The Fashion Press in Ireland are pro-active and encouraging, they paint London Fashion Week in the best light possible to encourage our young talent. The reality though is our fashion practitioners struggle on the other side of the pond. If we live on an island so close in proximity to the worlds fashion hubs, London and Paris, why do they feel so far away? We have a very active fashion industry but the man or woman on the street and the world at large are oblivious to the efforts of the Irish Fashion Industry? You may argue that we have a few shining stars on the international stage, but lets be realistic…

The Fashion Press in Ireland are pro-active and encouraging, they paint London Fashion Week in the best light possible to encourage our young talent. The reality though is our fashion practitioners struggle on the other side of the pond. If we live on an island so close in proximity to the worlds fashion hubs, London and Paris, why do they feel so far away? We have a very active fashion industry but the man or woman on the street and the world at large are oblivious to the efforts of the Irish Fashion Industry? You may argue that we have a few shining stars on the international stage, but lets be realistic, we punch above our weight in many fields, but not fashion. There have been ‘token’ government initiatives in the past, the most recent under the umbrella of ID2015. But if you ask any minister what industries show promise… agriculture, energy, tourism and technology roll easy from the tongue, but never fashion. While I am not a big believer in hand-outs, I do believe responsible and considered aid are necessary here. If we look across the pond we see real initiatives in the fashion industry, too many to mention, but one really stands out for me, the London Olympics.

Yes …the Olympics…

The organisers decided to close the spectacle with British Fashion. Viewed around the world by 750 million people. This is a country which takes their fashion industry seriously. The UK household Consumption of Clothing and footwear annually is £59 Billion. Having worked in London and New York for many years, I am well aware of the Irish talent resident elsewhere. In the Big Apple we used to socialise as a group regularly, the Irish tend to stick together, a tribe, in Greenwich Village we termed our group the Irish Fashion Mafia, it’s members holding top positions in the worlds best fashion magazines and design houses in the city. The phenomena is even more pronounced in London. Irish fashion graduates and practitioners are highly respected abroad. In fact the Irish are well respected in most fields internationally, but our fashion diaspora are different, these skills and experience don’t necessarily filter back home in the same numbers as other industries? The fashion practitioners who do return to Ireland most often struggle, it is challenging here. There is no structured core fashion industry to support start ups. Those who survive here are to be admired and studied. The industry is not devoid of a few shining lights, the Council of Irish fashion designers (CIFD) and a press who I’ve mentioned encourage and shine a spotlight on every fashion effort, the schools have built very design faculties, but this is not enough.

Why is it easier to get on a plane leaving Ireland than get on one heading back?

Getting international attention… Internationally the world already recognizes what Ireland can do. But the fashion industry has a long road to go for real sustained success in London. To achieve this, Irish designers need structured effective help. Each season if a strong collective of Irish fashion talent were to present at London Fashion Week it would in turn establish a foundation in Ireland, encouraging the stepping stones to London. This would in turn generate new sales opportunities and a brand profile internationally. A more consistent and focussed approach is needed to catch the attention of international buyers. Ireland has a small population, an even smaller consumer base, the only way forward here is to build a larger international customer base.

“Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment.”
– Alexander McQueen

It is marketing 101, the curriculum in its most basic form.

So why has it not gained much momentum over the years? This year in Ireland is the “Year of Design” – ID2015, to mark this event some designers took part in a special presentation in the Unfold Collection at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, to “grow their brands and sell contemporary creativity to a gathering of international buyers” during London Fashion week. Their skills crossed womenswear, accessories, fine jewellery and millinery. Obviously every talented fashion designer could not be invited by The Design & Crafts Council to go to London, but the prudence of including such a large proportion of jewellery and milinery at LFW 2015 is questionable. It could also be asked if the Design & Craft Council’s remit to include fashion in their brief is a qualified decision, while there is an overlap between the craft and fashion sectors, the two industries are fundamentally apart and have completely different customer acquisition strategies. Latching satellite Irish fashion events to New York, London and Paris events is not necessarily a creative marketing strategy, international fashion buyers are stretched very thin at these events.

Success is a series of small steps, we don’t need rocket science, we need a marketing strategy.

What should be done? Irish fashion should be cohesively represented each year in London, supported by private and public funding. Forget New York, Paris and Milan in the short term. This support should be open to all, to Irish designers here and abroad, these efforts should be organised by a qualified and effective Irish Fashion body that is independent of government. The present process of providing small grants to young designers to attend trade shows is a shot in the dark, it is as they say in American football… a “Hail Mary” pass, or closer to home referred to as the ‘Long Ball’ game. A proper fashion body with private/public sector funding and expertise should replace the Local Enterprise board for all fashion related enterprises. There is no expertise at the local level. Basic manufacturing should be encouraged and supported by third level schools, there are private/public technology hubs at most colleges, why not set up small manufacturing and design seed units at all the fashion colleges, supported by a resident business faculty? While large scale manufacturing doesn’t look likely with our labor red tape and costs, small scale options provide entry to market for small startups and would provide an insight to the processes involved. Tax exemptions for Irish design, textile and clothing manufacturing should be on the table, it would only have a positive result for the exchequer. Showcase Ireland each January at the RDS supports Irish fashion, but it is fragmented and diluted. Why not have an independent event for fashion and accessories. Just think, fashion buyers from Neiman Marcus and Barney’s travel the world each year stocking their shelves, it takes a huge effort on their behalf, they won’t travel to Ireland to pick through halls of Blarney and shillelaghs. Make their lives easy, treat them as you would visitors to the Web Summit, take them very seriously, and hey! … when their work is done maybe Bono would also take them on a pub crawl?

Education

Finally, the fashion colleges need to have a real business faculty on-site. As someone who works with young designers each week, I am only too aware they are well educated, hardworking and highly motivated, but they have zero marketing acumen. If anyone tells you otherwise, they don’t work in the industry. When you consider the fashion business is all about sales, this is a serious oversight by Irish colleges. Many talented fashion graduates have jumped on the earliest airplane after graduation, it used to be the only path to success, however times have changed and when you consider the efficiency of international shipping companies, plus digital platforms in manufacturing, communication and commerce, it has become possible to work from anywhere. The foundation is there, a large pool of creative talent graduating our schools each year heading off into the blue yonder to gain experience, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but how do we tap this established fashion diaspora worldwide? We need to build some roads and bridges at home, to tap that potential in an effective and serious way.