I’m not interested in an intellectual approach to food; I want it to hit you in the tummy and the heart.” Aoibheann MacNamara’s west of Ireland restaurant Ard Bia – meaning “high food” – has been feeding soul food to diehard fans and tourists alike for more than 20 years. Situated on the River Corrib, down on The Long Walk in Galway, it’s one of those rare, special places that seems to give you a hug as you enter. “I wanted to create a warm space that with simple things can nonetheless transform people.” 

Inside Ard Bia in Galway
Inside Ard Bia in Galway © Cliodhna Prendergast
Samples on “The Special Branch”
Samples on “The Special Branch” © Cliodhna Prendergast

It was through Ard Bia that MacNamara first met costume designer Triona Lillis. In 2013 she visited a vintage fashion and furniture store that Lillis ran at the time to buy some pieces for the restaurant. “We hit it off straight away,” says Lillis. “I was getting some Donegal tweed suits made for a client, and Aoibheann had recently bought some tweed to make aprons for her restaurant. We started talking about how much we wished someone was using traditional Irish fabrics in a contemporary way.”

Triona Lillis (left) and Aoibheann MacNamara
Triona Lillis (left) and Aoibheann MacNamara © Cliodhna Prendergast

So they did it themselves, launching a small collection in May 2014 at the Drop Everything festival on the smallest of the Aran Islands, Inis Oírr. It had a “homemade, earthy, humble” aesthetic with muted colourways and an androgynous feel that allowed the tweed and arans to take centre stage. Early successes included an oversized black and charcoal wool shirt (£420) in herringbone, “tracksuits” (from £215) and reversible wool gilets (£555). All collections are still made to order – to avoid waste and deadstock, but also because Lillis and MacNamara design with the intention never to discontinue anything.

Wool and offcuts from the latest collection
Wool and offcuts from the latest collection © Cliodhna Prendergast
Molloy & Sons woollen blankets
Molloy & Sons woollen blankets © Cliodhna Prendergast
An Irish lunch plate at Ard Bia
An Irish lunch plate at Ard Bia © Cliodhna Prendergast

The vast majority of the tweed comes from Molloy & Sons, based in the small town of Ardara in Donegal, where MacNamara grew up, and where she began the first iteration of Ard Bia. “Production is tiny – they work with batches of about 38 blankets and no more,” she says. “We get our linen from Emblem Weavers, maybe the only linen weaver in the Republic of Ireland – others have it made in Poland and dyed in Ireland.” One seamstress works across the collection. “Our production is very small, but we love that. It makes it all manageable,” says Lillis.

A by-appointment shop space followed in a converted carpenter’s workshop a short walk from Ard Bia. “The shop was, and remains, quite rustic,” says MacNamara. “You’re essentially walking into a workshop, with all of our raw materials piled up on the shelves and a cutting table at the centre. And then there is what we call The Special Branch, a length of wood from which we hang the samples.”

Knit jumper with tassels, £555
Knit jumper with tassels, £555
Tartan mohair bomber with detachable sleeves, £810
Tartan mohair bomber with detachable sleeves, £810 © Anita Murphy (2)

The AW21 collection, Are We Out of the Woods Yet?, is a major departure from previous, more subdued designs. Bright yarn in primary colours was sourced from Kerry Woollen Mills for dresses such as the yellow-and-red tartan mohair ballgowns (£1,025) and bomber jackets (£820) with detachable sleeves, or yellow and red aran knits (from £475). Smaller pieces include oversized mohair cushions (£300) and scarves (£250) filled with Westport-made duckdown bolsters – like wearing a mini-duvet, says MacNamara. “If this collection can bring some joy, we’ve done our work as designers,” says Lillis. “It might not be time to celebrate just yet, but we wanted to get the party started.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article