Campus couture: NCAD fashion students root collections in autobiography

From fear to femininity, final year fashion students are drawing inspiration from everywhere

Emily O’Shea, a final year fashion student at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), was walking to college on December 22nd, 2022, when she was knocked down by an electric scooter and suffered catastrophic facial injuries. She not only had broken ribs, broken cheekbones and eye socket nerve damage, but her recovery from her wounds affected her studies and delayed her graduation.

Next month O’Shea, who is from Co Cork, will finally graduate from NCAD with a collection that has a particular relevance because she has documented in cloth what she sees on her journey to college, as a playful way of overcoming her fear of walking and her PTSD.

The collection includes a selection of T-shirts and jersey jogging pants topped with digitally embroidered cotton organdie, entrapping thoughts and snatches of what she hears on the street. There are jackets, skirts and a jumper that have been similarly embroidered.

“A lot of my research has been found objects – bin bags, lotto tickets, disposed prison property bags (she lives near Arbour Hill), love letters, shopping lists, children’s drawings,” O’Shea says. “It has been fun and therapy. I think clothes should make you happy and the accident has made me realise that there is a lot more to life.”

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O’Shea joins 12 other NCAD graduates in June, each of whom has fashioned individual narratives, many of which are rooted in their own experience. Eva Flanagan, for instance, challenges the conventional association of pink with femininity and the way in which society perceives women’s bodies. Her extravagantly frothy pink tulle gown embroidered with tiny pink nipples, for instance, has a deliberately darker side. Another dress, twisted, draped and digitally printed with female body parts, also reflects ideas about size inclusiveness.

Alex Nugent’s superbly made black ribboned coats and pink ribboned bias cut gowns were inspired by musculature and repressed sexuality. Elsewhere, Rachel Monaghan, daughter of a builder, loves details in old, derelict buildings and “seeing things not considered pretty and making them beautiful”, she says.

Jennifer Williams’ laser-cut, unisex, densely ornamented, waterproof clothing is a miracle of handwork and detail. Another collection from Maria Patriarca draws from her research on pigeons, their feathers reflected in layered knits, with everything made from sustainable or recycled materials. Karen O’Donoghue’s conceptual rainwear, using oilcloth and roller blind fabrics, connects to a memory of an aunt and inherited keepsakes. Abigail Heaslip used a scallop shell as a starting point to create a modern, opulent and elegant bridal collection.

These are just a few of the ideas driving this year’s talented graduates. “There is a huge link between theory, research and studio practice,” says tutor Linda Byrne. “They are passionate about their work and about experimentation. There are issues around gender, diversity, inclusivity, as well as an awareness of the effect of the fashion industry on the environment, both locally and globally. Knitting and embroidery are very strong this year and there is a huge concentration on the manipulation of fabric.”

Angela O’Kelly, head of design for Body and Environment at NCAD, points out that some of the students have worked on projects with Cappagh Hospital on accessible clothes for young kids with mobility issues “so they have been exposed to medical design, which opens up their minds”. Nearly all of the students have benefited from the Studio+ scheme (an optional year of study) and Erasmus exchanges to broaden their experience.

“They have to find points of difference and they need to make their mark,” O’Kelly says. “But they are geared to transcend seasons and they will be able to adapt. They work incredibly hard and are very productive. They are particular about finish, about scale as well as about working on conceptual ideas. Many also make shoes, headwear and bags.”

Their graduate show takes place on June 5th and is open to the public from June 7th to 16th in NCAD.

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