards. I wanted to break a pattern, but there were no creative jobs available, other than the odd fashion show where I was always showing off other people’s talent.'

2012 was a pivotal year. The frustrations of trying to create a niche for himself eventually proved too much. 'I had a meltdown. I bought a one-way ticket to Ibiza. I had no job and no idea what I was going to do, but I had enough to keep me there for a fortnight and I reckoned I could get work by the time the money ran out.'

Within a day of arriving, an email came from Noelle McAlinden, then at Ilex. A spotter and nurturer of talent, McAlinden's email talked of the build-up to the UK City of Culture year, and the various creative projects that were about to happen. 'I’ve known Noelle since I was 17,' says Carlin. 'She didn’t mention anything specific, but the email planted a seed. I knew it was the wrong time to be away from the city. But I also knew I needed to make something happen.'

On his return, Carlin started attending City of Culture meetings. 'I wanted to know what was going on, to immerse myself in everything. I was proactively seeking chances.' He knew there were meetings going on to which he wouldn’t be invited, so he just turned up, to get involved in the discussions.

One such meeting involved fashion designer, Wayne Hemingway, who was in the city to advise on events. That was at the City Hotel. Hemingway spoke to the open forum, and was then taken off for a private meeting. “' liked what I heard and I wanted to hear more, so I pushed myself into that meeting,' Carlin remembers. 'Noelle was going so I just latched on to her.'

Carlin managed to speak to Hemingway and was inspired by what he heard. 'Make things happen,' Hemingway told him. 'Do things. Have confidence. Have conviction.' Hemingway also told the council to get Carlin involved and listen to his ideas, and so he ran the Shapeshifter Catwalk, a design competition for Hallowe’en, another feature of the Derry~Londonderry DNA.

As well as attending pretty much everything that happened in 2013, Carlin co-produced Off the Cuff, a show featuring the designs of local students. 'It sold out,' Carlin recalls. But his pride was mixed with frustration. 'That showed the thirst for fashion in this town, but by Paddy’s Day fashion was all wrapped up. The powers that be don’t listen to the right people. They’re not getting out and speaking to people. There’s a lack of vision among the purse-holders.'

One body that did listen was the social enterprise group, UnLtd, to whom Carlin pitched the idea for his first business, 'The idea is to create an online presence for local fashion and style creatives. It’s a who’s who of fashion in the North-West. There are loads of designers here in the city, all working in their own time while holding down full-time jobs, but they have no platform. This gives them that platform and shows customers there’s a design and made-to-order capability here in the city.'

A second business is about to be launched. Tarred and Feathered is a joint venture with Carlin working alongside Martha Lewtas – SEN Teacher by day, designer by night, and another of Derry~Londonderry’s currently under-the-radar creatives. It is a project close to Carlin’s heart, as it will offer a bespoke service using his and Lewtas’ own designs. They will also make the clothes. The name is deliberately chosen, a brand in more than one sense of the word.

More than a simple fashion service, Tarred and Feathered aims to champion individuality, where the clothes will reflect the character and spirit of the wearer. 'I want to hear what young people have to say, and, with their voice, produce clothes which will help them say it. It’s playful and powerful and we’ll be flipping the stigma. Personal experience, personal service, private empowerment.'

Carlin wore the first of his and Lewtas’ designs at the Turner Prize awards night. It was a shirt made with fabric sourced from an old City Factory, bearing the legend 'Scarlet ribbons and red tape'. The fabric, the garment, and the message were deliberately political.

Fashion is an essential element of Derry~Londonderry’s culture and yet, according to Carlin, his was the only shirt made in the city of shirt factories during its entire year as City of Culture. 'We’re the shirt people,' he says. 'But purse-strings and paperwork are proving to be obstacles. There’s a lack of vision. It’s hard for a designer to move from drawings to the physical product.

The powers that be are guilty of not moving fast enough to create a textile and fashion infrastructure. We need a tertiary qualification in fashion and design in the city, because students will bring growth. We need to see fashion as important as music and food to the growth of the city. At the very least I’d like to see a Derry fashion week on the events calendar.'

Should the Inner City Trust’s plans for the Shipquay Street hub come to fruition, that could go a long way to meeting Carlin’s demands. 'At the moment, people leave, and I can’t blame them,' he says of Derry. 'It’s hard to remain here. The Shipquay Street project will help local designers. It will help channel and utilise their talent.

'It could be ideal. Retail and office space, designers, incubation businesses. There’ll be financial and business support, mentoring and guidance. We can partner up.' And it would, of course, help Carlin develop his own businesses too. 'I need to see other people being successful in fashion. That will help me. We can create an industry and a community.'

For further information on the Inner City Trust Shipquay Street project, contact project manager, Deirdre Wild, on 077239 64671 or