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December 18, 2014
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For the last two years, Northern Irish designer Mary Callan has been creating modern, luxury knitwear, her designs earning her top prize at last October’s Peroni Moda Awards in Dublin. Photograph courtesy of Mary Callan.
Mary Callan took inspiration from
Peroni’s Blue Ribbon Label for her
hand-woven, merino wool dress.
Photograph courtesy of Mary Callan. 

A rising star in Irish and British fashion, knitwear designer Mary Callan, 28, was named the winner of the Peroni Moda Awards in October 2012. As part of her prize, the Northern Irish designer had the opportunity to work backstage at Marco de Vincenzo's A/W 2013-14 show during Milan Fashion Week. Fresh off the plane, Callan sat down with The Genteel in Dublin to talk about her experiences in Milan, the design that got her there and how she's developing her collection of modern, luxury knitwear. 

Briana Palma: How was your time in Milan?

Mary Callan: I was there for four nights. I was helping Marco de Vincenzo in the run-up to his show, so for the days ahead of it and during the show backstage. I was working with him on the casting of the models, in the showroom, and backstage as well - polishing shoes, arranging everything in order for the models. I also helped dress and ran errands around Milan, which was interesting because I don't speak any Italian. It was pretty hands-on and pretty hectic. It went by really, really quickly, but it was just great to see the clothes up close.

BP: What was it like working with Marco de Vincenzo?

MC: He was obviously really focused on the show, so I got to speak to him a good bit, considering. He had a bit of time to sit and talk to me about where he gets his fabrics and where he manufactures his garments. We talked about London and the different scenes for showing, because I used to live in London. […] I dressed at John Rocha's fashion show [as an intern] in London, so it was interesting to compare the two.

The impression I got with Milan is that fashion there is like religion. They're very loyal to Italian brands, I think, and there's quite a strong high-fashion status quo of how things are done.

BP: How do they compare in your opinion?

MC: The impression I got with Milan is that fashion there is like religion. They're very loyal to Italian brands, I think, and there's quite a strong high-fashion status quo of how things are done. It's all really slick, whereas London is perhaps a little bit more open. It's not just that super-brand big business; there are a lot of smaller, independent designers and they're all doing something that's a bit wacky.

BP: What did you take away from the experience in Milan that you can apply to your own work?

MC: Attention to craftsmanship. Marco was so fastidious fitting the garments for his show to the models. He's very textile focused so that reminded me to really think about the shape and the woman wearing it and the fit. […] When you see something of that high standard, it inspires you to try and do that as well - that real attention to detail and to make and to finish and to fit. You know, the basics of making good clothes. I think that's what they have in Italy. It goes back to that tradition. They just know what they're doing; they're not winging it.

BP: Tell me about the Peroni Moda Awards winning design, which brought you to Milan Fashion Week.

MC: Well, my background is knitwear and my favourite technique in knitwear is intarsia, which is like picture knitting. My design aesthetic is quite geometric but in a soft kind of way, not too harsh. [The design challenge was to celebrate] the Peroni Blue Ribbon so I just started drawing pictures of it and overlaying different drawings on top of each other and getting a geometric feel for it. And then because it was so busy, I kept the actual shape of it quite simple and quite modern. […] Obviously with [de Vincenzo's] craftsmanship, his work is just amazing, but when I was out in Milan, I did notice that we have a common aesthetic, because he plays with geometric shapes and sort of cutting shapes into each other.

BP: Apart from geometrical shapes, what inspires you as a designer?

MC: The stuff that inspires me hasn't really come out yet in my work, because I've only just done my first few collections. I like unusual combinations, like taking an element of low-brow American pop culture and making it into high-end fashion, or taking a classic garment and interpreting it in an unexpected materials. I love the idea of collaging together supposedly disparate elements to create something a bit bizarre and fascinating.

Mary Callan alongside Italian designer
Marco de Vincenzo and her winning design
at the Peroni Moda Awards in Dublin.
Photograph courtesy of Mary Callan. 

BP: Your garments are made from merino wool and cashmere. Why do you choose to work with these luxury materials?

MC: I think they're better value for your money, really. One of my favourite designers would be Elsa Schiaparelli from the '30s. She said that only rich women can afford to buy cheap clothes - there's a quote like that - and her point is that it's bad value, because you wash and wear it and then it's kind of wrecked and ruined. So for me, it's the yarns. They're beautiful, natural, warm, luxurious yarns. They're practical and they're beautiful and they're natural. They're spun in England and Scotland, and I just like that whole story.

BP: Why do you choose to produce your garments in Ireland and the UK?

MC: I think there's an appreciation now that maybe there wasn't, I'd say, 15 years ago of Made in Britain, Made in Scotland, Made in Ireland. […] For younger designers, it's important to keep those mills. I don't have the money to fly to China and stay out there and then deal with those massive orders. You know, I need someone close to home that I can liaise with and learn about manufacturing with. […]

I trust them as well. The people who are making my knitwear over in Scotland have been milling cashmere since 1935, doing it all by hand. It's a generational family business, so there's such a depth of knowledge there. It would be really sad not to avail of it and just let it disappear, because once it's gone, it's gone and you'd never be able to train people up to that standard again.

BP: Why knitwear?

MC: I don't know, I just took to the knitting machine quicker than the sewing machine and I guess I liked it because it's a bit of a niche. It takes a long time to master it and to appreciate the endless possibilities of it. That's what I liked as well - that it was something I could own a bit.

BP: What's up next for you?

MC: Ideally what I'd really love to do is just explore with my manufacturer even more. I'd like to use the same kind of technique but more fine gauged, so it would be a lighter-weight fabric for spring-summer. What else? A broader collection. A bigger collection. Hopefully things progress and I can keep working and developing my aesthetic.

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