How Susan has used Belfast's troubled past to create future in the fashion world
Belfast designer finds inspiration from a family secret to create a collection short-listed for a top award, writes Stephanie Bell
Belfast fashion designer Susan Rogers once hid the fact that her Catholic grandfather served in the RUC but now she is celebrating it in a surprising way - in the world of fashion. The 21-year-old has used her family's experience of sectarianism to inspire her first collection which has seen her short-listed for a top award.
Susan, who graduated this summer, has also launched her own fashion label and is wooing the best in the business with her raw and exciting new designs.
Her work centres on her own experiences as a Catholic schoolgirl growing up in north Belfast and stories she has been told by her family about how they too suffered sectarian abuse.
Her maternal grandfather decided on a career as a police officer at a time when it was virtually unheard of for Catholics to serve in the RUC and even though she grew up during peacetime, Susan felt the need to hide her past from those around her.
She also recalls hearing stories from her own parents of growing up in the Troubles and how they suffered because of their religion.
Susan says she will be forever grateful that her grandfather didn't experience any direct attacks as an RUC officer, but like his colleagues he was forced to face ongoing security threats. For Susan this all seemed normal until she moved to Dublin and realised her peers had no experience of such pressure growing up - a realisation that prompted her to take difficult memories and translate them into something beautiful, and fun, with her designs.
She says: "Growing up, I listened to my parents and grandparents as they talked about the impact of living and working through the Troubles.
"Also for me the reality of being from a Catholic background was that I had to hide from school friends the fact that my maternal grandfather worked in the predominantly Protestant RUC.
"In addition to that, my 98-year-old paternal grandmother worked in the linen mills from the age of 14 and was widowed and was moved from house to house, sometimes into mainly Protestant areas where my father had to try to dodge taunts and attacks as he walked home in his St Malachy's blazer.
"I also experienced similar events and emotions when walking around in my own bright green Dominican College uniform, resulting in this subconscious need to hide what I was. If we stopped to go into a shop in a Protestant area on the way home from school my mother would have made me cover my uniform with a long black coat."
Susan has just graduated this summer from the National College of Art & Design in Dublin with a BA Honours in Fashion Design. She is currently living in Dublin where she is working as a tailoring apprentice in Paul Henry Tailoring, learning from one of the best in the business, Henry Dixon, who is renowned for his bespoke tailoring.
She is one of just 10 designers from Ireland and beyond short-listed for the annual Young Designer of the Year award to be announced at the main event of the DublinTown Fashion Festival tomorrow.
The finalists will attend a catwalk event showcasing their designs before the winner is announced.
The dress Susan submitted for the competition came from a collection she'd designed for her degree course.
"I have a desire for a better future for my generation and created a collection entitled 'Gate 49: Now Boarding'; a reference to the gate at Heathrow airport specifically for passengers travelling to Belfast in the Seventies and Eighties," she explained. "These passengers were left in no doubt that they were viewed as a potential threat and were subject to searches and scrutiny that marked them out and created an environment of suspicion and hostility.
"The old RUC uniform and my grandmother's 100-year-old woollen mill worker shawl were my inspiration for my choice of colours, textiles and patterns. My collection of five designs incorporates elements from both. I wanted to create something new and different with a story behind it that reflected my past and where I came from."
Susan, whose family lives in Jordanstown, attended St James Primary School in Whiteabbey and knew from an early age she wanted to be a designer.
She chose to go to Dominican College in Fortwilliam because it was renowned for its art and design department and also offered a GCSE course in textiles. For the same reason she enrolled in the National College of Art & Design in Dublin.
"While Fortwilliam had a strong focus on academic achievement it also gave great support to anyone showing creative talent and arranged for me to attend a week-long residential art course in Villiers Park, Cambridge, and I had amazing support from my art teacher Mrs Mulvenna and my textiles teacher Miss Chambers.
"I had heard great things about the National College of Art & Design in Dublin and was inspired by the quite challenging portfolio submission which was part of the selection process for admission. I remember being more anxious about the marks for my portfolio than for my A-level results."
Fiercely ambitious, Susan has already launched her graduation collection under her own label Ser via her own website and is working on a new collection for spring/summer 2019. She says: "I love trying my hand in as many different areas of the design process as I can.
"With my graduate collection I hand dyed yarn and felted for the first time. I also laser-etched pattern into my fabric. Hopefully with my future collections I'll be able to actively experiment with a wide variety of techniques.
"In the next five to 10 years I'd love for my brand to grow. I'd also love an opportunity to design for a big name brand to gain experience in the industry."
Her main influences are Alexander McQueen for his "strong, highly tailored pieces" and Vivian Chan for embracing a very soft feminine style.
She describes her own designs as "edgy but wearable".
She says: "I would like to think I am designing for the woman who finds beauty in simplicity and appreciates quality; someone who wants to be comfortable yet effortlessly stylish.
"There is a lot of structure in my designs and they are a little bit out there but quite wearable at the same time. I just love the idea of someone putting on my clothes and feeling a million dollars in them."
And while she has settled in Dublin she returns home often to visit her mum, dad and older brother in Belfast. Outside of her career she enjoys spending time with her friends and exploring the city.
"Dublin is great; it's such a vibrant and lively city. I like to try and see my friends in my spare time and we're never at a loss for things to do. We go out to eat, go to galleries, go shopping or we just gather at my flat and watch movies.
"Between working in Paul Henry Tailors and working on my own collection I don't give myself a lot of down-time as I really enjoy what I do. So when I do give myself down-time, I like to try to get outside."