Images courtesy of Roísin Pierce

Inside Róisín Pierce’s sar­to­r­i­al trib­ute to Ireland’s fall­en women’

“I felt a responsibility to tell the story which was driven by anger, really; Irish women have experienced so much misfortune, and I knew I couldn’t just ignore it.”

Róisín Pierce may have won the first ever Chanel Métiers d’art Prize at last month’s Hyères Fes­ti­val, but she’s still com­ing to terms with the atten­tion her vic­to­ry has com­mand­ed. It is strange – and won­der­ful – to have so many peo­ple get­ting in touch,” she says over the phone with clear dis­be­lief in her voice. But nat­u­ral­ly, this atten­tion is well-deserved; her win­ning col­lec­tion – Mná ì bhláth, Gael­ic for Women in Bloom’ – won jurors over with its intri­cate fab­ric sculp­tures and ornate head­pieces cre­at­ed in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mai­son Michel, one of Chanel’s revered ateliers.

Despite the beau­ty of the col­lec­tion, a sin­is­ter – and, sad­ly, ever-rel­e­vant – sto­ry lies at its heart. Research led Róisín to the Irish Mag­da­lene Laun­dries, glo­ri­fied asy­lums-cum-work­hous­es reserved for women deemed to be fall­en’ by the Catholic Church. Mass graves are still being dis­cov­ered cen­turies lat­er. Essen­tial­ly, these women were being harsh­ly, some­times lethal­ly pun­ished for preg­nan­cy or abor­tion – a lega­cy which lives on in the laws of North­ern Ire­land, and which end­ed only last year in the Republic.

A mix­ture of anger and deter­mi­na­tion to human­ise these women fuelled the col­lec­tion, which fus­es sym­bols of puri­ty with reli­gious iconog­ra­phy and exper­i­men­tal sil­hou­ettes. The pieces more close­ly resem­ble wear­able sculp­tures than con­ven­tion­al cloth­ing, but Róisín soon realised that she would have to dis­cuss their cre­ation with a pan­el of jurors – a process which would involve retelling trau­mat­ic sto­ries and engag­ing with dif­fi­cult conversations.

Ulti­mate­ly, the col­lec­tion speaks for itself. The same can be said of Róisín’s wider port­fo­lio, which is defined large­ly by her skill as a sculp­tor and her uncom­pro­mis­ing vision of a new, more exper­i­men­tal approach to design. Now that she has the Chanel seal of approval, we caught up with the tal­ent­ed artist to talk cre­ative free­dom, the ongo­ing polic­ing of women’s bod­ies and the thrill of being backed by one of fashion’s most leg­endary names.

Lets start at the begin­ning what first attract­ed you to fashion?

The visu­als, but also the fact that you could use it as a medi­um to send a mes­sage. I actu­al­ly stud­ied fine art tex­tiles at uni­ver­si­ty because sculp­ture real­ly inter­est­ed in me – as you can imag­ine it was real­ly free, they basi­cal­ly let me do what I want­ed to! I found my niche in fab­ric sculp­tures, which I don’t think would have hap­pened if I hadn’t been giv­en chal­lenged, but also giv­en that free­dom. The col­lege I went to had a fash­ion course which focussed heav­i­ly on tai­lor­ing, which I knew wasn’t for me. I pre­ferred tex­tiles, because it allowed me to keep sam­pling and sam­pling – it made my work a lot better.

When did it first occur to you to make those sculp­tures wearable?

Through that sam­pling process. I always aimed to make some­thing I hadn’t seen before, so I would test dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions with the fab­ric. Each piece led to the next – I would try one thing, see how the tex­tiles respond­ed and come up with three oth­ers, just like that. I actu­al­ly don’t design by draw­ing sketch­es, I real­ly just learn through the mak­ing process and have fun with it.

Was that the case with Mná i bhláth, too?

Def­i­nite­ly. I real­ly want­ed to show my thought process with every piece and dis­play some kind of vari­a­tion in tech­nique, so one look would be padded; anoth­er would be woven togeth­er. I would get new ideas from test­ing place­ment of the ruf­fles, so maybe I would put them into dia­monds and see these gaps which would stretch to pull these lines and look like flowers.

Can you tell me a lit­tle about the sto­ry behind the collection?

Sure, so the col­lec­tion is about the Irish Mag­da­lene Laun­dries. The idea first came to me before the Repub­lic of Ire­land even had repro­duc­tive rights, but the more I researched the more I saw a link to the present. Women were sent to the laun­dries for rea­sons out­side their con­trol, for being preg­nant – and if you didn’t want the baby or couldn’t give birth, you would be punished. 

Ini­tial­ly, I felt a respon­si­bil­i­ty to tell the sto­ry which was dri­ven by anger, real­ly; Irish women have expe­ri­enced so much mis­for­tune, and I knew I couldn’t just ignore it. But still, I felt a kind of inter­nal con­flict. I didn’t know if this was my sto­ry to tell because it’s such a heavy sub­ject, and it’s one that affect­ed women who are still alive today.

What was the process of trans­lat­ing those sto­ries into visuals?

The one thing I def­i­nite­ly knew was that I didn’t want to do this grue­some col­lec­tion with smeared blood, you know? I want­ed to cre­ate some­thing beau­ti­ful, mean­ing­ful and well-ref­er­enced, so I start­ed research­ing and found that these women made pieces they would sell to the pub­lic: bap­tism dress­es, bridal dress­es and com­mu­nion dress­es. I looked to my old fam­i­ly pho­tos as ref­er­ence for that actu­al­ly, so in a way this col­lec­tion felt real­ly per­son­al to me.

Then I worked with Mai­son Michel on these beau­ti­ful head­pieces inspired by nuns’ habits; an ear­ly idea was to mix this real­ly puri­tan­i­cal imagery with an arche­type of the fall­en woman’, which is what they were viewed as, but it fiz­zled out as the tech­niques came togeth­er. As for the flo­ral ref­er­ences, I was think­ing of the way that women in Ire­land – even when I was grow­ing up – used these del­i­cate euphemisms to cov­er up things that they thought were shame­ful. Your peri­od was your flower’, and that imagery is in the Bible as well – this idea of sow­ing the seed – so I want­ed to bring the gar­den imagery in with the soft flower sculp­tures I men­tioned earlier.

This idea of resist­ing the male gaze and explor­ing fem­i­nin­i­ty has always been preva­lent in your work. In the past you said you design for the non-con­ven­tion­al woman; in your head, who is she?

In my head, she’s some­one that isn’t afraid of wear­ing what she wants to wear. I design for women that aren’t afraid to be loud; women who seek beau­ty in rare and abnor­mal things.

You also work dif­fer­ent­ly to oth­er design­ers in the sense that youre also a sculp­tor you craft. How does that fit into the land­scape of an indus­try obsessed with fast fashion?

I think that actu­al­ly makes peo­ple more inter­est­ed in orig­i­nal pieces, which are hand-craft­ed and take time to make. I’ve had pos­i­tive reac­tions when peo­ple found out each look wasn’t churned out in a day. They admire it more; it’s almost like a lit­tle rebel­lion against what the indus­try has become.

One last thing con­grat­u­la­tions on win­ning the first Chanel Métiers dart Prize at the Hyères Fes­ti­val! As some­one whose ethos is so in line with that idea of sup­port­ing arti­sans, what did it mean to you to receive that?

It was hon­est­ly pret­ty amaz­ing just to get through! There isn’t real­ly much hap­pen­ing in Ire­land because most design­ers go to Lon­don, so to get recog­ni­tion from a jury that I knew and respect­ed was a big deal to me. I grew up watch­ing Chanel cou­ture shows and real­ly respect­ing that vision, so for the jury to see that poten­tial in me was incred­i­ble – I hope to do some­thing real­ly spe­cial with them, espe­cial­ly as the craft focus of Métiers ties in so heav­i­ly to my work.

Also, it’s Chanel! It’s fun­ny – my broth­er does busi­ness and now he thinks what I do is real­ly cool. He used to be like what is it that you do?’ Now he’s telling every­one: My sis­ter is work­ing with Chanel!”


MUA: Tee Elliot

Hair: Angela Doyle

Mod­el: Tara McGonagle

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