IMAGINE a “sweet shop for grown women” crossed with Aladdin’s Cave of colour, and nestled in the rolling hills of East Clare. It’s a far cry from her native Rathfarnham, but this is where millinery designer Ailish McElroy has made her home and found her passion. Working from her studio and show room in Annaghneal, a stone’s throw from Bodyke, Ailish has been grabbing headlines recently, and award nominations, for her highly creative and environmentally sustainable approach to fashion.
The Dubliner made the leap into self-employment after a downturn the graphic design sector, where she previously worked for a number of international companies, and has never looked back. Her bravery and creativity were rewarded when she was recently chosen to compete with the very best in the creative sector as part of the forthcoming Irish Fashion Innovation Awards later this year.
“I was notified back in January and it was as complete surprise and an honour,” Ailish explained. “It’s one of the best opportunities for emerging designers to get their work seen in Ireland. This year, the emphasis is on sustainability and on being environmentally aware in design.” Sustainability is something Ailish is firmly committed to, and her current collection – produced after many gruelling hours of experimentation, craft and creativity – has caught the eye of some of the major players in the industry.
“I’m a huge advocate of slow fashion and of sustainable and local materials. That’s what’s led me to the theme of my new collection which is made of birch wood.”
The headpieces range from simple crowns to elaborate, sculptural structures which blur the lines between art and fashion. “This has never been done before and there’s been a huge learning curve. I’ve become quite intuitive with the material now and in finding the potential in it.”
Working with such an unusual material for headpieces has made use of Ailish’s full skillset: “It seemed to be destiny that I would end up working with birch wood, because all of my graphic design skills came to the fore. I was able to use my graphics software and to hand draw the designs. Then, I used a laser cutter on very thin sheets of birch wood. After than I worked with heat and steam to manipulate the shapes.”
The results of a prototyping process that has taken hundreds of hours are simply stunning and reflect diverse sources of inspiration. “I’m very inspired by nature,” Ailish outlined. “I’m surrounded by so much beauty here in East Clare. The hills and landscape really inspire my work. I’m also really interested in history. Hats have come in so many shapes, sizes and styles over the years. Fine art too is another big interest.”
Inspiration for the current birch wood collection clearly comes from the local landscape, but there are other, eclectic sources for the designs. Picking up one ethereal looking piece, Ailish explained: “I found a hand drawn Victorian illustration of a bird’s wing. It came from a science journal from that era and was so delicate and beautifully done. I decided to recreate it in birch wood and I’ll be assembling pieces together gradually.”
Moving from the hectic world of graphic design and into a field which can involve long hours of solitary work has proven to be an excellent move for Ailish, despite some initial misgivings: “There are pros and cons to working from home. I came from an industry where there was always a buzz of people and talk, but creativity needs time and space. I can also be here for my two girls (Darcy and Lara).” Indeed, Ailish’s family are used to – and inspired by – their mother’s creativity.
“It’s perfectly normal for them to see the house completely taken over by sewing and sewing materials. They do love it and they are my most honest critics. They found the new collection really fascinating and I was able to bring them to watch me doing the laser cutting. Not every child gets the opportunity to watch a manufacturing process and they get to see ideas evolve from beginning to end. I think it’s a really invaluable insight that not every child gets and I would like them to have confidence in their own ideas, whatever they might be, I’d like them to find the confidence to follow through on them.”
In Ailish’s kaleidoscopic show room, clients can choose to buy or to hire creations of every style and colour, but very often they come to Annaghneal looking to have a bespoke headpiece or hat created for them.
“I work intuitively with all of my materials to create something beautiful and wearable, something that a client would feel very confident and beautiful wearing,” said Ailish. “Most of my clients come from Clare, but I also get clients from Dublin, Cork, Tipperary. I meet clients by appointment and they’ll come to me with their outfits for special occasions and I’ll create or customise a headpiece to compliment what they’re going to wear. It’s not necessarily about the hat, it’s about the whole ensemble, because I want the person to look forward to wearing the head piece and to feel fabulous and to have fun.”
There is certainly an element of fun as well as fashion in the show room where Ailish has over 200 hand-made pieces.
“It’s just a riot of colour,” she explained, opening the door to a wonderland of hats and headpieces. “Every design is different, they’re all unique. When someone wears one of these, it stands out because it’s hand-made and hasn’t been mass produced.” With materials including felt, lace, leather, feathers, netting, buttons, bows and more, there is a hat for every taste and every season, and Ailish particularly enjoys encouraging clients to experiment.
“A lot of my clients come to me with an expectation of what is going to suit them and they leave with a completely different idea. They just love that and they can’t believe that certain styles really do suit them. They learn a lot during a consultation because I want them looking their best and we take everything into account from hair style to height.”
A visit to Annaghaneal is something that Ailish clients often combine with enjoyment of other amenities in East Clare. And while slow tourism is the order to the day in that part of the county, slow fashion is Ailish’s forté: “I’m a big advocate for slow fashion. Trends come and go, but if you have a really beautiful piece which makes someone look and feel great, it will stand the test of time. I’m very passionate about that and I really get joy from that. It’s a amazing to take and idea and develop it into a finished product and see it being worn beautifully by a client. To know you have created, designed and made something with your own hands and your own imagination, there’s always an element of surprise and joy in that process.”