From life on the farm in Tyrone to designs on Paris catwalk
Ulster designer Sharon Wauchob talks to Constance Harris about juggling motherhood with the high pressure world of high fashion
Sharon Wauchob is an internationally recognised, strong and individual design voice. Low key and private, this farmer's daughter from Newtownstewart in Co Tyrone lives and works in Paris, the high-pressured epicentre of global designer fashion, with her partner, Joshua Neville, and their two young children.
She has been described as an avant-gardiste, but I don't believe she sees herself as one. There have been challenges. And she has worked through them. Motherhood has brought new insights. And illness yet more. Work is ever by her side, to design is her modus operandi.
This season sees the return of Sharon Wauchob collections (the first time in over three years) being available to buy in Ireland. Today she will be in Dublin to launch Irish Designers CREATE 2013, Brown Thomas's initiative to support new, and maybe not so young, designers by showcasing and retailing their work. As well as Sharon opening the event, Sharon Wauchob Pre (a collection before the main autumn collection) and mainline collections will be available in the store.
While talking to Sharon, I can't help noticing how full of energy her voice is. I am taken aback to learn she is just an hour off a 22-hour flight from Australia (done with her two children, four-year-old Erin and one-year-old Thea). She is already in her workroom in Paris doing a fitting because Paris Fashion Week is only a month away. Her children may be calling in. And she has me on her case to do this interview.
She is light years away from the woman I spoke to last April who sounded quite flat and who, only a few weeks later, was hospitalised with a strain of meningitis.
"I was only in for a week. But it was a wake-up call. It sounds terrible, but you almost forget that you can be humbled, stopped. I had worked through pregnancy and after, and I was able to keep going," she says.
Over the years, I have always been astounded at Sharon Wauchob's dedication to her work, and her productivity. "Both my parents seem to have some kind of a gene, my mother especially, that they don't need sleep," she chuckles.
"I don't know if that is anything to do with it. I think people who don't need to sleep, grab sleep. I grab sleep. For instance, on the plane, anytime Thea closed her eyes, I closed my eyes and I slept."
She puts her flexibility down to her time on the farm. "I would do my art. And I would work on the farm. You had to focus and be in your own little bubble," she says.
"You grow up on a farm being absorbed completely in a work environment. But it didn't seem a work environment. To me, it was fun and interesting. A lot of today's adults in Ireland were raised that way, I think.
"I don't think that anything that I do is any tougher than what women were doing in Ireland before. What my mother did, what my grandmother did, physical work. What they were doing is way tougher than what I am doing."
Knowing how hard Sharon works, I marvel at what her mother's capacity must be like.
We digress into talking of our farming ancestry, particularly our grandmothers and beyond. "I grew up hearing a lot about my grandmother and I knew her, and she was the one who encouraged me to work in fashion," she says.
"She did it very simply – she just encouraged me. That whole thing with encouragement at an early age has a huge impact."
At 18, Sharon left for London to pursue her passion for design in the incredibly demanding environment of Central St Martins.
"London was quite a surprise, even a shock, but at that age you have a certain amount of resilience. We worked hard. It wasn't mad partying. Being younger, you focus, break it down, and work. And I had good friends," she says.
It was the night before Sharon was leaving London, having graduated, to start her new career in Paris, that she met her Australian partner in life and in business, Joshua.
"Even then I was focused on the job. He has played a big part in the business over the years. Josh works on the whole financial and business side so I can do the creative," she says.
How do they navigate personal and work lives?
"I think you have to find some system to make working together succeed. And we did, thankfully. I don't like arguments at work. I don't think they are beneficial. Two things that I don't like for the artistic process, trying to be creative when you have no time left – which is a big part of our industry. And then any kind of internal rows."
Sharon's first career break was working for Koji Tatsuno and around 1998 she launched her own label. Within a few years, she became a regular feature on the notoriously tough Paris catwalk schedule. Sharon Wauchob's design stamp came to be built on her knowledge of fabric and texture, experimental cutting and a deceptive simplicity that utterly beguiled for the complex skill behind it.
From 2009-11, Sharon was creative director of Edun, the Ali Hewson and Bono sustainable/ethical fashion range. In my opinion, she took the brand, which I believe suffered from a lack of distinct design aesthetic, to a whole new level. She told me she enjoyed her time there and she learned a lot about the production of fabric that even she, with all her knowledge, hadn't known.
But between it and her own collections she was producing over 12 a year, and she is glad now to be able to preserve all her energy for her own label.
She has been working on developing accessories ranges, while expanding her ready-to-wear offer with Pre and Resort collections. China was the next frontier and, with her new handbag range, she has broken in. No small feat in that hugely brand-sensitive terrain. They have just launched her accessories for next spring in the USA and Europe: more big frontiers being conquered.
Being a working mother is difficult at the best of times, but it must be doubly difficult in the high pressure world of international fashion, particularly if you are self-employed, but Sharon doesn't see it like that.
"Being a mother has been great, to be honest. I don't think I'm any different as any woman who is doing the whole juggling thing," she says.
"I don't think there are many benefits to having your own business, but there are when it comes to bringing your own daughter to work and meetings. Erin travelled a lot with me."
As a working mum, I comment to Sharon that my son was around 10 when I realised I was "administering" him rather than parenting. Once I realised that, I changed my work/home life.
"One of my friends believes in the end you have to allocate time with the child because either way they will get it. So you have to give them time," says Sharon.
"But I also think it's great for children to be around creativity. And I think it is important for children to see a work environment, in a certain way."
By which I take it she means, not in an oppressive way. Sharon Wauchob is in full creative flow.
It can only get better, stronger, richer.
Cutting a dash...
Sharon's rise to success in the fashion world has seen her honing her skills as an in-house designer at Louis Vuitton, Paris, and with Japanese design studio of Koji Tatsuno
In 1998 she launched her own label specialising in 'alternative' fashion and has developed a considerable cult following
In 2003 she became the first independent Irish designer elected to the Chambre du Pret a Porter, the organisation that controls catwalk schedules
In recent years she has been showing her collections twice a year during Paris Fashion Week and is known for her unique looks and detailed execution