Fashion is one aspect of New York culture where Irish influence is notable only by its absence. And, let’s face it, with good reason. Whether it’s men’s insistence on wearing football jerseys on and off the pitch, or women’s collective love affair with self-tan and hair straighteners, the Irish have never been known for their innovative fashion trends.
Even successful Irish designers like Lainey Keogh and John Rocha have perpetuated a regressive view of Irish fashion by regularly lacing their collections with wool, tweed and, somewhat peculiarly in Rocha’s case, Waterford Crystal.
So how is it that an Irish woman — one who grew up in Dublin at a time when men and women alike were begging hairdressers give them a mullet just like Bono’s — came to be known as New York’s Queen of Downtown Cool?
Daryl Kerrigan, or Daryl K. as she is known in fashion circles, was one designer whose absence fashion critics have noted with interest throughout New York fashion week, which takes place this year from Sept. 9 to 16.
Kerrigan, who will celebrate 20 years in the business next year, was born in 1964 in the South Dublin suburb of Churchtown. In 1986 she left Ireland for New York City, at 22, armed with a degree in fashion from the National Collage of Art and Design.
Since then, she has experienced success of which most Irish designers could only dream, and failure that would have others throwing themselves off the nearest catwalk.
Kerrigan, now 41, began her career in a fashion house sorting clothes for thrift stores, before moving on to costume design, where she worked on films like “Mystery Train” and “My Cousin Vinny.”
By 1991, she had saved enough money to open up a small clothing store in the East Village, which she stocked entirely with her own designs.
“Everyone said I was mad, nobody but tramps went down there,” she said in one interview.
In fact, Bond St. proved to be the perfect place to showcase Kerrigan’s edgy, indie-influenced styles. Before long, her clothing labels Daryl K and K-189 gained a cult following among New York’s downtown rockers and hipsters.
“I remember when she first came to New York, she was the IT girl of Downtown,” recalled one fashion writer who has followed Kerrigan’s work over the last decade.
“She was always very focused, very ambitious and had a clear ideal of what she wanted,” according to Robert O’Byrne, a fashion commentator and Irish Times journalist who talks about Kerrigan in his book, “A history of the Irish Fashion Industry.”
“Lots of designers thank that if they design clothes in a certain way, they’ll sell more. She didn’t necessarily think in terms of marketability, more in terms of what interested her,” he said.
In the early 1990s, Kerrigan designed a low-rise style of jeans and trousers that delighted her rock-chic followers. The hipster trousers caught on like wildfire, becoming a staple of every young woman’s wardrobe and a style that represented the 1990s the way flares represented the 1970s.
In 1996, the Council of Fashion Designers of America awarded Kerrigan the New Talent for Women’s Wear accolade, and international fashion houses began to sit up and take notice.
Tommy Hilfiger hired Kerrigan as a creative consultant as he tried to funk up his women’s clothing line, whilse French label Celine talked about distributing her labels. No deal resulted, but in 2001, it seemed like Kerrigan had hit pay dirt when German clothing label Pegasus Apparel bought her Daryl K and K-189 labels.
The deal took place just before her 2001 fall collection won rave reviews at New York fashion week.
But within the year, Pegasus stopped selling Kerrigan’s fall line and withdrew her stock from stores in New York and LA. No longer in control of her own label, Kerrigan lost everything, including her beloved East Village Store.
“She might have grown into a huge international brand,” according to Laurie Schechter, a veteran fashion editor, stylist and former Style Editor of Vogue magazine.
“I love her things, I think she’s a wonderful, independent voice. She’s equally as talented as Stella McCartney or Marc Jacobs.”
Instead of becoming an international brand, Kerrigan virtually disappeared from the fashion world at the height of her acclaim.
Since then, she has slowly clawed her way back into public consciousness, buying back her clothing labels and selling her lines to department stores in New York, California and London.
Last year, she and husband Paul Leonard took out a second mortgage on their Brooklyn Heights home so that she could reopen her flagship store on Bond St.
However, response to her recent catwalk comebacks has been lukewarm. During New York Fashion week in 2003, Vogue Magazine was critical of her collection.
“It didn’t altogether convince her audience that she was ready for a comeback,” they wrote.
“Hardly venturing beyond grey, taupe and black, it offered a bleak alternative to the cheeky fun of Anna Sui and sporty Capri-inspired beach glamour that Michael Kors presented on the same day.”
O’Byrne thinks it would be difficult for someone in Kerrigan’s position to make a comeback.
“Her edginess is her selling point,” he said.
“It’s like pop music, you can be at the top of the charts, but very few bands remain on top like US or the Rolling Stones. Real success in fashion is about making that transition from being the newest thing to becoming a legend. She’s in her forties now, she’s got kids, her sensibilities have probably changed. It’s hard to be edgy and cool when you’re thinking, ‘what will we have for dinner tonight?'”
“Maybe she’s not so willing to go out on a limb anymore,” said Schechter.
“She’s got two kids now and she’s been burned in the business before. As a woman gets older, her priorities change.”
Kerrigan’s personal life certainly seems far removed from the temper tantrums and drug fueled parties that are synonymous with the New York fashion scene.
A devoted family woman, Kerrigan is more likely to be found at home with husband Paul, son Fionn and daughter Liadan than out partying.
Speaking to the New York Times in July, Kerrigan even admitted that she had lowered her sights.
“As soon as I sell enough to be able to stay in business, that’s enough for me,” she said.
At the moment, she faces an uphill battle even to achieve that. With revenues of less than $1 million a year and a clothing line with orders so small it is only manufactured thanks to the goodwill of a factory in Hong Kong, it remains to be seen whether her 20th anniversary will be cause for celebration.
But Kerrigan’s reputation for customer loyalty has helped to ensure that her cult status remains strong.
These days, Kerrigan spends most of her working days on Bond St, where she deals with customers on the floor and runs her business from a small office in the back of the store.
“I give her great credit for sticking around and still having loyal customers who want to buy her clothes,” said Schechter.
“Very few designers can make a living purely from selling their clothes – it’s branching into make up lines and perfume lines, that’s where the real money is.”
“She’s like that little bookstore on the corner that you desperately want to survive,” said the fashion writer who has followed her work.
“I think now that she’s back, her old customers will come flocking back.”
Whatever the future holds, Kerrigan will always be the Queen of downtown cool as far as her regulars are concerned. As long as she steers clear of wool, tweed and Waterford crystal.