Emer O’Mahony: Who made your clothes?

Emer O’Mahony is a Director of Lockdown Models and founder of Cork Fashion Week. She blogs at Irish Fashaholic.
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Q When it comes to buying clothes, what’s your top priority?
When shopping for clothes my biggest priority is quality. I believe in less is more, in buying less quantity of garments (i.e. a new ‘trendy top every weekend) and instead, buying quality garments that are well made, preferably from local boutiques or local fashion designers who can tell me the origin of the garment. I admire the likes of Kate Middleton for championing well made clothes by local designers in her country that aren’t the cheapest clothes money can buy. However, she wears them again and again and isn’t afraid to show how wearable and trans-seasonal the garments are French women are known for the same approach, they buy chic, well tailored, well made garments that are very often not ‘trendy’ but they see them through season after season.
Q Do you know much about clothing manufacturing? What would be your impressions of the industry in general?
While I wouldn’t consider myself and expert, I have educated myself through the last 18 years of working with brands, designers and buyers. Running Mercedes-Benz MSL Fashion Week Cork has been an education in itself, working with so many independent boutiques who source garments from all over the World factoring in quality, style, ethics, cost to each buying trip. I worked as a buyer for a year myself for an independent boutique and thoroughly enjoyed trips to London brand warehouses examining and questioning labels on their new collections.  At present, I thoroughly enjoy working through Lockdown, with many fashion designers who make their own garments from scratch.
The Irish industry is presented with many challenges around the area of manufacturing, mainly cost based and it does need investors in the area to enable our talented designers keep the production wheel on our island. Our designers, in order to create top quality garments, have to source often expensive fabrics, pattern drafting and cutting can be completed in Ireland but to produce larger collections, production has to often happen outside of Ireland as it isn’t sustainable for them otherwise.
One of my favourite Irish Designers and artists Helen Steele works out of her converted duck hatchery in Co. Monaghan. She produces wearable art (see orange dress made by Helen that I wore presenting the Ballymaloe House opening show of Cork Fashion Week last October attached) and most recently her designs have been worn by Saoirse Ronan at international events. Helen’s dreamy silk fabrics have to be printed in Northern Europe and it would be great see her entire production process happen within Ireland. But the resources aren’t yet in place to make it favourable for that to happen for designers like Helen or many other celebrated Irish designers. Another talented Irish Designer, Jennifer Rothwell, whose flagship store is at Powerscourt, prides herself in garments that are fair trade and locally made, thus helping the local economy. But should better backing and funding be available to these and many other Irish designers who are celebrated fashion figures the World over, the industry would be one that provides better employment and opportunities in the Irish design and manufacturing industry. Campaigns such as the Made in Ireland campaign and Second Skin create awareness of a growing industry that we need to fuel through awareness and sustainability as well as educating ourselves on the ethics behind what we buy and support.
Q Do you think that more expensive brands are more likely to treat workers better?##
I believe it is company ethos and ethics that determines if a brand is conscious of treating workers well at every level of their chain. I am aware of higher end brands that have not supported their local economies in the past and have had their collections produced in more underdeveloped countries. Once conditions and pay are fairly attributed to workers in underdeveloped countries, it can only be a positive thing for brands to use their money and power to better these poorer local communities.  The Rana Plaza disaster alerted the world to what was wrong with production in fashion and that we, as individuals, were obliviously funding the dark side of the global industry. Since Rana Plaza happened, many of the top fashion brands globally have been quite vocal about changes in their production and manufacturing ethics. This can only be a great thing.
Q Is it something you have researched or are you happy to trust your favourite brands?
Having worked my way up from the very bottom at all jobs in my own life, I am always interested in what happens at the foundation of fashion brands and organisations. Not just from finding out about overcrowded work floors in India but from investigating how highly educated fashion graduates are treated as young interns at large organisations. I think we need to be more inquisitive and vocal about questioning where the clothes on our back come from, how the food on our table has come to be there, how the diamond in our engagement ring is sitting radiantly on our hand etc.
Last year I asked in Penneys about ethics and I was blown away by the information I received, about how the store had a higher priced collection of more ethically produced garments and it really made me realise that it’s not the ranking step in the marketplace that the company are on that determines the companies with better ethics, it is the brand ethos and internal ethics that can say a lot about the companies we should support. I love to shop at H&M, I admire their Conscious Collection and Penneys. All of the high street stores in our city offer great initiatives as well as up-to-date collections to keep us on trend and stylish but when my budget allows, I shop at independent boutiques where the history of the garments are clear and the quality is often superior.
Q In your work you deal with a lot of clothing brands. Do you ever ask about the sourcing of the clothes – is this a priority for your audience?
I always enquire about the sourcing of garments. It is such an interesting side to the fashion industry – finding out who made your clothes and where. Local boutiques will often give you brand names and access to season lookbooks for their brands and you can browse the company information on their websites from home. If you enquire at an independent boutique, you will always be able to talk to the person who has physically flown to meet the brand and view the collection a season before it has hit the shop floor so they will be a fountain of knowledge to educate you on what you are about to buy. But my favourite fashion story is always that of the local fashion designer, out of college, sourcing beautiful materials on an often tight budget, drafting up patterns and cutting and making beautiful garments. Wearing a garment that you can follow from source is special, supporting local talent is priceless and a designer getting commissions because the customers saw you wear their clothes is an incredible feeling.
3D printing is another channel of textile manufacturing and production that really excites me. Being a flourishing tech hub, Ireland has been leading the field in various areas of 3D printing of late. At a show in Cork City Hall last Autumn for the IT Cork Conference, we introduced the attendees to a fashion show where models wore Irish made garments that were printed from 3D printing machines. Stunning statement dresses that would be worthy of any red carpet event along with dickie bows and sunglasses were exhibited and educated us on the growing industry that is 3D printing. Fashion is having a tech moment right now and it’s great to see international eyes on Ireland with fashion designers such as Limerick LCAD graduate Rachael Garrett making waves in the industry.
This project is supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.

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