Winter woolies are back in style, with everywhere from high-end boutiques to high street stores stocking knitwear in styles that combines elegance and comfort.
“Knitwear is huge this season,” according to Orla Maguire-Moore, a fashion editor and former stylist with Cosmopolitan magazine. “It ties in with the whole Victorian look that’s in right now, the long flowing gypsy skirts.”
Maguire said this season’s knitwear should be worn fitted for feminine glamour.
“If you’re wearing knitwear this season, go with a belted cardigan in chunky knits,” said Maguire, who is from Co. Monaghan.
“It gives you a more defined shape than a basic sweater. You can create a flattering, sexy look by teaming your cardie with a tank top or vest. Hot colors are heathered grays, lavenders and browns.”
As the birthplace of Aran sweaters and Lainey Keogh, Ireland has gained considerable fashion kudos from wool.
Now, as knitwear rebels against its traditional image, it seems natural for a group of Irish designers to be at the forefront of the revolution.
Co. Wicklow native Lucy Downes spent 14 years in Manhattan designing shoes for Donna Karan before abandoning footwear in favor of knitwear.
“I’ve always had a love of knitwear,” Downes said in an interview with the Irish Echo.
“The great thing about it is that, unlike shoes or other fabrics, you can start off with one machine. That’s exactly what I did.”
Since starting up her own wool and cashmere label last year, Downes’ reputation has spread, and her clothes are on sale in Soho, Brooklyn, Britain, Australia and Japan.
Downes prides herself on creating clothing that is edgy, yet easy-to-wear.
“I don’t really work by inspiration,” she said. “I tend to work with the actual knit structure. I literally take the pieces of knitwear and develop them on the mannequin.”
With two separate fashion lines, Downes said her knitwear mixes classical tailoring with Japanese-influenced funk, resulting in a range that caters for women of all ages.
“I would describe my style as simple and modern,” she said.
Has her Irish heritage helped in forging a career in knitwear?
“Boutiques are always looking for something a little different, but still commercial,” she said. “The fact that you’re Irish means they hope you’ll be a little different.”
In less than a year since graduating from the University of Ulster, designer Anne Hyland has built up a successful knitwear business in Ireland under her own eponymous label.
Last month, the Anne Hyland range arrived at Burrow clothing store in Soho. This month Hyland is busy keeping up with repeat orders for items that have already sold out of the downtown boutique.
“I really like fashion, but I also like working with my hands,” said 26-year-old Hyland, speaking to the Irish Echo from her studio in Letterkenny.
“With knitwear, you’re making the fabric as well as designing it, and that really appeals to me. It’s more diverse than working with a straight fabric.”
Hyland thinks her line appeals to New Yorkers because “it’s a wee bit different.”
“Its kind of quirky in that I’ll never just do a normal cardie,” she said. “I’ll always do something different, like an asymmetric hemline or something. I myself always end up buying stuff that’s different and I suppose that inspires me in my own work.”
There is one New Yorker in particular whose attention Hyland hopes her clothing will attract.
“I’d love to get Sarah Jessica Parker into something of mine. That would be fantastic,” she enthused.
Marc Jacobs is one of New York’s hottest labels at the moment, and fashion consultant Ciara Walsh is at the heart of the knitwear design team.
National College of Art and Design graduate Walsh has been in Manhattan for the last 12 years, where she has worked at the cutting edge of New York fashion as a knitwear designer for DKNY, Club Monaco and others.
“I still can’t knit very well,” admits 36-year-old Walsh with a laugh. But that has not prevented her from helping to upgrade and modernize knitwear collections for some of New York’s best-known brands.
“I have a fairly contemporary style,” she said. “With the companies I’ve worked with, you have to be ahead of the game. You have to thing of what’s coming next, not what’s already there.”
As a fashion student, Walsh specialized in knitwear.
“Knitwear design is a big thing in Ireland, whether it’s conscious or unconscious,” she said. “You’re surrounded by wooly jumpers it gives you a taste for it. In the sweater department, usually everyone’s Scottish or Irish,” she laughed.
Despite her fashion experience, Walsh has no plans to open up her own label.
“I’ve touched on the idea, but what tends to happen is you get caught up in the everyday running of it, which is a full-time job in itself,” she said.
“Only a small amount of time goes towards the creative side. When I go in, sometimes there’s a brief, but mostly it’s just like, what do you think? The idea still comes from me.”
When Castle of Ireland, a Dublin-based knitwear line for mature women, opened up its first range in Manhattan this year, head designer Fiona Mullen faced a challenge. How could she modernize the traditional knitwear line without leaving behind its core market?
“Our main customer is the classic lady who looks for quality first and foremost,” said 29-year-old Mullen, who has been head of the design team at Castle of Ireland since last year.
“Ladies in their 50’s still want to be fashionable. We’ve been trying to modernize our look without putting them off.”
The 29-year-old Mullen, a graduate of the renowned Scottish College of Textiles, believed the answer lay in making small variations without compromising classical styles.
“I would describes my style as “classic”,” she said. “I’m very sensitive to all shapes of lady. We’re always adding little twists to modernize the look.”
In Mullen’s view, knitwear is the one of the best fabrics on which to experiment with new styles.
“For me is a great medium,” she said.
“People tend to associate Irish knitwear with Aran Sweaters – it has a twee face in the international market. Actually, wool is a very tactile medium to work with.”
Mullen thinks knitwear has opened doors for Irish designers wishing to break into the fashion world.
“A lot of prominent knitwear designers are Irish,” she said.
“They’re making their way on to the catwalks. The industry has come a long way, but it’s been an uphill struggle to get away from that traditional image.”
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