Putting on the style: why the fashion pack has designs on Belfast
Three top designers tell Helen Carson what they love about the NI capital and how their businesses took off from here.
‘Women here are making bolder fashion choices in terms of prints and colours’
Newry-born fashion designer Shauna Fay (36), who specialises in bespoke women’s occasion and formalwear, is engaged to Chris Dillon (35), who works in hospitality management. She was based at Belfast Spires Centre until recently and made the headlines after creating a replica of Meghan Markle’s wedding dress 24 hours after she married Prince Harry. Shauna says:
Belfast is a very stylish city especially compared to other cities because there so much going on both at the weekend and weekdays. The more places there are to go and things to do means there are more people dressing up.
Fashion has been important to me as long as I can remember. It’s something I’ve always been interested in and I studied at Belfast Met before setting up the business just over five years ago.
As a child I was obsessed with clothes and drawing clothes.
I specialise in occasion and eveningwear right up to mother-of-the bride outfits. When a customer comes to me looking for something to wear to her friend’s wedding that’s the main priority, but she also wants to wear it again — it’s not a wear once option. She wants to put the outfit on again when she goes out on a Saturday night.
When women are posting the outfit they’re wearing on Instagram, they need something to be versatile enough to change up.
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The diversity in the Belfast fashion scene is impressive. I’m a fan of Northern Ireland designer Ruedi Maguire of Ruedi Studio on Belfast’s Lisburn Road who has created a new concept based on his capsule collection.
It’s important to have style choices because no one wants to be seen wearing the same outfit as someone else. There is nothing worse than turning up at an event in the same thing as another person.
Women here are making bolder fashion choices in terms of print and colours — and social media has played a part in that. Young women love anything that is different and others want to wear different cuts and fabrics.
Years ago when I was going out everyone wore a black dress, but now women love to dress up in little separates and trendy jumpsuits. No one wears the same black outfit all the time.
Style-wise it’s a much more interesting time.
Sustainability is a big issue now in fashion, but I’ve always believed that investing in a bespoke outfit will pay for itself per wear, and my customers are often seen in the same piece up to seven times.
And why wouldn’t you want to wear something again that makes you feel fabulous?
Why would you spend money on an outfit only to wear it once, then put it away in a cupboard?
A mother-of-the-bride outfit in cream is different because it’s for a special occasion and may not be as versatile for repeat wearing. Most of my customers are the ladies who go out and will wear an outfit again when they meet their friends for lunch, high tea, tapas or a day at the races.
My bespoke pieces start from £400 up to £800 which would be a very special mother-of-the-bride which could be a coat, dress or longer outfit.
All Belfast’s high street stores are fashion-led now, even stores like Marks & Spencer which has been seen as more traditional — they are doing the same thing as shops associated with younger customers like Topshop, New Look and River Island.
Attitudes to what you can wear now have changed, especially in terms of age. Forty-year-olds are like 30-year-olds and 30-year-olds are like 20-somethings.”
Shauna Fay has a Newry-based studio. Tel: 028 3084 8436
‘From High Street to couture, Belfast has something to offer shoppers of all tastes’
Milliner Grainne Maher (45) lives in Carryduff with her three children Sorcha (14), Cuan (12) and 11-year-old Seadhna.
Belfast is as stylish a city as any other modern European city with plenty of independent boutiques and high street stores as well as designers who are doing something that is a little bit different. Style is being generated all over the city.
One of the most important designers here for the last 10-15 years has got to be Una Rodden who is busy all year round. Not only does she have her own atelier where her and her staff are making couture to order, she also flies twice a year to Paris to stock a ready-to-wear collection. You just can’t get these pieces anywhere else.
She has the perfect mix there — not everyone can afford couture garments — but you can also pick something off the shelf, such as a dress for less than £100, and know that it’s going to be a really special outfit. It has been a challenging time for the high street, not just here but all over the UK. The recent Primark fire in Belfast had a detrimental effect on one level but on another it showed the resilience of shoppers here and the character of the city’s people to get out there.
We’ve been through worse in Belfast over the years, an awful lot worse, so the fire, as devastating as it was, hasn’t killed our city centre.
My favourite store on the high street is Zara because its clothes have a quality finish compared to more affordable shops. It tailors to all occasions from office wear, daywear as well as fancier outfits for weddings, garden parties and days at the races. Also jewellery, bags and shoes are available under one roof alongside women’s men’s and childrenswear. I think they’re really nailing it.
Our department stores like Debenhams and House of Fraser are great one-stop shops and there is a lot to be said for them. Shoppers love the convenience of car parking at the bigger centres like Victoria Square.
And the wide variety of concession fashion stores such as Oasis, Warehouse, Miss Selfridge, Jasper Conran and John Rocha means all age groups are catered for.
Like most people I got my style inspiration in my teens although I did wear black all the time, although in recent years I’ve broken that mould and embraced colour a lot more — but it took a long time.
I really get my kicks from dressing other people, more than worrying about myself. The fact I’m five feet one means buying off the shelf is very difficult, nothing fits.
Often I will alter clothes myself or let the professionals do it if it’s a bigger job.
My inspiration for designs is the chosen fabric itself. At the beginning of my millinery career, I worked with Perspex for a while, but now it’s leather — which is a lot more popular in hat designing.
I use leather to cut and create shapes — and this makes my designs recognisable as Grainne Maher hats. A recent collection was made from pure Irish linen which was part of a gallery show in Lisburn. It’s all about exploring the possibilities of the fabric.”
Grainne Maher Milliner is based at Love Wedding Studio, Blythe Street, Sandy Row, Belfast, www.grainnemaher.co.uk
‘Men’s tailors were stuffy ... I want people to walk in here and feel like they know me’
Chris Suitor (36) runs men’s tailors Suitor Brothers with his brother William. He lives in Belfast with wife Nicola (36), a yoga teacher, and their two children Ava (8) and six-year-old Lois. He says:
Belfast is getting there when it comes to men’s style as previously we were a bit behind the times. But there have always been a few businesses, like ourselves, who have been trying to push a more European attitude to style.
Over the last five years the style here — all over Ireland and not just in Belfast — has got so much better and people are starting to take a lot more care in what they wear.
They pay more attention to fashion and, in particular, fit. We now follow a more Italian style of fit — the Northern Irish guy likes his suits slim fitting. Six years ago it was completely different.
Social media has made people here more aware, and international sports men like MMA star and boxer Conor McGregor, from a fashion perspective, have completely turned men’s fashion on its head.
When Rory McIlroy wore a check suit to Old Trafford after winning his first US Open in 2013 the fashion pack criticised him, but six months later when McGregor gained notoriety wearing similar suits everything changed and it was considered cool.
We have sold so many check suits since then and it’s entirely due to Conor McGregor. I met him once and thanked him personally.
Before he made bold checks popular there was no wish or want for them.
Having dressed boxers Michael Conlon and Carl Frampton we have now built up a cult following with their fans.
We took them under our wing and they have become fashion icons, particularly Michael Conlon — the more crazy the design the more he loves it.
Reality shows have also encouraged us to stand out more in terms of fashion. Before, Belfast was quite regressive in that respect. Marks & Spencer does a nice slim-fit suit range with different fabrics, nice chinos, shirts in lovely prints and great blazers. River Island and Topman have good ranges, too.
Another impressive suiting brand here is Remus which is from Carrickfergus, and Herbie Frogg from Comber which is at the top of its game — it has taken over in the UK as one of the premier stylish, tailoring brands.
When it comes to the high street Reiss does a good job at staying contemporary, something that is a bit different while retaining those stylish lines.
While suit brands have to be adventurous and move their fashion game on, they need to be timeless too — those are the lines which sell out.
In Belfast we like to be different, but not too different, whereas in London everyone wants to be different to the next guy.
We do suits from £200 — an M&S or Next suit is £230 plus — so we compete very well but what you get in here is the expertise, a proper tailoring job. We fit the suit to you which makes it nicer looking and nicer to wear.
As a family we’ve had the business in the city centre since 1992 but my dad Tom has been in business for over 50 years. There is nothing we haven’t seen or haven’t been able to fit.
We definitely fly the flag for tailoring.
Previously men’s tailors were a bit stuffy but I want people to walk in here and feel like they know me.
The thrifty Northern Irish guy doesn’t want to go in somewhere for a suit and walk out with several shirts and pairs of trousers too. We present to you and then begin the fitting business.
When I was younger I resisted coming into the family business and ran a custom car company but then myself and my brother William bought Suitor Brothers in 2011 of which we are both partners. Now we employ six staff and the business is booming — nothing we do is available online. We’re trying to bring back made-to-measure where everything is made from scratch.”
Suitor Brothers, 56 Upper Arthur Street, Belfast, tel: 028 9023 5341, www.thebelfasttailor.com