It's a Saturday afternoon in downtown Dublin and the streets are starting to come alive with activity. At the Better Fashion Shop, a quiet morning fades into a busy afternoon as people pass through the open glass door and start browsing the colourful racks, which are organised in a casual yet cohesive manner.
There's no hint that this vibrant, well-curated space will shut its doors in a week, bringing its month-long existence to an end. When patrons learn that the Better Fashion Shop is a pop-up, they often respond with disappointment - some because they've found a new place to find unique goods, others because they're happy to see creative work filling a space that remained empty for two years as a glaring sign of the economic struggle that Ireland is enduring.
Artist and fashion designer Helen Steele
The Better Fashion Shop represents ethical design of all kinds, ranging from locally produced to organic and vegan styles. It is the newest edition to Dublin's Brown Sugar Better Fashion Week, now in its fifth year. Produced by not-for-profit group Re-dress, the week is comprised of talks, presentations, films and a fashion show, all of which focus on sparking conversation about ethics within the industry.
Since the first edition of Better Fashion Week in 2008, then known as Fashion Evolution, Re-dress founders Kate Nolan, Rosie O'Reilly and Kellie Dalton have continued to challenge themselves to organise a thought-provoking and inspiring series of events each year.
"We try to do something that is a creative strain for us so that we stay very engaged in the process," Nolan says. "Mostly we don't want to be an event organizer. We're an organisation that promotes ethics in fashion, so it's very important that we don't isolate ourselves as just event organisers. This year the big change has been here, with this presence right in the middle of the city centre for a month. It has allowed a lot more people to hear about us, to come in and, for the first time, we've had very tangible, touchable examples of what we've been talking about for five years."
Despite the success of the pop-up shop, Nolan insists that the trio have no plans to make it permanent, because their goal is not to be retailers either.
"Ultimately we are an organisation that sells a vision," she says, adding that fans of the shop, which is officially called the Better Fashion Shop: Nomadic, need not despair. Though the boutique will close on April 29, Dubliners can expect to see a reincarnation of it somewhere in the city again in the future.
Still, this retail hub for Better Fashion Week seems to fit remarkably well in its current location off South William Street and adjacent to the George's Street Arcade. Today, the area provides a very fashionable hangout in a city not known for its style.
"I would agree that Irish people are unfortunately not well-known like the French for having wonderful style," says fashion historian Ruth Griffin, a veteran of the industry who will present "The Lost Fashion History of South William Street" as part of Better Fashion Week. "We're well known for our literature and music; there's a big emphasis on personality and storytelling, but style has always been separate from that. At the same time, particularly in Dublin, there's always been an element of the society that's been interested in beautiful things, and there have been some great people who have been able to provide that over the years."
South William Street, Griffin explains, was once Dublin's garment district. It thrived as a fashion hub throughout the mid-1900s, as the layout of its Georgian buildings allowed designers and artisans access to small, one-room studios. There, they produced goods that were then sold in nearby stores, including on Grafton Street, a shopping avenue that today is lined with retail chains.
At the time, the people working parallel to Grafton Street on the somewhat hidden South William Street made contributions to the world of fashion, Griffin says. "One man in particular, at number 55, he had a couture coat business. From the 1930s to 1970s, he produced fashion with really great Irish tweeds - couture-style coats. He sold to Lord & Taylor and Harrods, and department stores across the U.S. and Canada."
The area has now come full circle with businesses like the Better Fashion Shop establishing themselves there, Griffin adds. She explains that today, rather than producing clothing and accessories, South William Street is a place where fashion is sold and put on display by the trendsetters that populate its blocks of cafes, pubs and restaurants.
"Better Fashion Week goes back to those great traditions," Griffin explains. "It reminds us of greatness; it reminds of us of our community; it reminds us how we can contribute to our community. That's why people are excited. We like to see our own doing well and we like to hear good stories, especially when all we hear are bad stories."
Re-dress promotes discussion about ethical,
Those "bad stories" - the challenging economic times that the country and much of the world find themselves in - also present a unique moment for the ethical fashion movement in Ireland and beyond.
"I don't like harping on about recession, but I think it's actually been quite a good thing for Irish people," Griffin says. "With the crash, it's made everybody really think about what they're buying. In our lifetimes we've seen things produced and seen the craft - we're not that far away from watching people spinning things in cottages - and with everything that's happened, I think people really want a taste of that again."
Nolan agrees that the troubling times have sparked an interest in the ideals that Re-dress and Better Fashion Week represent. "In the recession we're finding that the story is really important to people before they buy anything. I think the High Street and the fast fashion and the mass-produced are suffering greatly because people are returning back to wanting to know the full story of what they're purchasing. They like to be able to retell that story, so if it's locally produced and an Irish designer; if it's fairtrade or organic; or they got it here in this pop-up, you know, everything has a story and people really love that."
Nolan and her partners, O'Reilly and Dalton, have found that this year's addition of the Shop is helping spread awareness of their ideals among the general public.
"We love the idea that from just a simple purchase - which became so bland and banal over the big boom times - our story gets out and disseminates across the city," Dalton says, adding that a simple compliment about an item purchased in the shop can lead to a conversation about better fashion and the work Re-dress is doing. "The whole point of fashion is conversation," she says. "We're just spreading that conversation in a different way."
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