Róisín Pierce is moving the needle
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Like a view of the clouds from the window of a plane, a pillowy-soft white satin-crepe dress undulates across the table, its meringue puffs and peaks rolling gently into swirling roundels and knots. On the body, it will appear as sculpture. For now, it unfolds like a dream.
“It’s funny you say that. I’m obsessed with clouds. I take loads of photos of them on my phone,” laughs Róisín Pierce, dressed in black with deep plum lips, in striking contrast to the landscape of lace and embroidery she’s conjured for her fashion-week debut on 1 March in Paris.
The 29-year-old Dublin-based designer – inaugural Chanel Métiers d’Art prizewinner in 2019 and LVMH Prize finalist – never looks at her cloud photos afterwards, but one senses she’s just trying to catch them in her net.
“As a child, I lived in my own dream world,” she says. “I was insular and dyslexic, but I was absorbed in drawing and making.” For the youngest of three children growing up in Dublin, Galway and Buckinghamshire, it was about “escapism – but mostly the magic in the process. Making made sense to me”.
She began creating basic garments in her teens, inspired by Karl Lagerfeld and Issey Miyake, and encouraged by her mother, Angie, who she works with to this day from her early childhood home in Rathfarnham. And by the time she sent an art portfolio to Dublin’s National College of Art and Design, where she’d master everything from patchworking to 3D knitting, Pierce had already homed in on her all-white palette.
In pursuit of new surface textures, she has smashed the mould with mesmerising garments that combine artisanal and innovative craft techniques, styling them with contemporary nous and collaborating with Chanel along the way. She pushes the limits of zero-waste cutting and 3D construction, underpinning her pieces with conceptual grace and high emotion.
While her work is, in part, a celebration of Irish heritage and its craft tradition, Pierce has – sensitively – shone light in dark corners: namely its “troubled relationship with femininity, sexuality”. The painstaking labour of handcrafting produces something so beautiful, she explains, yet in the context of the Magdalene Laundries, it “has such a horrific origin”. Her own motifs of native wildflowers or quatrefoils linking ovoid baubles appear at first glance to be rows of delectable pâtisserie – her grandmother was a cake decorator – but the symbolism cuts through the sweetness, giving voice to those who never got to have one.
“It’s expression versus repression,” she elaborates. “With handcrafts, it’s never certain: is it oppressive or is it liberating? In the Famine, Irish women realised they could make lace that mimicked an Italian one, but quicker, by changing the hook, and they were finally able to provide for their families.”
Pierce derives inspiration primarily “from challenging the processes themselves”. There are no “final outcome” drawings – “I might quickly sketch the smocking placement, but that’s it.” She works with searing conviction, led by a given fabric and how it responds to a technique – a risky strategy given her zero-waste ethos, but she feels her way, visualising high-relief structure and pattern the way a mathematician might “see” their way through complex equations.
“Usually the samples become the final thing – I’m lucky, because it’s the only way I can design,” she says. “It’s intense but exciting. I’m resistant to deciding on the outcome beforehand; usually it reveals itself as I go along. I might figure out a sleeve, then months later the bodice. It’s very organic. Ultimately, success is capturing a feeling that’s seemingly impossible to visualise.”
Priced from €450, many of the designs – also carried by Nordstrom, “a significant partner” – are interchangeable separates, which can live multiple lives: no one silhouette or interpretation dominates. The Paris reveal of her fourth collection, 12 months in the making, will provide that long-desired global “360-degree view, which is how my work should be seen to be understood”.
Her aim now is “steady growth”, through partnering with more retailers, manufacturers and skilled makers, while still “obsessing over design and innovation”. “There’s so much potential for Róisín,” says Priscilla Royer, creative director of Maison Michel, one of Chanel’s Métiers d’Art, which partnered with the young designer on a one-off project after graduation. “Her ideas are poetic and the work is very pure. She has this big following already, and I can see how she could use elements of what she does to reach a wider audience without being commercial for its own sake.”
For now, the mother-daughter team works at the kitchen table, to the bemusement of their live-in student. “It’s a very funny way to do it – I move the pieces between meals, and it’s so disruptive, but it works so I’m hesitant to change it,” she says.
Apart from Angie’s occasional banishment to the sitting room – “she’s very chatty” – their process is instinctive. “My mum might be cutting while I’m finishing. She knows what I’m after. She’s self-taught and highly skilled. If she’d had the opportunities I’ve had…”
The collection features Irish crochet by two new young apprentices – local girls who have learned the craft from the two women in preparation for the brand’s big moment.
Pierce’s last outing, Two for Joy, in 2021, was inspired by the magic of discovery, but she’s returning to the sort of melancholic beauty and socio-political messaging that marked her first forays in fashion. “I can’t help it,” she smiles. “I’m drawn to a sadder, solemn mood. I think it’s to do with the fragility of the work. It’s like I’m trying to give it strength.”