By Colette Fitzpatrick
When I first meet Conor O’Brien, I am browsing in the incredibly chic boutique where he works part-time while he studies fashion design at NCAD and hand-knits garments for a customer base that he has already developed as a student. I pop in on my way back to work after lunch and know that it is unlikely I’ll actually buy something as it’s not the sort of place where one impulsively commits to a piece. As such, when he asks me if I need any help, I meekly say no, ready to bolt and leave without purchasing anything. But I mention a style of short I’m currently seeking and he and I get talking. I don’t find the shorts but I end up chatting to him for a long time. He tells me about his brand, we discuss fashion education in the era in which fashion is trying to be greener, and more and it is all so lively and natural and interesting that I’m cursing it being a random conversation and not some well-produced episode of a podcast with him as a guest. Though it’s been a while since I’ve posted to Bean, Conor has completely reignited my interest in fashion in a more formal way and I find myself asking to interview him for the site.
But just what is so exciting about Conor? There are many things, actually. His garments are stunning, and that is without a doubt reason enough to care about a designer, but there is much more to Conor O’Brien. He is incredibly forthright with his opinions about the industry and utterly dedicated to his own code of conduct and beliefs. There is something quite punk about the way he expresses himself that this old punk is certainly drawn to it. In addition to this, however, is the fact that he is incredibly thoughtful. His approach to design and life is deeply considered but fluid; he’s not always sure how he feels about things and he is open to being wrong and willing to reconsider. All of these things make me eagerly await what he will do and the designer that he will become.
For now, however, he is starting off in the industry with some bold and clear choices. He makes on a made-to-order basis, he hires three women based in different parts of the country who are expert knitters at a fair rate (specifically what he would, “expect to be paid for the work,” himself) and then finishes off the garments himself by hand. When I ask him about this model, he speaks about those who have told him he is being silly or naive for not cutting his costs but this is something he refuses to do. Conor tells me, “there are people that have said to me, ‘Oh, easy, why don’t you cut your costs down to really low prices and get a bunch of refugees to work for you.’” His response to this is immediate. “‘Eh, no thanks, because I like to sleep at night.’ – that’s not me trying to signal virtue. I’m just not even interested in that. I’m just interested in working with people and trying to revive Irish craft. And the uniquely Irish production of craft. And, also, partly contribute to the revival of Irish cottage industries because I feel that was a good model.”
The very idea that somebody might put forward this money-saving suggestion is horrifying, something it is hard to imagine anyone saying out loud and, yet, it is no different to the conditions in which clothes are often produced, even those from famous, massive, and wealthy brands. It’s just closer to home and our hearts right now. Conor, however, refuses to engage with this kind of behaviour but shakes off the idea that this is because of some grand ideology or political statement. He simply admires the cottage industries that were once so common in Ireland and well-made objects designed to last and wants to do things the right way for himself and his brand. “Personally, I don’t know if I want to partake in the fashion industry or if I identify with fashion or more with craft or something like that,” he tells me as he also notes, “this is why I’ve also said that I’m not a businessperson. I don’t have a business head.”
This more traditional idea of how clothes should be made also mirrors Conor’s ideas around sustainability and what that actually means to him and for his label. It’s not just the way that clothes are made now that he thinks needs reimagining but also how we use and wear clothes. “Personally, I’m not precious with my clothing. I spend a lot of money on my clothing and I take care of my clothes but… I’m not wrapping particular garments up in tissue paper every night. I think that that is reductive. I take the same approach to the garments I produce. You can wear it (Note: Conor is referring here to his current central hero piece at his label, the gilet) out to dinner or you go out in it and it can look quite cool. You don’t have to wear anything underneath it, that can look quite interesting. Then, the next day, you can cook in it, you can go do some gardening in it. You could hike in it. I just wanted to create a garment that you just throw on over the body. In fact, I’m not trying to be philosophical but I don’t think so much of garment production in my mind. I try to even avoid the restraints and restrictions of traditional garment-making in what I produce. My gilet is just two pieces of fabric stitched together at the shoulders that goes on over the head. The restrictions around a lot of clothing that people are spending too much money on [is that they are something they] can only wear once to an occasion. Obviously, that’s unsustainable – and that’s such an easy word to say – but it is just useless. You’re not getting wear out of your garments. I think hierarchical distinctions in the contexts of our clothing is also what funnels fast fashion and unhealthy consumer habits when buying clothes.”
The construction of this particular garment has also meant that Conor generally produces it as a, “one-size,” piece of clothing. This term may scare many but the gilet is created with suiting many bodies in mind. Conor has seen it being worn on those ranging from a size six to a size sixteen but he has also been asked to make a smaller version by a customer who wanted a more fitted option than the generally oversized silhouette. Furthermore, he would have no problem adjusting the size up, too, for a customer should they wish it. This, he notes, is the beauty of made-to-order clothes; they can be made exactly to a customer’s specifications, within reason. When we discuss this and about inclusivity when it comes to sizing in the fashion industry, it is clear that it is something he has really thought about and considered before.
The main point, though, is that as his pieces are made with specific owners in mind, there should be no problem in regard to the range of sizing and there is also no waste. This is why he has some concerns about producing a final collection as a fashion student. He doesn’t want to create a sprawling collection, only for it to end up only worn once before never seeing the light of day again. “I struggle with the fact that most fashion graduates are going to have to produce very avant-garde garments to catch media attention. But us fashion students and creative students, in general, are spending hundreds and hundreds of thousands on materials that colleges aren’t providing for us and making it all ourselves only for it to end up as an extremely avant-garde garment that will garner you 15 minutes of media attention and a mention in a blog somewhere but then you have to find storage for the rest of your life – only for the fabric to waste away there. I’m sure there are students out there who have produced their final collection and then are ripping garments apart and making new garments again. That’s all very interesting and there are ways around it but, generally, as a rule of thumb, fashion education is quite strict. There’s a status quo and if you stray from that it’s looked down upon, honestly. I’m just trying to find a sweet spot where I can make a living from this thing that is taking all my energy and money.”
In general, Conor questions lots of elements of the industry he is on the cusp of joining, as many young designers of his generation are. They are trying to find a new way (or an old one) to do things but it is hard to do so as producers and consumers of clothing alike have such confused and hypocritical thoughts and habits, as it is almost impossible to completely break free from murky and problematic supply chains. As fashion continues to try and find some way towards a somewhat more sustainable model (though as Conor and I both note, there really isn’t any sort of truly sustainable model if you are creating new garments from scratch for a wide market), there is a hell of a lot of work still to be done to change anything. Even when it comes down to something as simple as reading the labels on our clothes, those with the best of intentions and some understanding of more ethical production models can be caught out. Conor notes, “We have a consumer psychology that is so utterly warped that when we see that something is made in China we’ll assume the worst and when we see it’s made in Italy we’ll assume the best. When only a few years ago we saw the DW documentary about unethical production in Italy. And I’m not convinced that many designer bags are still made in little ateliers in Paris. No, ‘clever,’ businessperson who is making billions is going to continue that production model.” Things are simply too complicated, too nuanced, too multi-faceted to be able to make any sort of assumptions when shopping and consuming. Fashion’s crisis of conscience has really only just begun and only tiny dent has been made in trying to fix things. While shopping at made-to-order, hand-knit labels using beautiful Irish wool is not going to be an option for everyone, and certainly not all the time, it is still heartening to hear designers (or crafters) like Conor think deeply about the industry and their own participation in it. He’s the sort of punk that fashion needs and needs plenty of in order to shake things up. And maybe, slowly, we can really, truly reconsider what and how we buy and wear and some sort of truly slow cottage industry can be reborn for a much larger swathe of the population. Maybe.
Looking for more interesting posts about Irish fashion? Check out our guide to some of the best vintage stores in Dublin…