The complexity of identity is a common thread in Irish art, and its woven its way quite literally into the fabric of Aisling Duffy’s designs. The National College of Art and Design graduate, from Dublin, has been based in London for the last four years where she’s worked hard to establish herself in a trade where competition is high. Getting to grips with her own style, learning not to compromise on her values, as well as navigating some challenging times have all been key to discovering her own identity as an artist.
Student Life & Starting Out
‘When I graduated from NCAD I was still young at 22. I was just starting to understand what I wanted to do, but I also knew there was a lot more to explore. I decided to do further study at the Edinburgh College of Art to allow myself more time to explore my style. The tutors there really allowed me to experiment through multi-disciplinary work and gave me a chance to define my style further.
I moved to London after Edinburgh and worked for a vintage printing textile company called Palm Design. We were taking vintage prints and turning them into digitally-printed fabrics, then selling them at trade shows like Premiere Vision, which is a huge textile trade show in Paris, New York and Milan. All the big fashion houses attend Premiere Vision to buy and order fabrics and to find out about the next year’s trend predictions – not just for print but for every type of fabric, like the next season’s denims. Its a really incredible experience to be there. During my time at Palm I continued developing my own style and started to design my own Printed Fabric Collection.
Upskilling & Finding The Perfect Work Space
When Palm Design closed down Aisling found herself faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to return home to Ireland but discovering Fashion Enter in London turned things around for her. She decided to use 2017 as a year to develop new skills and then found the perfect collaborative work space in which to create;
‘I was left in a position where the company I worked for had closed and I had no secure job, it was scary and I wondered if I should stay in London and persevere or move back home to Ireland. Finding a job in the textile industry can be really tough and I also knew that that’s not what I wanted to do long-term.’
‘I knew my ultimate dream was to work for myself and be in control of my own time, and to do something I was really passionate about. That’s when I heard about The Prince’s Trust, which is a really great organisation in the UK that helps young people kick-start their business ideas by giving them business support and mentoring. They told me about a place called Fashion Enter, where I could learn to use sewing machines to an industry standard.’
‘So I spent 2017 upskilling and gained qualifications in using Industrial Sewing Machines and Pattern Cutting. These are skills that you are not necessarily taught at Art College but became very important for my business.’
‘Then in late 2017 I was lucky enough to be awarded a Studio and Business Incubation Support by Cockpit Arts, which is a Craft Design Business Incubator in Central London. That is the studio I’m in now.’
‘I used to think I worked better at home but there is a lot to be said about your work space being different from where you live. Cockpit Arts is full of other designers and makers and it’s heavily craft-based. The knowledge of the people there is just amazing. If I need a break or some inspiration, I can just pop across to ceramics for a while and find out a bit more about what they do. It reminds me of being in college in that way, having that intersection of different disciplines.’
Questions Of Identity & Being Irish
One of Aisling’s major fascinations is not just Irish identity but identity in general as a construct, and its something she finds herself returning to again and again in her work;
‘My work explores identity and how your environment affects who you are. With textiles I use techniques like layering heavy fabrics to represent the parts of you that you show and reveal, and the parts of you that you keep close, or even completely hidden from sight.’
Inevitably though, having that dual identity of being an Irish person abroad has had an impact also;
‘In this industry its all about finding an edge or a USP. Being Irish does help you stand out from the crowd. At events people tend to remember you as the girl with the the strange name and accent! What I’m coming to realise and feel very proud of though is that I’m an Irish artist within the London and UK industry but I can still engage with people back home too, who have really gotten on board with what I’m doing. That’s a connection I really want to build on this year. In my latest collection for example, I’m exploring Irish identity and heritage, inspired by objects and artefacts from our museums like the Irish Cross and the Ardagh Chalice‘
Staying True To Herself
As a vegan and advocate of ethically-sourced clothing, when Aisling started to develop her brand these were values she knew had to be incorporated;
‘I made the change to veganism around 7 years ago. I think it helped me to become more open-minded and over time I started to think about other choices I was making, such as the make-up and cosmetics products I was using and the clothes I was wearing. When I was starting up my brand and choosing my values, I knew that I wanted to be sustainable, environmentally-friendly and vegan-friendly. I’m so passionate about what I’m doing. Its part of me and an extension of me, so it doesn’t make sense for those things to be separate. My work has to have the same values that I hold.’
‘I think you remain true to yourself, that nearly allows you to become that bit more unique. If you’ve got ideals that you stick to, people ultimately respect that and you’ll start to develop a following of people who connect with them too. I’m lucky that sustainability has also become centre stage lately. Information is much more readily available about manufacturers, the life-cycle of their fabrics and the ethics behind them.’
Vintage clothing is also a consuming passion of Aisling’s and she creates incredible reclaimed and up-cycled vintage pieces in her spare time. The intricate and colourful hand-embroidery she creates has become something of a signature style;
‘I really love working on my reclaimed vintage pieces. I tend to do my print designing and machine sewing in my studio and the hand-embroidery at home in the evenings. In my student days I loved second-hand shops and I think that fed into my obsession with eBay. You can find everything and anything – I use it to source all my beads and sequins on there. Sometimes I’ll buy something covered in sequins just so I can dismantle it. Bright colours are also my thing. I think I fell into that because I can never decide on just a few colours, so I throw them all in there. I’m a maximalist!’
‘There are a few reasons that reclaimed vintage appeals to me. Firstly it is sustainable, you are working with something that already exists, but also each piece of clothing has a story behind it which plays into my interest in identity. The idea that something had a life before and that I’m giving it a new life, is very exciting to me’
Alongside her Small Label, Aisling also sells her fashion Print through Agents around the world;
‘I have agents in Melbourne, New York and London. They send me briefs for different prints that they want. The designs are then sold to big fashion houses. I’ve been lucky enough to see my stuff appear with some amazing brands, like Pottery Barn and Victoria’s Secret.’
Her embroidery commissions have also taken off in a major way with requests coming in for everything from bespoke clothing to beaded pet portraits. The latter being especially popular right now. She also designed custom t-shirts to support the recent Repeal campaign back home, giving all proceeds to TogetherForYes.
She still has lots of different ideas she’d love to explore. Continuing to develop and evolve as an artist is the most important thing;
‘I think I’ve always had an idea of what I wanted my work to be, but I’m still on that journey’.
Aisling is available for bespoke commissions, her dream is to design stage outfits so if you are a Musician looking for something to wear then please get in touch.
Images provided by the Fashion Enter & Fashion Technology Academy.