This week's Shanahan Studio Session we are joined with the inspiring Natalie B Coleman, Monaghan native Irish fashion designer and owner of Natlaie B Coleman which she launched in 2011, mother, Microsoft Design Ambassador Ireland, Tatler Irish Designer Woman of the Year 2019, Irish Fashion Designer of the Year 2019 IDA, fashion lecturer at National College of Art and Design Dublin and philanthropist. Natalie is extremely successful in the fashion industry and has shown her collections in New York, L.A, London and Paris. We talk about finding your passion, how to balance work and home life, feminism and fashion design.
H: Hi, Natalie.
N: Hi, Hannah. How are you?
H: I am doing great, thank you. The weather here is amazing in London at the moment. Thank you so much again for taking the time out of your busy schedule and doing my Q&A. for Shanahan Studio Session. When did you first realise you wanted to be a fashion designer?
N: I didn't go to Art School until I was 26, before that I had a label called Lucky Bitches, it was deconstructing, then upcycling and reconstructing garments and selling them through a few different stores with a friend of mine, so through that endeavour I decided that I really loved clothing and needed to get more skills so I applied for a degree in Fashion Design
H: Tell us about your background, Natalie, are you the only one in your family to pursue fashion?
N: My mother was really very, very fashion conscious and an amazing dresser and worked in fashion. And so she always had an appreciation of kind of materiality. My father is a carpenter, so very good with his hands. My brother is also a master carpenter and one of my other brothers works in product design.
H: So you were 26 years old when you pursued fashion?
N: Well, I already had a label for two years before that. So before I went to study. I was 26, and I was probably 24 when I started working with clothes, but before that I used to source vintage clothes and resell them.
H: When you left secondary school at 18, were you working in some other industry?
N: I worked in vintage clothing stores, clubs, waitressing, bars, I did quite a lot of partying and travelling, it was a really good free time.
H: Similar to me, I worked in hospitality before transitioning into the fashion industry.
N: I loved waitressing. It was one of my favourite jobs I ever had, and it put me through college as well.
H: Me too, I learned so much from the hospitality industry. How would you describe yourself as a fashion designer?
N: I think it's changed. I've always been very into the narrative, I suppose, very much into the research aspect of it. And I'm kind of a bit experimental, with pattern cutting, I like to develop my own techniques and find my own approach. There was always a feminist slant to the work and I've just finished a masters in philosophy, specialising in Gender and Womens Studies from Trinity College, so that has really not just informed but become the work. I have also partnered with the United Nations Population Fund for the last two years, the UNFPA is the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, so through my work with them I have explored how design can advocate for gender equality and sexual and maternal rights.
H: We both went into the hospitality industry after we left secondary school. What piece of advice would you give anyone reading this who is pursuing their passion or who are still looking for it? Because for me it was probably one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life was pursuing my passion, I was entering into an unfamiliar industry with so much uncertainty.
N: I think that's the whole point of being alive, to do things that make you happy or that you're really interested in otherwise your life would probably be, I feel more of a struggle, so if it is possible, you know, to live that way. I think people should really believe in themselves. I kind of think that people should take themselves seriously, take what they want to create or what they want to say seriously, I think it is important to make decisions for your life.
H: Exactly, that's a really good point. When starting your new designs, where do you get your inspiration from?
N: Well, probably in the past I was getting them from films, books, a response to what was happening in my own life, they were like diary pages. However now, especially my work is responding to what's happening culturally.
H: It's in the environment of what's going on around you. You have many titles, fashion lecturer at the national College of Art and Design Dublin, mother, philanthropist, you run your own business, and a successful fashion designer. How do you balance everything?
N: It's really difficult, to be honest. I'm a single mum as well. Childcare in Ireland is an issue, it needs to be subsidized by the government, it would allow women to have a lot more freedom and choice, particularly around their working hours. You really do need the support. But I love it, so I work hard at it, but it isn't easy.
H: What do you think are the biggest challenges for new designers starting out today?
N: Finance, over-saturation of the market and also having something authentic to say. I think it's very important for people, to find their own voice, to learn, and listen and let the ego set somewhere else for a while.
H: Which designers have been the biggest influence on you?
N: I think as a student it would have been Rei Kawakubo, Comme De Garcons and Margelia, like most fashion students in the world and McQueen, of course. And then as I've gotten older, I appreciate different things from different designers, for fabrics or surface texture or just for surviving, for the narrative, how people are running the company. With really big companies, I find that kind of business strategizing quite interesting to read, so I'm fascinated by that. But I also like the craftsmanship, people who dedicate their lives to being really amazing at one particular thing, like the carrickmacross lace makers. It is so time consuming and it's for the pure love when people do it, I have great admiration for those kinds of skills.
H: What do you think is unique about Irish fashion?
N: I don't know if you could say there's a particular uniqueness, I think it depends who it is, there's a romanticism sometimes to it, but I mean, there're so many people doing interesting things, but they're all quite varied. I don't believe there's one uniform or one qualifying bind that brings people together. I do think that Irish people are good on the whole, for maybe telling the story through the clothing, but I don't know. I think that's kind of universal also.
H: Quite broad, isn't it? We don't exactly have a unique look.
N: Maybe a lot of people are looking at the same things, you know, no matter where they are, which is a little bit kind of sad at the same time.
H: Do you think it's important to source your materials carefully and what's your outlook on sustainability in fashion?
N: I think it's moving that way and we need to bring in regulations around it. It needs to change, there are many problems within the fashion industry, with people being influenced through marketing in unhealthy ways and the throwaway culture and people not really understanding or being aware of the costs of clothes to the environment and to people not being paid correctly. I really think it's important to look after what you have, invest in pieces that you can keep, mend, the more precious they are, the more you look after them.
H: It's like an investment. I'm wearing my grandmother's knit cardigan. It's about 40 years old. As a fashion lecturer what skills are necessary for a successful fashion designer?
N: This is my opinion, but I think it's just changing so much in the fashion industry. It depends on who you want to be. It's just knowing who you are as a designer is very important and being able to sew is good. Being able to understand your own craft, being able to pattern cut, being knowledgeable, basically having something to say, being critically aware of your own work, being able to value it. I think just working hard is very important.
H: How has your work evolved since you first began your own label?
N: I have probably grown in confidence as a person just as much as through my work. You do feel a bit more sure of yourself as you get older. I try not to listen too much to other people and their ideas, and to not follow any real standardised model business, just trying to decide what I want out of life and work around it that way. Currently I am making more one off pieces, private commissions and I'm quite happy with that, it fits into my life as a mother. I am also working on collaborations, which are kind of a new direction for me, I find that exciting and it keeps my brain alive.
H: What are you fascinated by at the moment and how does it feed into your work? With my work it is the sustainability aspect, it's not even subconsciously thinking it is consciously, and it impacts my decision making on the packaging we use and the production process we have in place.
N: Well, definitely around size, you get very tired of the repetitive marketing campaigns and diversity not being reflected. But, I think at the moment I'm just really interested in reading a lot of books around, feminism and gender equality basically. That's what really is inspiring and motivating me right now, I am also interested in robotics and what's happening in the world politically, economically and culturally and the impacts and developments from that. All of it feeds into your work.
H: That's a big movement at the moment or has been for the last few years is equality and feminism. I was reading Maria Grazia Chiuri's interview in the April issue of British Vogue. She was one of the first designers at the house of Dior to hire female photographers. When she was shooting her first campaign at Dior 5 years ago she wanted a female photographer and they said we don't have any and we don't know any. She said that there are so many female photographers in the industry and five years later she uses Brigitte Niedermair and Brigitte Lacombe to shoot her campaigns. Maria inspired me to use a female photographer to shoot my debut collection and I will be doing so going forward for my future campaigns.
N: And working with women telling stories about women can be a really beautiful thing and it is a different point of view. It is time for more recognication about the incredible talents that have been overlooked. At the moment I am reading Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perex, all around exposing data bias in a world designed for men, I definitely recommend it.
H: Tell us about your partnership with the United Nations Population Fund. How did you get started with this?
N: I presented work at a showcase in New York, it was just after I had Odin, my son, in 2018, that particular collection was called GUARANTEED TO BLEED and was obviously around women's menstrual cycles and period poverty and also inherited sexual shame, at the time there were some very strong reactions to the messaging but for me it is important for design to impact change and to help activate these conversations and debates. The UNFPA thought the messaging through my collection contained a similar mandate to what they stand for, centering around women's sexuality and maternal rights, so we came together and realised a collection based on sisterhood which showcased it in London fashion week.
There is a universal resonance that characterises each collection, the feminist undercurrents have forever been palpable but, this time round, the call to sisterhood was especially fervent. Colour-bursting silk scarves, t-shirts and sweats (crafted with minimal carbon footprint) were emblazoned with thought-provoking motifs, each vibrant symbol – derived from drawings of female anatomy – lionising the iron-clad, contemporary links between women across the globe.SISTERS arose to commemorate the 25th anniversary of women’s sexual and reproductive rights, whilst campaigning to challenge (and eventually eradicate) female genital mutilation in practising communities: 10% of its profits head straight to UNPFA.
H: Wow, that is such an achievement and inspiring. What advice would you give to your younger self?
N: Maybe a little bit more self-belief I think a bit more confidence.
H: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to pursue a career in fashion?
N: I don't know if I'm the best person to have any advice, and everybody is so unique and has different paths to follow. But I suppose just looking after yourself really.
H: Where do you see yourself in five years time?
N: I'd love to be somewhere hot.
H: I am the same, I love the heat! Where can people find you online?
H: Thank you so much for your time, it was great to speak with you and I definitely learned a lot here. I wish you all the best Natalie!
N: Lovely to chat with you Hannah.