Six Influential Irish Fashion Designers
Discover six of the most famous Irish designers whose flair for fashion left a mark on the industry
London, Paris and Milan might be regularly touted as European fashion capitals, but did you know there was also a world of style history on the Emerald Isle? Since the 1950’s Irish designers have been lauded for their skill and taste in everything from handbags to hats, and they’ve catered to some of the richest and most famous figures in the world.
Sybil Connolly (1921-1998)
Born in England to Irish and Welsh parents, Sybil Connolly moved to Ireland as a teenager after her father, a native of County Waterford, passed away. At seventeen she headed back to Britain to apprentice at Bradley & Co, a London dressmaking company run by a pair of Irish brothers named Jim and Comerford Bradley, who could number Queen Mary of the United Kingdom among their clientele. After several years being introduced to the design trade, Connolly returned once more to Ireland in 1940 and it was here that she would ultimately make a name for herself. In 1953 she became the new head designer at the Dublin clothes shop Richard Alan, and the designs she showcased for her first season in the role were soon turning heads. Connolly’s clever revitalisation of classic Irish staples such as red petticoats, white crochet, and Irish linen and tweed were a breath of fresh air, and especially popular in America. Hollywood stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Julie Andrews were seen wearing her clothes and, the ultimate coup, Jacquline Kennedy wore a signature Connolly pleated linen dress for an official White House portrait in 1970. Connolly’s status in the fashion world is undisputed, and her place in Irish culture was summed up by former Taoiseach Jack Lynch, who referred to her as “a national treasure”. Examples of her work are now held in the Hunt Museum, Limerick
Unless you’ve been walking around blindfolded for the past ten years you can’t have failed to have noticed Orla Kiely’s fresh and fun designs splashed on bags, stationary, homeware, dresses, and even double-decker buses. Born and raised in Ireland, Kiely attended the National College of Arts and Design in Dublin, where she qualified as a textile designer. Her early career took her to the United States, where she got her start working for a fabric and wallpaper designer. Later she moved back across the Atlantic, this time headed for England, where she added to her credentials by completing a master’s degree at London’s Royal College of Art. As part of her degree she partook in an exit show, where a range of her hats were snapped up by iconic British department store, Harrods. Kiely continued to focus on hats, along with handbags, into the 1990s, when she hit upon the idea of laminating the cloth she used. This unique technique gave her pieces the eye-catching sheen they’re known for today, and soon her career was going from strength to strength. Kiely is equally recognised for her colourful, nature-based geometric designs which have been worn by everyone from film star Kirsten Dunst to Kate Middleton.
Irene Gilbert (1910-1985)
Widely recognised as Ireland’s first couturier, this Tipperary-born contemporary of Sybil Connolly put Dublin on the fashion map in the 1950s with her exquisite craftsmanship. Like Connolly, she spent a period of time in London honing her skills at the royal court before returning home in the 1940s. Her shop on St. Stephen’s Green, which she opened in 1947 was the first successful design establishment in Ireland to be headed up by a woman. Gilbert’s new business was a game-changer for fashion minded Irish women, who had previously had to go abroad to buy their couture. Gilbert made use of linen, silk, and tweed in her designs, but it was her work with Carrickmacross lace that was truly exquisite. An evening dress of this material was worn by Hollywood icon and former Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly, who became a close friend of the designer’s after reaching out about Gilbert’s work. Gilbert also dressed the wives of Irish Presidents and any number of Irish socialites, as well as using her talent to create one of the early incarnations of the Aer Lingus flight attendant uniform.
Renowned world-wide, Paul Costelloe has been an enduring name in Irish fashion for over thirty years. Born and raised in Dublin in 1945, Costelloe left his home town at the age of 23 to study design at the celebrated Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris. Exiting his studies, he remained in the French capital from 1969 to 1971 as an assistant to well-known designer Jacques Esterel. His career then took him further afield to Italy, where he designed for the luxury shop La Rinascente, after which he spent five years in New York working for the classic American designer, Anne Fogarty. On his return to Dublin in 1979, Costelloe set up his own label and began to work out of a modest production house. It was here that he developed the simple, clean, and elegant style that caught the eye of Diana, Princess of Wales, who made him her personal designer in 1982. In the wake of this promotion, Costelloe’s work soon became internationally renowned, winning him three prestigious Fil d’Or awards and regular spots in fashion events around the world. Autumn 2021 will mark his thirtieth appearance at London Fashion Week, where his talent is as appreciated as ever.
This Irish fashion designer from Tipperary got her big break in 1990, when she had the landmark honour of designing the inauguration outfit for Ireland’s first woman president, Mary Robinson. Kennedy had already been in the fashion business for six years by this point. She set up her label in 1983 after having graduated from the College of Marketing and Design in Dublin (now part of TUD). In 1998 her first Dublin flagship shop was opened on Merrion Square, followed by another in London, and then by showcases and trunk collections in New York. Kennedy is easily one of the most prolific and high-end contemporary Irish designers, designing for both female Irish presidents, Sabina Higgins, the wives of two British Prime Ministers, sundry members of both European and Middle Eastern royal houses, and A-list actresses such as Meryl Streep. Her creations are timeless and luxurious, favouring attention to detail and rich colours.
Once described by Vogue magazine as “perhaps the greatest living milliner ”, Philip Tracey is one of the true heavy-weights of Irish fashion. Born in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway in 1967, Tracey moved to Dublin city in his late teens to pursue fashion in the National College of Art and Design. Like his fellow NCAD alumnus, Orla Kiely, Tracey then continued on to study at masters-level in Royal College of Art in London after winning a scholarship. In London he quickly caught the eye of Isabella Blow, style editor of Tatler magazine, who would become an important influence on his career. Blow took a particular interest in Treacy’s hats, and commissioned an entire collection. These mind-boggling creations utilised feathers, hypnotic patterns, and abstract shapes, with the stand-out headpiece resembling a fully-rigged sailing ship. The collection was displayed in London before going on a global tour, garnering 43,000 visitors when it landed in Dublin. Reputation established, Treacy went on to have his hats modelled by supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss. In the course of his career he has collaborated with Givenchy, Chanel, Valentino, and Versace. Tracey also designed headwear for the Harry Potter films, and he has been worn by Madonna, Lady Gaga, and multiple members of the British Royal Family.
Now that you’ve been introduced to some of the celebrities of the Irish fashion circle, we hope you’ll take inspiration and inject some of our homegrown glamour into your own life!