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Meet Dennis Lawless, the winner of the 2024 River Island NCAD Fashion Design Bursary

Meet Dennis Lawless, the winner of the 2024 River Island NCAD Fashion Design Bursary


by Ruth O'Connor
20th May 2024

“We decided to choose Dennis Lawless as the bursary winner as he showed inclusive forward thinking; fusing the idea of structured tailoring with soft feminine tulle to create a true wow piece."

The trendy Lottie’s in Rathmines, Dublin, set the scene for a fashionable lunch celebrating the winner of the 2024 River Island NCAD Fashion Design Bursary.

Now in it’s 20th year, the award offers final year fashion design students at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) the chance to win a paid internship at River Island’s London design studio as well as a bursary of €3,500.

This year’s winner is NCAD final year student Dennis Lawless (23) from Edenderry, Co. Offaly. Lawless’ designs for the River Island competition are inspired by his childhood experiences with clothing and self-discovery and designed for those who use clothing as a “vehicle for self-expression”. His collection features gender fluid pieces that merge contrasting aspects of clothing typically considered masculine or feminine/ menswear or women’s wear.

“I was shocked to be whittled down as one of the five finalists and to be chosen as the winner was incredible. It was great to meet some of the River Island team in person this week too. I’m really looking forward to moving to London and this is a wonderful opportunity,” says Lawless.

The students were asked to consider their favourite River Island “moment in time” and to create the “ultimate celebration collection”. Lawless opted to examine a blue River Island suit he once wore to a wedding using it as the basis for a collection of gender neutral pieces incorporating aspects of men’s and women’s fashion more typically seen at the high-end than on the high street. Aimed at customers between 20 and 40 years, his designs seek to break fashion norms and to act as a canvas for creativity and self-expression.

“The suit was quite traditional in its style and colour, so I looked at the idea of deconstructing and reconstructing it as a starting point,” he says. “I used suiting to create a more feminine silhouette – putting suiting on the body in an interesting way. I think clothing should be fun and be experimented with – that’s what I’ve tried to do with this collection – to push the boundaries a bit and to use clothing to express how people feel.”

Lawless’ final year thesis centres on the subject of fashion and masculinity. “You see a move away from traditional gendered clothing in high fashion on the catwalk and in campaigns, but it’s not really trickling down to high street fashion. As with many things, the change starts at the top and trickles down but it isn’t something that seems to have caught on. If you look at a store like Dover Street Market that doesn’t gender its displays or fitting rooms, I’m interested in the idea of applying that to the high street,” he says.

Lawless believes that ideas of gender fluidity in terms of clothing stereotypes have some way to go. “I think that process is starting but has a long way to go. If we look at stars like Harry Styles and Manu Rios or smaller influencers that are pushing the boundaries in terms of clothing, it still seems that certain people are allowed to do certain things because of their celebrity, but it doesn’t really filter into mainstream society. Things are starting to change, particularly perhaps in more metropolitan centres, but I don’t think the same influence is there in menswear as it is in womenswear and women’s trends.”

Lawless spent the summer of 2023 as an atelier intern at London label Molly Goddard and there are certainly some style references to be found in his designs for River Island. “I really enjoyed it – it was such a good experience. I worked in the sample room making samples, fabric manipulations, making lots of frills – it was really fun especially when I got to go back to work on the SS24 show and see behind the scenes,” says Lawless.

“In my own work I’ve been looking at aspects of menswear and womenswear to create a gender neutral wardrobe that celebrates the best of men’s and women’s fashion. The woman’s element in my collection was definitely inspired a bit by my work at Molly Goddard with the tulle.”

“We decided to choose Dennis as the bursary winner as he showed inclusive forward thinking; fusing the idea of structured tailoring with soft feminine tulle to create a true wow piece that really embodied the brief,” says Naomi Robertson, senior designer at River Island. “We are dedicated to employing talented young fashion graduates and through the NCAD bursary in Ireland we continue to fulfil this promise.”

The River Island project, which is structured to meet the educational training requirements at NCAD, has become an important cornerstone in NCAD’s final year fashion programme, providing valuable experience for students in undertaking a real life project with an industry partner. It kickstarts the students on the creative journey of their final year.

Students get a chance to explore various aspects of the design process with the brief sufficiently broad to allow for very individual responses. With a particularly strong group of students this year, the work of the other River Island finalists Emily O’Shea, Eva Flanagan, Maria Patriarca and Karen O’Donoghue is also noteworthy.

“What is really important about this project is that it covers all aspects of the creative process from research, concept development through to sampling, final design realisation and on into full garment technical specification,” says design lecturer at NCAD Linda Byrne. “An interim review happens midway through the process where the students pitch their early design ideas to River Island for feedback. This has proved to be an extremely valuable experience – getting advice and encouragement from a team who understand their customer and context so well is amazing.”

“The River Island competition project enhances our provision of real-world learning. Designing directly with industry develops the students’ professional skill sets and core competencies while developing knowledge and expertise in key areas of innovative high street fashion design,” says Angela O’Kelly, Head of Design for Body and Environment at NCAD. “The winning prize of a bursary and placement in the River Island design studios offer invaluable experience for our graduates and a superb launch pad into the fashion industry.”

“The bursary is a fantastic opportunity for a young graduate to cut their teeth in a busy creative environment,” echoes Linda Byrne. “We have seen our graduates using this experience as an important stepping stone for very successful design careers. We are very grateful to River Island for their amazing support over the past twenty years and hope that we can continue building on our close collaboration into the future.”

Photography by Leon Farrell Photocall Ireland and River Island.

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