Aisling Duffy Designs on sustainability and identity

Irish designer Aisling Duffy talks sustainability, identity and cultivating your own independent label in an industry dominated by fast fashion

Walking into Dublin Barista School, I grab a coffee for Duffy and myself. Duffy, true to form, provides her reusable cup while I, tail between my legs, opt for the compostable paper vessels provided by the coffee shop. Her eclectic style is immediately made visible by her clothing choices and her bright pink hair. Sitting down, we discuss sustainability and what it means for fashion straight out of the gate.

As a budding Dublin/London-based fashion designer who produces her own sustainable clothing label, Duffy is constantly involved in different projects, whether they be her own personal endeavors or those relating to other clothing brands eager to showcase her one-of-a-kind pieces. Thus, her willingness to be interviewed was both humbling and astounding; with such a busy schedule, it’s a wonder how the creator of Aisling Duffy Designs has time to sit down and discuss her ongoing success. To this effect, she delves into the extraneous work she must put in in order to fund her dream of producing her own line: “I’m fully self-funded — I work other jobs just to support this business so I don’t have like massive funding coming in to create [my collections].” 

“I’d like to talk to more new designers about this too because I’ve been approached by a lot of companies offering these really great things but then it comes at a cost.”

Duffy goes on to describe the obstacles up-and-coming fashion designers face as a result of budgetary restraints: “People will come to me and ask me, “Can I do this interview with you?” or “Can you send me on pieces?”, which is a really organic way of doing things. [And this] resonates nicer for me in a more honest way, whereas I do get attention in London or the UK, but a lot of time it’s companies being like, “We’ll feature you if you pay us ‘X’ amount” — it’s a lot more of that kind of thing.” Duffy elaborates on this idea of new designers experiencing alienation in the fashion world as a result of monetary restraints: “I’d like to talk to more new designers about this too because I’ve been approached by a lot of companies offering these really great things, but then it comes at a cost. And when you can see there’s actually a lot of new designers going with this, like they’re paying their fortunes… as much as it would maybe be [for a month’s rent] just to be featured in ongoing advertisement campaigns.”

Duffy, who uses a made-to-order model via her website, claims that this method suits her best as a designer who is exclusively self-funded. “I do two collections a year — spring/summer collection and then autumn/winter. A lot of fashion brands will order multiples of everything and have them manufactured whereas, for me, I don’t have that money necessarily to invest straight away, so the made-to-order model works well for me.” Functioning on a demand-exclusive order system benefits the designer for a number of reasons. “I make one of each [item] which I stock at Om Diva, I shoot it before I give it to Om Diva, and then on my website it is that made-to-order way which is a sustainable practice in a lot of ways. Like for me, financially, it is a sustainable way for me to carry on my business.” 

“So coming from an age of being 17 and going into college, you don’t necessarily know, or I didn’t know anyway, what it was I wanted to study — I just always had a passion for art.”

Though her natural love for fashion is apparent, Duffy has done her time as a student, equipping herself with the necessary education she felt served as a foundation for her independent label. “My background is printed textiles. I studied print at NCAD and when I originally went there, they had a foundation year so you tested everything. So coming from an age of being seventeen and going into college, you don’t necessarily know, or I didn’t know anyway, what it was I wanted to study, I just always had a passion for art.” She then goes on to detail the logistics of finding oneself through the process of study: “So you spend a year kind of testing out different subjects and print was something that really stuck out to me so when I specialised in printing textiles, I spent the next few years learning how to screen print, how to digitally design patterns for fabric, and building a collection with that as the foundation.” 

Prior to producing her own collections, Duffy decided to take her education a step further. “Straight after my undergrad I went into a masters [in Edinburgh], mainly because I wanted to continue to develop my style and I felt that after my four years in NCAD I was only really discovering what my style was and what connection it had to me.” For Duffy, completing her undergraduate degree was both a step towards her future and a humbling moment. “I think I was really naive as an undergrad student and I felt that… my work was also an area of self exploration… Continuing along with the masters really helped me to develop those extra skills and what I wanted to say — what was my voice.” 

Elaborating on her choice to plunge herself into yet another course post her undergraduate degree, Duffy said, “[My undergraduate course] didn’t necessarily give me those really transferable skills that I needed. So in terms of my career after I finished my masters — I then moved to London and I worked as a print designer — so I would design fabrics for a print studio that we would then sell to fashion companies, mainly through events like Premier Vision, which is a huge kind-of textile trade show which happens in places like Paris and New York. But that company closed down so I decided… I’ve always really wanted my own brand and it was a kind-of ‘now or never’ time.” 

Though, for up-and-coming designers, budgetary concerns are among the most stressing, Duffy knew that investing in her future as a clothing label in the way of studying design would be a major building block for her success in the fashion industry.”

Duffy’s decision ultimately came down to what she describes as a lack of practical skills “a fashion student would already have, which was the skills of sewing, pattern cutting, and how to take something from something you can visualize to something you can actually make. So I spent a year, after that company closed down, learning how to sew and how to pattern cut and I think, I mean it was a combination of everything together but I needed to also take time to learn those skills, I felt anyway, to do what I do now.” Though, for up-and-coming designers, budgetary concerns are among the most stressing, Duffy knew that investing in her future as a clothing label in the way of studying design would be a major building block for her success in the fashion industry.

Duffy then goes on to highlight the strides society has made to be more sustainable. She mentions how, action aside, even people’s mentality surrounding sustainability has been radicalised as of recently. As a result of the debut of her collection at Dublin’s own Om Diva, the designer recalls many customers exuding the language of those deeply affected by the sustainability movement: “I’ve noticed, like, having the pop-up at Om Diva and speaking with customers, people will tell you about something and be like, “Oh I know it’s not the most sustainable thing,’ so… it’s already ingrained in our conscience.” 

“[Sustainability] is trendy, definitely, but I don’t think it’s going away and I think… what I read and I see is that big, huge corporations are making that change towards incorporating more sustainable methods and I think it’ll continue that way.”

When asked whether she believes eco-friendly shopping is here to stay, Duffy asserted: “[Sustainability] is trendy, definitely, but I don’t think it’s going away and I think… what I read and I see is that big, huge corporations are making that change towards incorporating more sustainable methods and I think it’ll continue that way. Like even, as a small example, Depop has become a huge platform. And people, teenagers and that generation, that’s how they shop —  and it’s very natural to them.” And of course, environmentally-friendly consumerism isn’t an exact science. “It’s… this idea of there are levels of what sustainability means and for me it is a continuous battle with myself of really considering ‘is this sustainable enough’, ‘can I do it better?’ And I mean you can beat yourself up over that [but] I think my take-away to deal with that is I can do what I can do now until I can do it better.” 

Though Duffy does see having a team of contributors assisting her with her label as an advantage, she’s aware of the obstacles that are associated with building a collective. “I do get emails quite often about people looking for internships but as it stands at the moment, my studio is so small that I actually couldn’t have another person in there. And, also, I don’t know how good I am at delegating and if there’s enough to have someone constantly there. But I think it’s something I would be gearing towards in the next 12 months. I would love to be in a place where I could also offer someone money, that they wouldn’t work for free, but I know, for me, when I was at NCAD and I did my Erasmus work experience — like you do gain a lot from it too, so I would like to be in a position that if I had someone that I could actually offer them the knowledge or whatever it was that they could take from me.”

Despite her increasing fame, Duffy remains as grounded and humble as ever. “I think what really started [my business] off for me was, like, the Repeal campaign. I designed t-shirts for that. Trying to do something from London to help back home and just seeing the kind-of, that connection to home, that really spurred me on to be like actually, ‘I’m Irish’ – I need to be kind of focusing as much on Ireland [as possible].” Though her eclectic style is constantly evolving, the artist claims to have an overarching idea present in her clothing line. “There’s a theme that runs through every collection and it’s something I touched on when I was doing my masters… this idea of self-exploration. [That idea is] very much coming from a place in my early 20s where I was incredibly insecure within myself and how I outwardly viewed myself and others’ perceptions of me, which led me to really start to study the idea of personality and how experience shapes who we ultimately become. And I wanted to somehow bring that into my work so all my collections run on this theme of exploring what is identity.” 

“‘…A lot of my work is a mix of sheer fabrics with heavier fabrics and the idea of there’s transparent parts of our personality and the pieces we share with others and then there’s other parts that are kinda heavier that we keep to ourselves.'”

While Duffy frequently bounces between London and Dublin for various projects, she draws particular attention to her Irish roots in all walks of her life. “I think for my previous collection I was exploring Irish identity and there [were] a lot of symbols and what it meant to be Irish but to live somewhere else and feel in touch with what it means to live in Dublin but not feel fully like a London person as well. A way I like to translate it is through this idea of layering… so a lot of my work is a mix of sheer fabrics with heavier fabrics and the idea of there’s transparent parts of our personality and the pieces we share with others and then there’s other parts that are kinda heavier that we keep to ourselves, and maybe that’s shown through really heavy stitching or like a heavy piece of clothing. The themes are looser now but that fact does run through my collections.”

As the interview draws to a close, we both thank each other for taking the time to meet up. We hug goodbye and I can’t help feeling both enlightened and motivated to make sustainable changes in my day-to-day life. While Duffy presumably rushes along to dedicate her time to yet another insightful project, I reflect on one of her more astute comments: “I’m still learning as I go… maybe that’s what makes me a bit different, is that I’m actually just figuring it out and not following a linear line.” Though it may seem like you really have to have it all in order to make your dreams a reality, a lot of it is simply figuring it out along the way.

Maeve Harris

Maeve Harris is the current Deputy Arts and Culture Editor of Trinity News.