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December 12, 2017
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Project51’s dynamic retail space combines the clothing and accessories of various designers. As retail manager Terri McInerney says, "it's all about strength in numbers." Photograph by Briana Palma.

From the outside, 51 South William Street in Dublin appears to be just another Georgian building. It has a white façade and black-and-gold gate, while a black-and-white sign hangs next to the doorway with the number 51 in large type. But step inside and there's an explosion of colour. Here, the clothing and accessories of various fashion designers come together in the retail space of Project51, the Irish Design Collective.

Jeweller Eoin McDonnell, along with 19 other designers, opened the doors to Project51 in September 2011, bringing the concept of the design collective to Ireland's capital city and more specifically to a downtown neighbourhood that is starting to be known as the Creative Quarter. The collective provides local fashion designers with a place to display and sell their work, as well as in-house studio space for some. By uniting them in retail and marketing efforts, Project51 helps designers increase their visibility while decreasing certain shared costs. In its first year, Project51 has begun to establish itself as a hub of Irish fashion, a dynamic place where consumers can expect to find unique and fresh designs.

Project51 dublin clothing retail

The collective is located on the energetic
South William Street, home to many
locally owned and operated businesses.
Photograph by Briana Palma. 

The idea for a collective first occurred to McDonnell nearly two decades ago while he was writing his thesis about Ireland's craft sector. "I found that there was a huge gap...on the marketing side of things," he explains. "You had people with incredible passion for what they're making, but bringing that to the consumer...standing in front of the public and saying, 'Please buy this,' is not where their strength is." In the years following, McDonnell noticed little change, so in early 2009, he decided to seize the opportunity to establish a collective in Dublin. 

Today, Project51 comprises a boutique, workspaces for designers, an exhibition area and a conference room-cum-gallery. Together, the various spaces make for a very dynamic collective, where the list of participating designers can differ from week to week. Everyone involved does, however, meet the requirements of "quality and distinctiveness."

"How one person described it ... is that we want to see an individual fingerprint of each designer," McDonnell explains. "I love that description, because if we see a designer whose work is unique, you know, what they do is special, well then we feel they're part of Project51. They're someone we'd like to see."

Those who join Project51 do so for an initial period of one month, as McDonnell and retail manager Terri McInerney assess their compatibility with the collective and vice versa. "We can see who they are, what their work is like, how they respond to people - because customer service is very, very important," McDonnell says. "As a designer, you can't just sit in your ivory tower...We're really interested in designers who are willing to do one-off commissions for people...you can imagine, if someone comes in and they say 'I love that piece, can you do X?' and you say yes, and we've got them for life now because...there's an integrity there."

Customer service is an essential component of Project51 and one that McInerney plans to make more personalised in the coming months. Putting to use her 10 years of retail experience, she hopes to build stronger relationships with customers and provide individualised attention for everyone who steps through the doors of 51 South William Street. "It's really important when people come in that you spend time with them, that you get to know them," she says.

We want to see an individual fingerprint of each designer...I love that description, because if we see a designer whose work is unique, you know, what they do is special, then we feel they're part of Project51. They're someone we'd like to see.

Another of McInerney's on-going goals is to share the designers' stories with Project51's customers. For example, if someone is browsing the label JRothwell, McInerney may tell him or her a bit about designer Jennifer Rothwell's extensive experience working in New York, including with the production department of Oscar de la Renta. "When you're saying that to people, she's got this experience, she has literally been at the top of her game in New York and she's back here making these and they're not crazy prices, I find people respond really positively to it."

Having set up her own label in 2006, Rothwell is one of the more established designers at Project51. She has been involved from the start and has found many benefits to being part of the collective, especially with The White Collection, her range of non-traditional bridal gowns. Rothwell explains that brides shopping her collection tend to be relaxed about the experience yet desire something different. "They're the type of people who don't like the typical bridal shops," she says, adding that one client described herself as "adverse" to such shops. "In Project51, it's a very relaxed atmosphere. They can go in there, they can browse. They're not being pounced on and then at their leisure they can try on dresses or whatever they need...it's a much more comfortable atmosphere."

Other positives for designers at Project51, according to Rothwell, include the ability to get and react to customer feedback, as well as increased cash flow due to the collective's twice-monthly payment schedule. "You know, I love fashion, but it's like being a mouse in a wheel," Rothwell says. "You're constantly running after your tail and you're trying to come up with financing for the next collection, the next show, and then you're waiting for people to pay you."

"With some boutiques you could be waiting months...whereas at Project51, they're really good at paying you on time," she adds. "If you work with people who pay you on time then you can make more garments and you can put more clothes out...it really, really helps; otherwise you're stagnant."

Many of the benefits that are experienced by designers when working with Project51 were figured into McDonnell's original business concept. Still, one he had not expected was the extensive press coverage. Since its opening, the collective has quickly become a go-to place for newspaper and magazine editors and local stylists to pull looks.

One designer who has seen her public profile grow since joining Project51 is Katie Townend, who launched her collection of statement jewellery in January. Less than two months ago she moved into Project51, having a studio space in the back and selling her line, Eliza Vale, in the boutique at the front. Townend says her pieces have already featured in  at least five or six publications, including VogueThe Irish Times and Irish Tatler

Previously, Townend worked at home. Her new space at Project51 has allowed her to have a more regular schedule - "working from home you tend to work 24/7," she says - and also provides her with the opportunity to interact with and take inspiration from other designers. "Working on your own, you're in a bubble at home," she says. "You don't have anyone to ask for feedback straight away to know you're going in the right direction. You're also not getting any outside influence other than your own ideas. It's nice to bounce ideas off people and speak directly to customers."

Project 51 Dublin retail fashion

Project51 aims to bring together designers
that complement each other. Here, an
Eliza Vale necklace is merchandised 
with a top by Susan Black and 
a skirt by Goddess and Swift.
Photograph by Briana Palma. 

In the studio space, Townend sits near knitwear designer Honor Fitzsimons (coming September) and milliner Martha Lynn. Though their work differs, she says that all three share advice and knowledge and offer each other general support.

McDonnell has also found great inspiration in Project51 for his work as a jeweller, though he admits he hasn't spent much time on his craft as of late, as he has devoted his efforts to developing the collective, which he describes as a passion. For example, McDonnell recalls a time when his fellow designers convinced him to create a ring with black diamonds despite his own uncertainty about the idea. "It was fantastic because I hadn't had that experience of designers taking me out of the zone before," he says. "I tend to work - I suppose like a lot of designers - in isolation, so that was really refreshing."

McDonnell is presently collaborating with Filip Vanas, another of Project51's jewellery designers. Vanas is creating a style of ring that's new to him, while McDonnell is putting to use his expertise by applying diamonds to it. "This is coloured, anodised aluminium with diamonds. It is very different, and that would never happen without Project51."

When asked to reflect on the first year of Project51, McDonnell acknowledges the many challenges, which have ranged from funding to marketing. And despite the bumps along the way, he is proud there is a Project51 today. "If we go back three and a half years ago, everybody told us we were nuts," he explains. "Here we are in the middle of this global economic downturn and we want to open something that is quality based as opposed to mass market. They said, 'You're crazy. What are you doing?' So the fact that we exist is the biggest success that we could feel ourselves."

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