In the Fold with Curator Gemma A. Williams

At last year’s British Fashion Awards, the New Establishment Designer Award was presented to Simone Rocha and the Menswear Designer Award to J.W. Anderson. This was not the first time that London’s fashion domain awarded either of the aforementioned designers but it solidifies the argument that the industry is besotted by and has embraced upcoming Irish designers. For many, London is the perfect location to proliferate their career and nurture their unique talent.

Photo by James Hazlett-Beard

Photo by James Hazlett-Beard

In collaboration with Kildare Village, Irish Design 2015 sought to use London Fashion Week as a vehicle for spotlighting less established Irish designers. Thus, ‘In The Fold’ was born; an exhibition spanning February 20th – 24th which highlights the creativity and talent of eight promising fashion designers.

Gemma A. Williams is the curator tasked with achieving such a gargantuan project but her selection of Caoimhe MacNeice, Richard Malone, Jocelyn Murray Boyne, Michael Stewart, Naoise Farrell, Rory Parnell Mooney, Oliver Doherty Duncan and Laura Kinsella alone, has her captive audience salivating already.

Prior to the opening of the exhibition, I had the opportunity interview Gemma about her insights into the marketability of Irish design and the lack of society and commercial appreciation of Irish design that exists at home.

Rory Parnell Mooney by Panico

Rory Parnell Mooney by Panico

1. How did this project first come about and what drew you in?

The project was really driven by Aisling Farinella, who is the Fashion and Textiles advisor to the Irish Design 2015 initiative. Aisling was aware of my previous work for the British Council at the International Fashion Showcase and my passion to include and profile Ireland in this platform for emerging fashion. My practice is basically all about creating fashion narratives and promoting designers who are starting out on their journey so the opportunity to showcase young Irish fashion designers during London Fashion Week is a massive draw. Also, the fact that I am a strong supporter of Irish design gernerally, having worked with the Embassy of Ireland in London on two occasions, meant that I instinctively felt attracted to the project.

2. The profession of a curator is rarely one which is explicitly described within a public forum but what did your role in ‘Into the Fold’ entail?

Where do I begin? Being a curator outside of a museum, and not caring for a collection, actually means you have to wear many and every hat. It has no real set of rules and is incredibly hands-on and varied. I was involved in all areas of the show from designer selection and requesting imagery to creating the narrative thread. Luckily, an exhibition designer was commissioned, ABGC, so they worked on this narrative and concept to produce the spatial perimeters of the show. But it’s really never ending in terms of logistics and production. I’m also required to install the garments, devise the text and then promote the show. I’ve also been encouraging designers to engage with social media to make sure they get the most they can from this opportunity. It is hoped the show will be installed and displayed in another venue, so it would be really great if as many spectators as possible could see the exhibition.

Laura Kinsella by Johnny McMillan

Laura Kinsella by Johnny McMillan

3. What is unique about each of the designers highlighted in the exhibition?

I think what sets them apart from other international graduates is their understanding and respect for design. There is definitely a thought process there, and an intellectual approach to what they are designing and then making. I think their reference points and what is influencing them is different and also in practical terms fabric sourcing is different, we don’t have big fairs in Ireland so a lot of these young graduates are making and embellishing their own, so material is really vital here. I saw the appliqué of Michael Stewart’s dresses up close and it is just staggering. The colour is so powerful and I got a really strong wave of emotion when I saw it. For me, if a work of art touches you, it is very special and unique.

I think Richard Malone has the making of a really exciting and inspiring fashion thinker. He won the Deutsche Prize which is a worldwide competition and this is funding his first collection. I know that a lot of platforms even outside of the United Kingdom approached him to show with them yet he is choosing to present his collection on his own terms, here in London. This is so refreshing and shows that he will take the industry on his own terms, and not get lost in the system. I think this sense of self is very unique.

Michael Stewart by Andrew Nuding

Michael Stewart by Andrew Nuding

4. Why are Irish design and Irish designers so attractive to an international audience?

I think it’s a really exciting time now for Irish designers but this is due to the name they are making in London. London is arguably the best city for a young designer to be based as there’s support and the daring audeince. Experimentation is really valued and feted over here, in fact it’s actively encouraged. Of course, fashion brands need to be comercially viable as well as it’s about how designers make that shift from press favourite to a functional label and I think Irish designers have this ‘double ability’. They possess the creativity but also the logical business mind to see what they will attract, but what will sell as well. In terms of curation, for me, it’s great to be able to commission and display pieces which don’t necessarily need to be worn or can exist at the edges of the fashion spectacle. This exhibition features work which is all very wearable and illustrates that the Irish aesthetic is at it’s very heart, highly practical.

Jocelyn Murray Boyne by Sean Jackson

Jocelyn Murray Boyne by Sean Jackson

5. Brewer Street Car Park has previously been home to House of Holland at Fashion Week but was the fusion of design and the mechanical instrustry a conscious decision?

This venue was actually chosen by the British Council and the British Fashion Council but they do tend to favour a raw, industrial aesthetic. This is a popular fashion venue in London and it’s funny some of the reactions the venue provokes. It’s just typical London, which I like.

Olivia Doherty by Khara Pringle

Olivia Doherty by Khara Pringle

6. What do you want the main talking point of the exhibition to be?

I really hope the main talking point is to bring Irish fashion into the spotlight in Ireland and see how Government bodies and institutions, retail, museological etc. can help the sector grow exponentially. From what I hear, designers are really struggling in Ireland. Initiatives like CREATE at Brown Thomas are fantastics but we need more of this. Not Fashion Weeks because there is no point in Ireland trying to compete on this level, but definitely looking to other countries which aren’t fashion capitals like Norway, Germany of Spain to see how they are supporting their newcomers.

Worldwide, Irish fashion designers are definitely recognised so it’s now time for people in Ireland to take fashion seriously at both a commercial and cultural level. It would be great to see some form of serious mentoring set up to help or investigate how young Irish creatives can tap into the fashion system to say, London for example, but keep the production in Ireland. It’s a really exciting time for us and I can’t wait to see how it evolves.

Thank you very much to Gemma for her time, experience and insights. If you would like to know more about ‘In The Fold’, you can find Gemma on Twitter and Instagram.

Written by

Sinéad Burke is an academic and a writer with an obsessive interest in fashion, education and 'Extraordinary Women'. She is an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Women's Council of Ireland.