Feature: Saturday Mail, YOU MAGAZINE Saturday 10/06/23
With her designs worn at the Oscars, Emmys, and The Cannes Film Festival, designer Claire Garvey offers some tips for success and longevity in fashion: “Don’t follow trends and always wear your own designs”!
Read through some of Irish designer Claire Garvey’s reviews online, and the phrase ‘creative genius’ comes up more than once. Her shop, tucked away on Cow’s Lane in Temple Bar, is a mecca for fashion lovers from around the world, and yet, when we think of Irish fashion designers, her name may not be the first to come to mind. Despite her sometimes larger-than-life, fantastical outfits, which she can be seen in daily around Dublin city, Claire is shy of the limelight and lets her designs do the talking and headline-grabbing. When she purchased the lease on her Temple Bar premises a few years ago, Chic co-founder Nile Rodgers flew in to cut the ribbon and help celebrate the occasion, giving us a glimpse of how respected she is among global stars. Over the years, her designs have been featured at the Oscars, at a Bette Midler gala event in Dubai, and at the most famous film festival in the world, Cannes. Her Irish customers include Mary Coughlan, Jack L., singer Julie Feeney, and Dancing with the Stars judge Julian Benson.
The fashion headlines keep coming, most recently when actor and model Maksuda Akhter wore her ornate, show-stopping design on the Cannes Film Festival 2023 red carpet.
This month, Claire is busy creating new designs for Irish actress Kathleen Rose Downey, who has just landed the leading role in the Warner Brothers sequel to The Conjuring. Downey will be wearing Claire’s creation at the world premiere in LA later this year.
Claire is also working on a new creation for composer and conductor Eimear Noone, who is now known as the first female conductor to perform at the Oscars. Noone has a major performance coming up at the Royal Albert Hall in June and is putting her trust in Clare yet again to create something spectacular.
Visiting Claire Garvey's shop is like entering a unique, enchanted world that has a distinctly ‘Claire Garvey’ look, which might be described as lavishly embellished, gothic fairy-chic. These priceless, one-off creations have to be seen up close to really understand how labour-intensive they are and marvel at the layers of textured, delicate fabrics embellished with multicoloured beading, gemstones, trims, tulle, lace, and feathers. These pieces are intricate works of art, not least because they are all one-offs.
She recently named Vivien Westwood the most inspirational woman in fashion, describing her as “a quirky individual who has never compromised what she does”. For anyone else who remembers Claire in 1990s Dublin, dressed the same way then as now in lavish, funky-fairy-style creations, she herself epitomises non-conformity and has never bowed to high fashion trends or commercialism. She has stayed steadfast on her own path, knowing from her early college days what direction her clothes and business would take. Mass production was never an option, although she did briefly supply stores like Liberty and Many designers who refused to bend to the trends have fallen by the wayside, so it is arguable that Garvey’s greatest achievement is that she has sustained her business for over two decades with very few concessions.
Taking time out of her crazy schedule, she chatted to us about her work, the future of Irish fashion, and how her niche creations have endured for over twenty years in the fashion business.
Firstly, I had to ask her what words would best describe her distinctive personal style and the creations she makes?
I suppose my personal style is eclectic. I love mixing hard and soft, like tulle skirts with Doc Martens. It’s very important to me to wear my own designs, as not only does it give me feedback on their comfort, but it is also great PR to wear one's own clothes. If I don’t wear my own designs, why should I expect anyone else to? The very first front cover I got of Social and Personal magazine was with the wonderful stylist Betty Wall, photographed by Mike Bunn. I was walking down Grafton Street in my own designs, and Betty stopped me and asked me where I got my outfit. It just shows that when you wear your own designs, anything can happen.
The Cannes Film Festival red carpet is arguably one of the most talked-about fashion moments of the year. Tell us about your involvement and the look you created this year.
I created two special outfits for actor Maksuda Akhter, which ended up on the leading news channel in Bangladesh and in their daily top newspaper, Daily Prothom Alo, as Maksuda is originally from Bangladesh. The first outfit was a gold vegan leather corset with over a thousand hand-beaded crystals and a matching feathered skirt with a train for drama on the red carpet stairs. I also created the headpiece, which was inspired by reimagining the hijab as a decorative piece of beauty for a woman to wear. The second one was initially supposed to be at the Met Gala, but due to circumstances beyond my control, it didn’t make it there. So I was delighted that it graced the Cannes red carpet. The blue outfit was created in conjunction with three schools. I really wanted to involve transition-year students in creating a piece with me. I was an artist in residence for the year in Cluny, Killiney. The other two schools were Joeys in Fairview and Margaret Ailworth. I was thrilled they got to see a creation they had been involved in on the red carpet. It’s very important to me to share my knowledge and experience with the younger generation, as they are the future of fashion. They inspire me every day, too. The blue gown was a year in the making, with over ten thousand Swarovski crystals. I have no feeling in my fingers now!
What achievements are you most proud of?
Working with Nile Rodgers for the Oscars has been a career highlight. I’ve designed so many outfits for Nile. I’ve been so lucky, and he’s been so generous with his support of my work. In the piece I did for him for the Oscars, I didn’t tell him before hand that it lights up in the dark. I like to imagine that the night before the Oscars, he was wondering whether to wear mine, and then he saw it lighting up in front of him. A real lightbulb moment! It was so kind of him to come cut the red ribbon on my shop when I bought the lease outright. The press and TV were there, and of course I gave him a blunt scissors! He calls me the umbrella girl because the first time I met him, while designing for him for the X-factor, I had a dress on that was made out of an umbrella. I told him it was handy for Irish weather. Ever since then, every time I’ve met him, I’ve worn a dress made from an umbrella. It’s become a thing.
Designing and flying to Berlin to dress the Berlin Show Orchestra is another highlight. Watching the Berlin Show Orchestra fly upside down while playing their violins while wearing my creations is a memory I’ll never forget. I was also one of six international designers who won the Madame Figaro White Swan competition, where I was invited to show my creation in the Pompidou Centre. Last October, I was invited to show my designs by Asian supermodel Jessica Minh Anh on the Hudson River in New York, where my design was featured in French Elle. We took twenty outfits and twenty hand-beaded shoes with us. It was an adventure, to say the least. My designs have been shipped worldwide to all kinds of events like the Oscars, the Emmys, and even the Burning Man festival in Nevada, which is one of the most experimental and creative gatherings in the world. Staying in business through the recession was difficult, but finding new product lines to pursue, like wedding dresses and bespoke gowns, has been a big achievement. When COVID hit, during lockdown, I forced myself to create a new outfit from fabric I had left in the shop. I also started selling accessories online, and the most surprising revenue stream came from people buying my pieces to wear to Zoom parties! Also, musicians were still playing online and ordering outfits, and Jack L was particularly supportive during lockdown.
Do you follow the latest fashion trends, and do you have any advice for upcoming Irish designers?
I don’t follow fashion trends because I don’t believe people’s bodies change as quickly as the trends. I dress for the person. My aim is to make them feel as beautiful and comfortable as they can be, whether they are size zero or twenty-four. Everybody deserves to feel special. I really aim to do that with everyone, celebrity or not; it doesn’t matter. The advice I’d give to young Irish designers is to follow their hearts and do what is true to them. When I was asked to design for Nile Rodgers for the X-factor, I had never done menswear before, but what I did was translate what I love doing with my women’s wear into my menswear. And it made it less daunting for me. When I opened my shop over twenty years ago, various boutiques and people told me I was mad and that my outfits were too dramatic to make a living from. I knew I had made the right decision when the first customer I got said she wanted me to create an outfit based on a tree. Since then, I haven’t looked back. Don’t worry about commerciality, my most unusual pieces are the ones I sell first. Oh, and remember to always wear your own clothes! You are your own free, walking advertisement.
How important is sustainable fashion, and how has it been part of your story?
Sustainable fashion is incredibly important to me. I have always used recycled fabrics, vintage buttons, and unusual materials. I made a dress for a girl going to an award ceremony in Vegas out of cocktail stirrers and straws. She won her award and was able to drink her champagne using her bodice!
I’ve made a dress out of chilli peppers for a woman who met her husband in Chile. When myself and my family were having a picnic, I asked my child to pick up all the acorns they could find, and I made a dress out of them. I’m honoured to be showing at Canada’s Tides Are Changing Exhibition on Canada Day in July. I’ve created a new corset out of reused plastic. Junk Couture is a wonderful initiative for young people, and we all know the times are changing.
6 Cow’s Lane Temple Bar, Dublin 8