The tall, expansive, reserved exterior of the Georgian building suggests a certain easy living, but it belies the inside. The rooms are large, airy, light, but they’re functional, they’re places of work. The tables are big and sturdy, covered with cuts of fabric, notebooks, and laptops. There are magazine cuttings around the walls, which are lined with clothes rails and mannequins bearing bikini tops, shorts, mini-skirts, and dresses.
This is 31-33, Shipquay Street, a roll down from the Diamond in the heart of Derry~Londonderry, home to the city’s Fashion and Textile Design Centre. The building is owned and managed by the Inner City Trust, the organisation established in 1981 with the objectives of urban regeneration, relief of poverty, and the advancement of education and skills.
Given Derry~Londonderry’s history of shirt making and textiles, the establishment of a fashion hub was something of a no-brainer. Another was the appointment of Bernie Murphy, whose background made her the perfect candidate for Project Co-ordinator.
For more than 20 years she worked in the North West’s clothing industry, learning the intricacies of garment construction and developing her knowledge of making with different fabrics and materials.
The idea of the FTDC is simple. 'We take fashion designers, graduates in fashion and textile design, and artisans,' says Murphy, 'and provide them with a six- month incubation period. At the start of their time with us, each designer completes a questionnaire, which allows us to see their needs, strengths, qualities, and gaps in knowledge.'
Headphones by Miriam Stainsby
A work plan for each individual is then devised and followed, so, by the end of the six months, each designer is better prepared for the demands of life in the fashion industry.
'We aim to foster, develop, and launch. The designers we see have ideas and ability, but maybe lack an understanding of business. We help them with a business plan, and provide mentoring services to cope with problems.'
Eddie Shanahan is one such mentor. He is the CEO of the Council of Irish Fashion Designers, and conducts product development workshops, as well as one-to-one meetings to identify solutions to individual problems.
Murphy describes the FTDC as 'a centre of excellence which maintains the presence of high quality fashion design and production in the North West of Ireland. Our designers come mainly from the North West Regional College or the University of Ulster, but we’ve had interest from all over. This centre is the only one of its kind in Ireland.
'We have designer-makers, weavers, surface design printers, dress- makers, all highly-skilled people,' she adds. 'We work with them to translate their ideas into reality. And we work closely with Derry City and Strabane District Council, so events like Fashion Fest provide a platform from which designers can show their pieces.
'We’re also building a relationship with the London College of Arts, to help our designers get on the fashion map.'
Designs by Kyree Forrest
There are currently 10 designers operating out of the FTDC premises, as well as Edel MacBride, a resident designer and mentor, and Louise Porter, a Fashion and Textile Design graduate who is responsible for the blog on the centre’s website.
Out of those 10, two – Kyree Forrest and Etain Grant – will see their work showcase in the Ones to Watch category of the Irish Fashion Innovation Awards, in Galway, while Nicola McLauglin’s designs have been selected in the same category in Kerry Fashion Week, both this month.
The centre is a place of quiet excitement, where designers can experiment and make mistakes, building knowledge and expertise to help navigate the industry’s notoriously cut-throat world. It’s like a greenhouse, where a gardener plants seeds and helps them grow, nurturing and protecting them and strengthening them until the plants are ready to face the elements alone.
Designs by Katrina McCollum
Katrina McCollum, a designer-maker who has been at the centre since September 2015, sees it as a 'really good environment and space, where advice is always available.'
Like Katrina, Miriam Stainsby has been with the centre since September. She specialises in woven fabric and print design, using her own loom to produce creations which she then applies to bikinis, headphones, and shoes.
She combines her knowledge of traditional crafts with modern communication techniques, and her Instagram page has already drawn interest from retailers keen to stock her products. As well as learning skills at the centre, she has found it invaluable in making connections – both business and personal – which will help her achieve success.
One designer who has been at the centre since it opened in early 2015 is Leona Cregan. She describes herself as a 'third generation graduate' and, in many ways, embodies everything the FTDC is trying to achieve.
Her great-grandfather was Roger O’Kane, manager and head designer at Wilkinson’s Shirt Factory in the city. He patented his idea for the reversible button-hole shirt, which was mass-produced by Wilkinson’s for the Canadian navy and the Royal Navy.
Her grandfather, Michael Cregan, trained as a tailor in Savile Row before returning to Derry and establishing his own business designing, making, and selling ties.
Like the city the Inner City Trust is trying to help regenerate, then, Leona Cregan, a North West Regional College graduate, has fashion and making in her DNA. Using her own loom, which she taught herself to operate, she produces bespoke hand-woven Irish Tweed.
Elsie Tweed scarf by Leona Cregan
When she joined the FTDC, her intention was to make dresses, but her six months with the centre and its mentors stripped away her naivety and sharpened her business sense. She explored product development and tested markets, and now focuses on the manufacture of scarves, wraps, and snoods.
Her work is effervescent and vibrant, and marries centuries-old techniques with modern design, far from the fusty images conjured up by the word, tweed.
Having established her own company – Elsie Tweed – her intention now is to buy a new floor loom, which will enable her to vastly increase production so she can meet the demands of the fashion buyers she hopes to impress.
'You suffer lots of knockbacks and shed plenty of tears,' she says. 'I couldn’t have managed without the support offered here at the centre. It’s given me the confidence to go out there and face things properly.'
by Dominic Kearney