A few weeks ago I was on a weekend away in Kerry with some Media Gal Pals. Prosecco was consumed. Careers were ‘discussed’. Twitter was being checked in the midst of full-on conversations. During one of these chats we talked about Honor Fitzsimons. One fashion journalist said that the knitwear designer would be her ultimate investment buy, and we all nodded solemnly, for someone had marked themselves out as a person with Good Taste. And Good Sense, because when rising Irish designers are talked about, usually in the run-up to the flurry of London Fashion Week, it is Honor Fitzsimon’s name that burns the strongest filament of international potential. Think next gen Aran jumpers. Cable knits that suggest you do far more than sitting around making soda bread. Items you will pass down to your daughter, who will be forever smug when she replies to compliments with, “Honor Fitzsimons.”
This fashion designer has spent the last few years releasing collections that have garnered her a busy mantelpiece of awards, such as the Future Makers Innovation Award by the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland, as well as KFW IMAGE Magazine Breakthrough Designer of the Year at Kerry Fashion Week this summer. A graduate of Central Saint Martins, the illustrious design school in London, Honor’s steadily built reputation has secured her the label One To Watch. After her appearance at this year’s Irish showcase at London Fashion Week, Unfold, she’s swiftly moving up the fashion chain.
We caught up with the 29-year-old designer to talk about the woman who got her knitting, what it’s like to run a fashion house in modern day Ireland from her studio in Kilmainham, and how to wear wool in the summer.
Any particular reason you were christened Honor?
Two reasons.My Grandmother was named Hannah. Hannahs and Noras run in my family. Also my parents used to go to jazz gigs in the early days, and Irish jazz singer Honor Heffernan was pretty big at the time.
In a lot of interviews, you mention how your Donegal grandmother knitted Aran jumpers and that watching this influenced you. What kind of a life did she have?
That was my grandmother Hannah, who I’m half named after. She was a really warm, kind person with a wicked sense of humor! She was from Donegal, but moved to Glasgow for work as many others did, where during WWII she trained as a chef, and met my Grandfather, who was one of the lead miners on the Clyde Tunnel and who was also from Donegal. They moved back home to Annagry in the 1970s. I remember her baking and cooking amazing meals, as well as always knitting, and she was the one who taught me. I would sit in the kitchen with her, next to the stove, and colour-in or knit while we chatted away, Donegal has always been a very peaceful place to me.
You went to Central Saint Martins over NCAD – a lot of Irish wait to do their masters in London. Was that a massive commitment to make at such a young age? Were you ever lonely?
No, I made amazing friends there. London was really good to me, and I still go over and back quite a lot. I went to CSM because there are no dedicated Fashion-Knitwear degrees in Ireland, which still boggles me, considering our heritage. I had read about Central Saint Martins in every fashion book and magazine since the age of 14 when I knew I was serious about doing fashion design. I applied and got in.
You graduated into a very tough economic climate. Was there ever a moment you considered leaving the fashion industry behind?
No, not really. It sort of seemed to me that every industry got hit in the recession, and I love what I do so it’s really just a case of toughing out the bad times and forging ahead. You can’t wait around for your country to hand you a better economy, you’ve just got to be smart, lean, and produce great work that you can stand behind.
You spent a summer interning for DVF. What is the standout memory from that time, professionally or personally?
That was during our professional placement year at CSM. New York was incredible, and the energy of the city is amazing. DVF was very welcoming, and you felt very looked after there. I got to play and swatch, collage the swatches, and be really creative. They were turned into designs by the knitwear designer, which were then sent off to the factory. It was incredible to see the finished garment come back from the factory absolutely perfect, and then see it come down the runway. There is a kind of magic in that.
You’ve been running your own label since 2012. Is that a recipe for endless stress? You say on your LinkedIn that beyond the designing you deal with financials, PR, online work, employees, as well as many other brain stewing activities. To paraphrase a Sarah Jessica Parker movie, how do you do it?
My Type-A personality, I think! But I think all designers are Type-As. You sort of have to be to get everything done, and done really nicely and the way you want it. I have a lot of ideas, I pick the best ones, and I just get on with it.
If you could have done one thing differently when setting up your brand – what would it have been?
That’s a tricky one, there are things about the logistics of the industry, that had I known at the very beginning, it would have been super helpful. I do believe schools need to engage with the industry more, and prop up students’ knowledge of the working aspects of the industry, not just the design. But maybe that would have scared me off.
No, I don’t really think I would have done much differently, as we all have our paths through our careers, and it would be a bit boring if everybody did the same thing.
How do you unwind?
I go dancing! It’s the best way, and absolutely no shop-talk.
The best advice you’ve been given?
To know your industry – if you want to be in fashion, start buying fashion magazines, don’t be lazy. I was given that advice at 14, I bought Vogue once a month for years, and it really was the foundation to my knowledge of the industry now.
In your personal wardrobe, what labels and looks do you gravitate towards?
I pepper my wardrobe with Honor Fitzsimons collections, COS, a pair of Nikes, and my beloved black leather pleated Miu Miu handbag.
What does a knitwear designer wear in the summer?
I’m already wearing pieces from my Spring Summer 16! I like to be comfy yet put together, so usually pajama-style trousers or a maxi knit tube skirt, and as our weather is so changeable a tank plus a jumper. Our collections use a crisp merino wool which is warm in the winter and cool in the summer, which works really well for Ireland.
While there are great initiatives supporting Irish design, such as ID2015, we’re still an island on the edge of Europe. Is the Irish fashion scene too small?
That’s subjective really. I would say the industry is very small here, but we have a small population. I think it’s proportional.
You also want to encourage the best work, and help develop emerging fashion businesses whose work stands up internationally. Because if you’re going to have a business that grows and lasts, you cannot rely on the Irish market alone – you will need to be able to export internationally.
As we’ve seen from this year, Irish design does hold its own internationally, and those businesses need continued support both from successful initiatives such as ID2015 or Future Makers, but also from the retailers and consumers here too. With how global fashion is, it doesn’t really matter as much that we are based on a small island if you can get to fashion week, the collection is good, and your willing to put the work in.
You’ve done collections inspired by air travel and Victorian houses – what’s this season’s collection taking its cue from?
Autumn Winter 15 was me delving into the traditions of Irish craft, such as basket-weaving, also, our ancient artistic stone carvings, like the Kerbstones at Newgrange, and the lost messages left behind. I’ve always been interested in creating pictorial or patterned surface texture, like stone carvings, so I brought that into this collection in a big way.
One of my favorite pieces is the CELENE sky blue crop polo neck top and the motif on that is based on a Neolithic stone carving of Venus found in a French cave.
I was also listening to a lot of Dead Can Dance, I saw them play live in the Point a year or so ago, they make music that blends a lot of cultures together but sounds kind of ancient at the same time. The lead singer Lisa Gerrard who is Australian but of Irish decent, is incredible live and holds such a regal presence. Listening to their album Anastasis, or Sanevan, really tunes out all of the noise, and the to-do lists, and brings me back really to that sense of peacefulness. I’ve carried that sense of connectedness into the next collection and further developed techniques which I began experimenting with in Autumn Winter 15.
Stockist: Dipili Boutique, 6 Ormond Quay, D1.