‘Sustainability is not a trend’ – Irish designer Aoife McNamara is changing the industry one collection at a time

It’s a cold January day; grey and dull, but for the lilac vision that is weaving her way towards me, dazzling the otherwise dark corner I am occupying. I had met 24-year-old fashion designer and Limerick native Aoife McNamara once before and was struck then by her self-confidence. She blends into her surroundings like Liberace at a royal wedding – which is to say not at all, but also perfectly. Today she is wearing one of her own Aoife Ireland bold signature creations: big-shouldered lilac jacket and matching high-waisted trousers reminiscent of an ’80s Dynasty character, but with added flair and sophisticated structure.

For someone so young, McNamara possesses a remarkable maturity and yet it’s gilded with an innocent affability that makes you want to both ask her advice and give her a cuddle. When she talks, it’s with an air of worldliness and wonder, and an occasional nervous giggle.

“I’m walking funny,” she laughs, plonking herself down on the seat in front of me. This, she tells me, is because she started triathlon training last night after a long respite. Despite the 6in heels, she carries it well. It is exactly this mix of poise, enthusiasm and guileless youth that has seen her storming the fashion barricades, despite literally walking out the college doors. When most of her friends were jetting off to sunnier climes for college summer holidays, she was pounding the pavements of New York and Paris looking for a job.

“Those summers were pretty insane,” she sighs. “I was lucky to intern for Marc Jacobs in New York, which was surreal. The pace is so much faster there – you’re on a conveyor belt of designs – but I learned so much about how the industry works.”

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Most millennials might be intimidated by the experience, but not McNamara.

“I just found it really exciting,” she gushes. “But I do remember one morning getting into the elevator with Marc and his dog, and I literally froze; I couldn’t think of one single thing to say,” she groans, head in hands.

Once she had completed her four-year fashion-design degree at LSAD (Limerick School of Art & Design) in 2018, she took a job as an intern for Paris Fashion Week.

“I had a job for one week but beyond that, literally nothing. I knew nobody and hadn’t a word of French,” she laughs, seemingly tickled by the whole experience. “I mean, who does that?” Clearly someone with moxie and steely ambition. She stayed for five months, eventually returning home enticed by an offer to design corporate uniforms. Really? It seems a departure from the flair and fabulousness of Paris.

“It was certainly a different experience,” she laughs, “but I had this idea to go travelling to Australia so it was really about saving money.” She did save money, but not for Australia. Instead, a chance commission from celebrity blogger Suzanne Jackson, and subsequent endorsements from other celebrities such as Louise Cooney, Roz Purcell and Vogue Williams, gave her the buzz status which helped get her brand noticed and up and running.

“It was very organic,” she says. “I knew I’d like to have my own business some day, but not yet,” she stresses. “I was wearing my own designs on my Instagram account but hadn’t thought about selling them yet. Then people started asking me if they could buy the top I was wearing, or my trousers. It wasn’t until Suzanne [Jackson], who I knew through my sister, asked me to design something for her Dripping Gold tan launch, that I took the leap.”

It has since been a meteoric rise for the designer, with nearly 20k Instagram followers and steadily rising, and a solid list of clients in just one year.

In October she set up a website to facilitate the growing demand for orders. Before that, sales were made directly through Instagram. She confesses to having Instagram to thank for her success. Has she experienced the vagaries of social media, I wonder?

“Not really, but I’m careful who I collaborate with. It’s important that the people I work with share the same interests as me and represent my brand in the right way.”

Fellow Limerick native Louise Cooney is a big supporter. “Louise is amazing – she gets what I’m trying to do and loves my designs. It’s not just about the product,” she says, pausing. “It’s also about the message, which I think she gets.”

So what is her message? “Empowering women,” she answers emphatically. “It’s about feeling good and confident in clothes that matter. I work a lot with businesswomen and I think my clothes make women feel more confident.”

This mantle is at the core of her designs, which riff on the flamboyant, but with sharp tailoring and bold colours. “My client is definitely ambitious and outgoing, not afraid to dream big or go for what she wants.” Much like McNamara herself, her clients are risk takers, which is why it comes as a surprise that she, unlike so many other young creatives, didn’t succumb to the gravitational pull of cultural hubs like New York, London or Paris, or even Dublin for that matter, to cut her proverbial teeth post-college.

“I had my time in Paris and New York, and I’m in London so much sourcing fabrics that I don’t feel like I really missed out. I didn’t feel the need to move there after college and while I’d love to live in Dublin, it would mean sacrificing my own studio in Limerick, and I’d rather put that money into my business and live at home than pay rent and give that up,” she says sagely.

Being based in Ireland has also afforded her the opportunity to develop key relationships with Irish mills and maintain a seminal element of her brand: sustainability. More than class-consciousness, the ethics of the industry itself have made her uncomfortable. Fashion is, as an industry, the world’s second-largest polluter next to oil, and few bar Trump could deny it. It creates greenhouse-gas emissions of 1.2bn tonnes a year – greater than that of international flights and shipping combined – with 85pc of textiles ending up in landfills. But young customers’ burgeoning interest in ethical issues – and designers, like McNamara, championing it – offers a tiny chink of light.

“It should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and especially designers, in terms of how not to waste materials,” says McNamara, who this year will complete a course in sustainable design at Central Saint Martins College in London and will be attending the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the world’s leading business event on sustainability in fashion. But in a world where fast fashion doesn’t show much sign of releasing its stranglehold on the industry, does she think sustainability has a fighting chance?

“It’ll be hard,” she muses. “Why wouldn’t you buy the €5 dress that you don’t mind throwing away after a few washes because it didn’t break the bank? But sustainability is not a trend; it’s a way of life. The problem is, I don’t think people know the impact the fashion industry has on the environment, that clothes don’t break down in landfills, and its our job as designers to educate them and lead the way. It’s about changing people’s mindsets. If you change the consumer, you’ll change the company. I’m interested in making clothes built to last, clothes you can hand down through generations that are versatile. That’s the future of fashion, I think.”

Keeping as much of the production in Ireland as she can comes at a price, of course, but on a personal level she’s happier about the ethics of her decision.

“Yes, it would be so much cheaper for me to use factories abroad – it’s probably triple the price to produce here -but it’s important that I become 100pc sustainable; I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.”

She has previously sourced fabrics from several mills around Ireland but recently collaborated with John Hanly Woollen Mills in Nenagh to produce her new collection ‘She’s a Dreamer’ for Showcase 2020 (January 19-22 at the RDS in Dublin).

John and his team were so impressed with the collection of women’s capes she designed for them that they invited her to design her own signature wool. The mere mention of this evokes a passionate reaction. “Can you believe it?” she says, eyes wide in mock-horror. “Nobody else in the world will have this wool.”

One of the advantages of living and working in Ireland is how the landscape informs her work, she tells me; it’s a huge mood board for her.

“The wool is inspired by Irish sunsets so it’s coral in colour but with a lemon and pink check. It’s really beautiful,” she adds, before admitting that she’s a “bit obsessed with sunsets”. “Come to think of it, coral is probably my favourite colour.” Ask what her favourite piece is of all her designs and you’ll find it’s a Victorian puff-sleeve, big-shouldered coral suit – big shoulders are her thing. She should have been born in the 1980s, I tell her. “Well, if I had to bring back one era of design, that would be it,” she laughs, before admitting that most people who see her designs ask if she watches Dynasty. “I’ve never even seen it,” she hoots with laughter. The big shoulders, as it happens, are inspired by her love of architecture. Her favourite subject in school was technical drawing and, in order to be a good fashion designer, you “have to understand technical drawing”. “I love the idea of building something and it appearing in front of you – it’s all about the construction.”

At 24, McNamara is smack in the middle of the millennial generation and, while the onset of the digital landscape and everything that comes with it could be daunting for young creatives, she is clearly excited about it.

“Being a millennial in Ireland has been incredible. We’re so vocal in what we love doing and we’re not afraid to put things out there online. It’s nice to see the country responding to that positively. When you think about it, nobody had a brand before; now everyone has a brand. You only have to look at the response to Repeal the Eighth and the marriage referendum to know that we’re not afraid to share our thoughts and voices.”

Putting herself ‘out there’ comes naturally to McNamara. She has no social media ‘strategy’ per se but admits that she’s organised. A quick glance at her Insta handles @aoife_ireland and @aoifemcnamarax and it’s clear there’s a carefully manicured mix of fashion hauls and designs, mainly modelled by herself – what better muse does she need? Pressed to reveal any fashion disasters that have befallen her and she giggles, recalling the time she was asked to design dresses for two big Irish celebrities for the VIP Style awards, which they never wore. This would have been a blow to most young designers but she took it in her stride, wearing the designs herself.

Not one to reflect on past mistakes she focuses her energies on the next challenge. For now, that’s Showcase, where she will be launching her latest collection, with her own “beautiful wool”, the soon-to-launch line of capes for John Hanly, an exciting collaboration with Newbridge Silverware involving designs for a photoshoot to complement their new jewellery range – and she hopes to work with a big international buyer this year.

It’s clear McNamara has an insatiable appetite for work; I wonder what she does to relax. A long pause ensues. She’s clearly struggling to remember. “I love triathlons,” she offers (unsurprisingly, her favourite accessory is not the latest designer handbag but her Fitbit). I gently remind her that triathlon training isn’t usually considered a relaxing pastime. Reading, yoga, Netflix, I prompt?

“I don’t really read. I do watch Netflix but mostly documentaries. I love audiobooks,” she says, satisfied. What’s she currently listening to? She looks sheepish. Crush It by Gary Vaynerchuk – a book about being a successful entrepreneur, and the user manual to her goal of bringing Aoife Ireland international.

It’s not just the bold, unconventional attire or the pretty elfin face and big-tailored shoulders that draw you in; it’s the dogged determination that follows a step behind.

“Being a creative is hard – you tend to compare yourself with what’s beside you and, for a while, I doubted myself. But I’ve learnt that you’ve got to stick to your own lane and believe in your own ability,” she says with steeliness, before jumping from her seat in surprise.

“Is that the clampers?” she squeals. “The parking meter was broken so I just abandoned the car.”

And with that she’s off out the door, a whirlwind in lilac running in her own very fast lane.

Aoife will be one of over 80 Local Enterprise Office clients in the Local Enterprise Showcase area, located on the balcony at Showcase Ireland in the RDS, which runs from tomorrow until January 22


Photography by Frank McGrath

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