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How creating this stunning dress helped Armagh teenager come to terms with devastating loss of her brother

Rachel Irwin still grieves the loss of her adored brother John, who died suddenly at the age of just 16, but, as Stephanie Bell finds out, creating an extraordinary dress from items associated with him has helped her heal

The pain of losing her brother two years ago has inspired a teenager to design a spectacular award-winning dress in his memory. Talented Rachel Irwin, from Co Armagh, poured her heart into the spectacular gown, channelling her grief after the sudden death of her brother John, who was just 16.

The City of Armagh High School pupil picked up one of five top prizes in the annual Bank of Ireland Junk Kouture competition, winning a trip to the Cannes Film Festival.

The 15-year-old, who was the youngest entrant in the competition, was awarded the Northern Regional prize, which covered contestants from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Donegal, Monaghan and Louth. She is the first student to bring the prize back to Northern Ireland.

Every inch of the elaborate hooped gown Rachel created was lovingly hand-stitched over many months and, as she painstakingly worked to incorporate items which had an association with her brother, she found the process a cathartic one that helped her to feel close to him.

Bank of Ireland Junk Kouture is a national contest which encourages young designers in second level education to create striking couture designs and impressive works of wearable art from everyday junk.

In her design, Rachel used an old mat from her brother's trampoline, turkey feathers and Christmas wreaths from his grave.

It is the third year in a row that the teenager has made it to the final of the competition.

She says: "A lot of the design has been inspired by John. When I was entering my first Junk Kouture competition he was so supportive with suggestions like using turkey feathers, so I used them again. White feathers are also something people associate with lost loved ones, so they seemed very appropriate. When you see a white feather it is like a message from them that the angels are near.

"My first dress was called Wind Beneath my Wings and I used John's suggestion of the turkey feathers and then last year my dress was called Farmyard Fashion, when I used the fertiliser bags to sew into a dress.

"This year's dress incorporates three Christmas wreaths from John's grave as the headpiece, a 13ft trampoline mat, as John loved to use our trampoline at home, and, of course, some turkey feathers.

"I was able to think about John as I made it and it also helped me take my mind off other things. It was a therapeutic process and let me express my grief in an artistic way.

"It made the dress very special to me and it was very special being on the stage at the grand final in Dublin."

John was just 16 when he collapsed in school. The year 12 pupil at City of Armagh High School was walking from one classroom to another when it happened. He had passed his sister Rachel in the corridor just minutes before.

Paramedics worked with him at the scene and he was rushed to hospital where he died in his mum's arms the following day.

A post-mortem was inconclusive but the family believe he died from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome.

John had been a fit and healthy teenager and at the time of his loss his mum Diane described him as a "quiet and unassuming lad" with twinkling eyes and a boyish smile.

A quiet but popular teenager, he loved working on the family farm near Tynan and attended St John's Parish Church every Sunday. The weekend before his death, he was helping his father Keith tend to sheep on the farm.

His mum Diane said the highlight of the year for him had been the birth of a lamb from his pedigree ewes. He called the lamb Rambo.

Hundreds of people attended his funeral, with his fellow pupils forming a guard of honour for their friend's final journey.

The whole family - mum Diane, dad Keith and his brothers James (24) and William (20) and sisters Ruth (23) and Rachel - are still struggling to come to terms with life without John.

Being closest to John in age, Rachel says they shared a special bond and she was absolutely devastated by his death.

"I was very close to John. He would have been 18 last month. I was devastated when he passed away. The dress was therapy for me and I could put my emotions into it," she says.

"I designed a heart which is in seven pieces on the dress; each piece represents a member of our family, with a black piece in the middle which represents John. It is a broken heart to show that our lives were shattered when he left us.

"All the other pieces are touching the black piece and that represents the fact that John touched all of our lives and will always be with us.

"There is also a robin embroidered into the dress, as there is a saying that whenever a robin appears, lost loved ones are near. The wee robin is also for hope and gives us, as a family, hope and strength.

"The dress also has a number of layers and this is to signify the different layers of grief.

"And I also made a headpiece from wreaths taken from John's grave which represents the circle of life.

"There is so much meaning in the dress. The black in it represents grief while the white stands for faith and hope - hope that we will see him again.

"I also had seven bows across the top of the dress which represent our family and a big bow on the shawl which stands for tying up your emotions.

"Winning the award made me happy because I knew John was with me. It helped me to make it in his memory but I think you always carry grief in your heart."

Rachel and the other winners won an all expenses paid trip to Cannes Film Festival. All the winners got the chance to parade in the star-studded resort in their gowns.

They were also treated to a helicopter trip to Monaco where they had dinner on the beach.

"We knew there were a lot of film stars in Cannes but we didn't get to see them although we changed into our dresses in one of the hotels where many of them were staying," says Rachel.

"When we came out there was lots of paparazzi outside the hotel entrance. We walked around in our dresses and had a lot of comments, although they were in French so I didn't understand them!

"It was a great trip and the surprise helicopter ride to Monaco was amazing."

Rachel's proud mum Diane says she admires her daughter's dedication and the hard work which went into her dress over several months, while also studying for her GCSEs.

Diane says: "Rachel put all of her emotions into the dress. She worked tirelessly at it and it took her ages to do it. The concept of grief was something she really focused on and she was taking part of John with her on that journey.

"She sewed everything by hand and it was a good way, for her to channel her grief.

"Losing John has been tough on all of us and what Rachel has done is very poignant, though we were able to laugh too at her using his trampoline mat as we could just hear John saying 'Look at what you are doing to my trampoline, look at the state of it now!'"

While Rachel is currently studying art as one of her GCSEs she hasn't decided what career she wants to follow. Her mum, however, says that she has always been very creative.

"You have just to give Rachel a bunch of flowers and she will make a beautiful arrangement," Diane adds.

"The whole concept of the competition is about reusing items and everything Rachel used was recycled. She bought nothing new.

"When she had made it she realised it needed a hoop and she didn't go out and get hula hoops but found an old piece of water pipe lying in the garden which wasn't too clean.

"She took it inside and washed it and used duct tape and old strings off the trampoline to make her hoop."

Diane adds: "I am so glad she got a good result in the competition. It is a very big thing to have won and it is good that she has brought it into Northern Ireland for the first time. We are very proud of her."

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