Jennifer Byrne Design Feature & Interview

Originally published 29th March, 2016

One of the most prevalent subject matters to have governed fashion publications over the last several months has been the conspicuous sequence of creative-director exits from long-established fashion labels. Following the remarkable domino-effect suffered by Balenciaga, Dior and Lanvin after their heads of design announced their respective departures (albeit with varying circumstances), rumour mills kicked into overdrive as to which pivotal figure would be the next to relinquish their fashion-house duties. The recent retreats splashed across industry headlines have garnered equal astonishment - namely the decision of Costume National founders Ennio and Carlo Capasa to leave their positions of 30 years, and Massimiliano Giornetti's sudden withdrawal from his creative director role at Salvatore Ferragamo. The statements issued by official brand representatives draw many parallels in their disclosures, citing personal reasons, desires to pursue outside projects and stressing the amicable nature of their separation. Above all of these accounts, however, one common denominator is undoubtedly shared by the majority of creative directors abandoning their roles: sheer disillusionment at the increasingly rapid pace demanded from luxury labels to churn out collections akin to fast-fashion purveyors. As social media platforms create disposable content at the blink of an eye, it appears now more that ever than the knock-on effect in the fashion industry is an insistence on narrowing the gap between high-end and high-street, as far as the speed of garment manufacturing is concerned. With such an emphasis on velocity over quality - not to mention the environmentally-hazardous implications involved - how could designers be expected to infuse their pieces with innovation, when barely enough time is allocated for the physical production of clothing itself?

While certain high-fashion brands may be currently enduring depleted ingenuity (notwithstanding notable, well-profiled exceptions to the rule), a number of eclectic, gleaming talents currently entering design industries are equipped with enough creativity and authentic craftsmanship to restore faith in the evolution of contemporary fashion. One vibrant example is LSAD graduate Jennifer Byrne, an imaginative alumna of 2nd Space Dublin‘s Young Designer Project whose ethereal pieces eclipse traditional silhouettes and ‘conveyer-belt’ clothing construction. Her trans-seasonal collection, entitled Scattered Scars Like Dust, combines ornate, 1920s influences with otherworldly design concepts; the latter stemming from diverse pagan and occultist attire. Incredible attention-to-detail manifests through her creations – from delicate lace adorning silk-velvet coats to hand-crafted celestial embellishments layered under pleated tulle. While the extravagant costumes of Les Folies Bergére and traditional, ceremonial attire may not immediately appear to draw similarities, both inspiration sources champion female empowerment spiritually and physically. This defines Byrne’s prevailing design ethos – her sartorial influences may vary greatly, but each unique collection thusfar has married a spellbinding aesthetic with a insightful backstory to striking effect. As her sartorial offerings are primed to launch in 2nd Space‘s Irish Design room this April, I spoke with Byrne regarding her long-established love of clothing customisation, the myriad features of Scattered Scars Like Dust and the importance of spotlighting sustainable fashion:

When was your interest in fashion and design first sparked?

I’ve always loved making things; as far back as I can remember! My mum has a Diploma in Design from the Grafton Academy although life events lead her in a different direction. Before I was born she used to make her own clothes and there have always been sewing machines around the house. Since I went to college my dad has taken up sewing too which is fantastic!

There is a picture of me at about 7 years old having appeared from my bedroom wearing a “dress” I fashioned from my favourite ‘Blankie’ and lots and lots of clothes pegs. From about 12 years old I was customising clothes or bags that I wanted to look differently or improve in a way that I would prefer. I had a plain black blazer that I got in a charity shop and preferred the look of the lining to the outside so I turned it inside out and took it in (very roughly!) at the seams to make it more fitted and added gold buttons. Another jacket that I had, I hated the collar so I chopped it off. I added chunky necklaces on the shoulders, a broken chain hanging from the chest pocket and glued silver buttons on top of the original ones. I lived in it! It probably looked awful but naturally I thought I looked great!

Growing up I had never thought of Art and Design as a plausible career as I’d always been told “get your academic degree done first and then you can do what you want”. So in the confusion of early adulthood, I applied for and got a place in Science at UCD. I loved Science but had a resounding feeling that I should be pursuing what I was really passionate about, so I deferred the year and did a portfolio course. Once my family saw how much passion I had for the course they were totally behind me. From there I went to Limerick School of Art and Design and have never looked back! I feel really lucky to have had so much support from family and friends, I suppose seeing me put in all the hours I could they knew it was the only thing for me!

How were you first struck with the inspiration base for “Scattered Stars Like Dust”?

I’m captivated with all things vintage: clothes, bags, pictures, little boxes, jewellery – I even have a couple of vintage bikes. During my internship in Paris I picked up postcards of the Folies Bergére – a group of frivolous performers from the 1920’s in Paris. I loved how alluring and flamboyant they were – to me it was like a celebration of the natural and curvaceous female body. I saw these women as playful and proud of their bodies and I really admired them. With further research, the moon (which I also have a fascination for) was recurrent in lots of the images and costume. This led me in the direction of pagan and occultist sources, in which the moon is seen as a powerful and alluring female deity. I drew inspiration from both the extravagant Folie costumes and traditional ritualistic attire. In order to portray the exuberance and mysticism of the story, I created unique and personalised fabrics and trims using hand dying, applying glitter, pleating, gathering, stitching and appliqué techniques. The collection embodies a celebration of vintage frivolity, female beauty and adornment, coupled with spiritual symbolism referencing the moon and stars.

What are you most influenced by when designing in general, or does this vary with each collection?

Everything! It definitely varies. I think my designs largely reflect my personality. Previous work has been inspired by quite a variety of things such as my mother’s trip to Africa in the 70’s, my beloved vintage Moulton bicycle and a Yucca that was planted around the time I was born. I get inspired by things close to me, things important to me or what I find interesting at the time.

What are your favourite materials to work with?

I love testing out different materials and combinations. For Scattered Stars Like Dust I mixed lots of different fabrics of varying textures and weights, some that I hadn’t used before. I gathered an eclectic mix of fabrics such as silk velvets, stretch velvets, dupion, silk crepe, lace, suiting, netting, tulle, lamé, and an upholstery fabric that I dyed and added glitter to. Some proved to be difficult to pair together, like the suiting and velvet but the result was worth it. I enjoy trying a bit of everything, experimenting and challenging myself.

Your previous work projects encompass a six-piece knit collection showcased in Cologne and Berlin (in collaboration with Schoeller Sussen’s hand knitting department Austermann), a sartorial feature in an exhibition alongside the Hunt Museum’s Sybil Connelly Archive and a three-month placement in Paris with Sharon Wauchob. Do you feel these diverse experiences have influenced your work and approach to design?

Definitely! For both the Austermann and Sybil Connelly projects we worked in design teams. I think it’s very important in the design industry to learn how to work as a team towards one ultimate goal, incorporating each person’s ideas, articulating your own clearly and deciding what to go ahead with. Designers, artists and social innovators are collaborating more and more with fantastic outcomes. Creative people often have strong individual ideas and it’s vital to be able to work well individually and together for the result to be successful!

The work placement in Paris with Sharon Wauchob was a huge learning experience for me.  It was my first experience of the industry, out in the real world. I found it tough at times as I was by myself in a place where I had very little of the language which can be isolating, but I was lucky to make good friends. I got to see what level of finish is expected of a luxury garment, what they send to and expect from a factory, sit in on fittings and photoshoots, work one on one with the pattern drafters and cut a huge variety of fabrics while learning how to handle them. I feel that I learnt a lot about myself during this time, for instance what type of designer I would like to be, what values I want my label to embody and what career path I want to follow within the industry.

For the past 5 months I’ve had the pleasure to be interning part-time with Zoë Carol in Dublin. I love working one on one with Zoë and having the opportunity to gain an insight into the day to day running of a blossoming business. She explains what she’s doing if I haven’t come across it before and I generally learn something new every day.

Who do you envisage wearing your eclectic designs?

A confident and free spirited woman who wants to express herself!  Some of the pieces shown as part of my graduate collection are very much show pieces. When I finished college I felt they radiated exuberance and positivity and I wanted to create pieces inspired by them that are more wearable day to day (like the Kuu Crop Top). I named most of the pieces after female Lunar Deities because I want the wearer to feel empowered in them.

As an emerging design talent based in this country’s burgeoning industry, what is your viewpoint towards Ireland’s fashion sector (particularly its support for up and coming creatives)?

Our little country has so much creativity and innovation to offer. I think that the Irish fashion sector is really open to and has lots of support for emerging creative talent. I think it’s fantastic to see organisations and awards that actively encourage students and graduates to enter as Student Designer, One to Watch etc. Lots of my peers have been successful recipients of awards at Kerry Fashion Week, Fashion Innovation Awards etc., and I was lucky enough to be awarded Category Winner for Fashion Design at the Institute of Designers in Ireland Graduate Awards in 2015.

Initiatives by trailblazing individuals, such as 2nd SPACE created by the wonderful Om Diva founder Ruth Ní Loinsigh, are supporting emerging designers on a huge level. Regular mentoring and talks from Irish industry professionals at 2nd SPACE are going to be invaluable in building the confidence and success of young Irish labels as well as giving them an opportunity to be part of the rejuvenating Irish Fashion Industry. Ruth has already been supporting local and emerging designers from the well-established Atelier 27 at her Om Diva boutique and her new venture at 2nd SPACE is going to be an exciting and brilliant support to young designers fresh from college, encouraging them to stay in Ireland.

What do you think are the merits/differences found in establishing a fashion label in Dublin, as opposed to a sprawling design metropolis such as London or Paris?

The global landscape of fashion is changing and I think consumers are becoming more consciously aware of the true cost of cheap and fast fashion. We are seeing a revival in the appreciation of Irish design, craft and skills. Working in the Kilkenny Shop, I can see how customers are actively seeking out Irish Designers; they are more conscious of where things are made, what they are made of and how to look after it. Consumers are more willing to buy items that will last longer and they want to support Irish Designers.

Even though I haven’t had much experience on an individual level within the Irish Fashion Industry just yet, I’ve seen that it’s quite a close knit industry. Designers, stylists, bloggers, models, agencies and boutique owners all know and support one another and that’s really encouraging. It’s great to have the opportunity now to be part of such a lively and growing creative sector. Ireland has so much to offer in all sectors, as well as being a short journey to both London and Paris if you needed to take a trip.

After a recent visit to London and having lived in Paris, I have to admit the pollution in these cities is a bit off-putting as a place to live at the moment, to establish a label or otherwise. I love being able to take a break and get out in the fresh air too much! A 30 minute drive and you’re practically in the countryside. I find it important to have nature close by for a clear head – that’s not to say I wouldn’t move to a metropolis city in the nearer or further future!

What designers do you admire most each season?

I really admire Daniel Romeril at the moment, how she has grown from strength to strength, sidestepping the traditional fashion show and opting for a more contemporary presentation format to present her collections. A recent discovery that I came across through Selfridge’s ‘Bright New Things’ is Katie Jones. She crochets vintage clothing and repurposed knits, combining materials or improving existing pieces. I find her approach resonates with my values and aims for a clothing brand. I think Richard Malone is truly brilliant; I love how he uses models from the street for fittings and photoshoots and sources unusual materials such as leftover fabric from aeroplane seats. He refuses to do things by the book and I love that. A true breath of fresh air for the industry.

What do you hope to convey in your garments that will resonate with fashion consumers?

I want the wearer to fall in love with each piece they own so that it becomes a special piece; for them to look after it and it to be treasured for a lifetime and then passed on. Fashion has the power to be such a strong communicative medium and I hope to convey a message of passion and fun, an expression of life, enjoyment and happiness through my clothing. I want the wearer to feel empowered wearing my pieces, to be lit up and feel beautiful and confident in themselves.

What can we expect to see next from you?

A real focus on sustainable and ethical fashion in my practical work. I want to focus on utilising repurposed fabrics while retaining the fun and playful frivolity I love to incorporate.  I am increasingly interested and intrigued by sustainable and ethical fashion and forever reading ‘To Die For’ by Lucy Siegle (a fantastic must read for any fashion enthusiast!). I believe it is something for both designers and consumers to be really consciously aware of and take responsibility for.

Jennifer Byrne’s innovative pieces will officially launch at 2nd Space’s Spring Party this April – click “here” to visit her website, where additional imagery and insights into her eponymous label can be found, while you can follow her on Instagram “here” for collection updates and inspiration. With such a genuine passion for meaningful design and a desire to instil confidence and joy through her eclectic garments, Jennifer’s creative approach would remind any disenchanted fashion veteran of why they fell for their industry in the first place.

Amelia xx

La Femme Éclectique