Careers in the arts: Karen O’Mahony on creating Rag Order Dublin

Jane Loughman chats with Karen O’Mahony about her designing business and the need for conscious consumerism

“Like everyone else, I’m feeling it,” Karen O’Mahony tells me when I ask about how the pandemic is currently affecting her business, Rag Order Dublin (@ragorderdublin on Depop and Instagram). “However, all this time off has given me the opportunity to really focus on designing more.” With life slowed down, she’s now working on projects she has the time for and hopes to “flex [her] creative muscles” she is “leaning into what’s going on and making the best out of it.”

This drive and positive outlook of O’Mahony shows itself in her work she runs the altering, tailoring and upcycling service Rag Order Dublin. Her clients give her vintage or pre-worn clothes, and she sees the value in their materials and colours. O’Mahoney gives them a new lease of life with some cutting, material additions or re-hemmings. Her recent commissions and projects have included turning a sleeveless hoodie into a chic jacket, updating a little black dress with tulle linings, and patchworking five men’s denim shirts into a peplum top, perfect for summer time. O’Mahony has a true skill in “making the best out of” the clothing she is given, in working with what she has, and in sourcing sustainably.

O’Mahony has been sustainable in her fashion choices long before her Rag Order Dublin days and “way before sustainable was even a buzzword.” She used to be a stylist for advertisements, and the process of going through more and more clothes once and then never using them again was “soul destroying.” She says: “just seeing the amount of different styles in the shops week after week and the mindless consumption of them is enough to make anyone think twice.” The journey to sustainability had been a natural progression, and she has been shopping in charity shops for the past decade, avoiding the high street. 

“O’Mahony has been working with RTE on the upcoming programme Clothes with Soul, due to air on RTE Player in the coming months.”

After her styling days, she worked in a number of roles in the film industry. Never finding the work very fulfilling, O’Mahony decided to switch it up and to pursue her true passion: design. She attended the Grafton Academy of Fashion Design to build some skills in “basic pattern drafting and making.” After completing some courses, she used her career in film to her advantage to land herself a job on the set of hit History channel TV show, Vikings. Over two years, she “learned a huge amount about sewing and tailoring” while she worked in the “demanding, fast paced environment” of the show with top designers and tailors. Her work there has been defining for her career: “I pretty much always use techniques that I learned in my work now… the use of corset closures are a particular favourite of mine.”

When the Vikings days came to an end two years ago, O’Mahony began to do leaflet drops in her neighbourhood for her new venture Rag Order Dublin. She started out with some simple alterations, and from only working in her area she got a “good bit of work.” She “fleshed [the business] out a bit” and broadened out her services to designing and upcycling as well as alterations. She claims that “word of mouth is key” in growing her business as well as social media: “Instagram in particular has played a huge role in getting the word out.” O’Mahony thinks it unnecessary to have a website with the popularity and utility of Instagram and Facebook: “I’m able to communicate my work in real time in a casual way and that suits me and what I want for Rag Order really well.” What also helps her growth on social media is the “support from some amazing females who have championed me since the beginning.”

Rag Order has a fantastic lineup of past clients, including three-time Paralympian Ellen Keane, influencer and performer Jess Brennan, and 2FM presenters and DJs Louise McSharry and Tara Stewart: “I always feel so lucky to get to work with such inspiring women.” One of the women who has championed O’Mahony’s work since the early days of her business is Louise McSharry, who happens to be one of her close pals: “we used to live together many moons ago and have been friends for over a decade now.” McSharry has always been very supportive: “it helps that we have a similar taste in fashion so she really believes in what I do and trusts my judgement.” O’Mahony has made two dresses for her, and one in particular got the attention of the public eye a black gown with big, stunning tulle shoulders for the VIP Style Awards, “she absolutely rocked that one!” She also gives some props to Tara Stewart’s good influence on Instagram: “she has blazed a trail for sustainability and does it with such good humour and individuality.” The DJ was featured in a Vogue article last June wearing a Rag Order co-ord that O’Mahony created from a sparkly vintage maxi skirt: “there is something so raw about her style,” O’Mahony tells me of Stewart, and “there’s something very punk about her attitude.”

So, you have a piece of clothing you want to do something with instead of just throwing it away: how do Rag Order’s services work? I ask O’Mahony: “It depends on the client really and whether they know exactly what they want or if they want to work collaboratively.” A client would meet her at her studio in Drumcondra to have “a good chat” on the budget and the client’s style, as well as to brainstorm. “Sometimes we agree on a direction there and then, or if it’s a large project I’ll take a day or two to think about it before going back to the client with some options,” O’Mahony informs me. She updates the client regularly with pictures, but the best part for her is the “big reveal” “seeing a client looking and feeling amazing in something I’ve made for them is so rewarding and makes all the hard work worthwhile. “

When the population of Ireland started staying home to prevent the spread of Covid-19 just a few weeks ago, online consumption skyrocketed not just in Netflix and Disney+ binging, but also in online clothes shopping. Many fast fashion websites, with their big sales, have seen a surge in customers; Pretty Little Thing recently has so much traffic on their online shop that they had to limit users. I ask O’Mahony what she thinks about this: “I genuinely could see this coming. I do think that it’s just situational though, people are bored at home and feel anxious and scared, so what better way to make yourself feel better than to shop? I get that.” She thinks that people can still be conscious shoppers in these turbulent times she suggests asking yourself some questions like: “Is it well made? Why are you buying it? Do you need it? Do you have something similar already?” We shouldn’t be buying clothes “to fill a void.” With the urgency of the climate crisis, O’Mahony believes “it’s more important than ever to know where your clothes are coming from and who is making them.” Sustainable fashion can still triumph in these crazy times She thinks that people can still be conscious shoppers in these turbulent times she suggests asking yourself some questions like: “Is it well made? Why are you buying it? Do you need it? Do you have something similar already? just look at the many Instagram accounts that advocate it, like Sustainable Fashion Dublin (@sustainablefashiondublin) who share “tutorials on how to embroider your clothes, declutter and keep busy and creative during the down time.” O’Mahony feels that it is difficult to “reach the PLT masses” as these consumers are “disconnected” and don’t “feel the fear from the climate crisis.” She believes that more influential people need to “take the reins” and educate these consumers to become more conscious: “We have to keep educating and keep positive about it and hope that they see the light.”

O’Mahony shares with me some tips for sustainable shopping: “Charity shops, charity shops, charity shops!” These treasure troves contain many hidden gems for your wardrobe. They require a lot of work though compared to the high street: in charity shops, “you need to dig.” For anyone new to the sustainable scene that doesn’t know what to look for, “just go in and try and get lucky. Look for colours and textures that you like.” Sometimes you may find yourself a designer label or brand new items, especially in affluent areas where O’Mahony guarantees “you won’t be disappointed.”

““I feel like we all have the capacity to come back from this and in a much slower and more considered way.””

But what about while we’re in self isolation and staying at home? O’Mahony recommends Etsy. A “BIG fan,” she says that sometimes you have to wait a while for orders to come from the States, but they’re worth the wait: “I have gotten some showstopping pieces on Etsy. It’s super for presents, loads of handmade items, and you’re supporting smaller businesses which is always a plus.” On Depop, she loves to search for shoes: “I recently bought a pair of Alexander McQueen platforms for €30, I’d say they’d been worn once.”

I ask O’Mahony for advice for any budding designers reading this, or anyone that is interested in upcycling clothes at all: “Just get creative.” With YouTube and Pinterest at our fingertips, there are lots of tutorials available to us, and “you can basically learn any technique or skill online now.” O’Mahony stresses that young designers are not limited to a formal education: “I don’t have a degree in design and I meandered my way to this point and I feel like you can learn so much more that way.”

What are the plans for Rag Order Dublin? O’Mahony has been working with RTE on the upcoming programme Clothes with Soul, due to air on RTE Player in the coming months. In each episode O’Mahony works with a client’s piece of sentimental clothing and she transforms it into “something more wearable.” Covid 19 has put a hold on filming, but she’ll be returning to it as soon as everything goes back to normal. Other than that, she isn’t “sure what the future holds” for her business. She’s going to keep on altering, tailoring and upcycling in this time, and will be hoping “for good things to come.” She tells me that she understands “that things won’t be going back to the way they were.” She accepts that she has to “rethink” her business, but she’s “good at doing that when the time comes.” On a parting note, O’Mahony says: “I feel like we all have the capacity to come back from this and in a much slower and more considered way.”