A Celtic Revival for the digital era: how designer Jennifer Rothwell is celebrating Irish heritage in the 21st century
On a blisteringly cold night on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the worlds of art, history and technology collided at the trunk show of Irish fashion designer Jennifer Rothwell.
New York is a familiar stomping ground for the designer, who was born in the city and called it her home while she was cutting her teeth in the fashion world, gaining experience as a director of design and production for several companies and working for brands including Norma Kamali, Calvin Klein and Yigal Azrouël.
Today, however, her life and work are rooted in Ireland. At her studio in Artane, Dublin, Rothwell is bringing the Celtic Revival of the 19th and 20th centuries into the digital era, one vibrant garment at a time.
Covering womenswear, menswear and accessories, Rothwell’s kaleidoscopic designs pull inspiration from a wide range of references to Irish history and culture: from Saint Brigid, the 5th-century Irish saint, to 20th-century stained-glass artist Harry Clarke, and Dublin's General Post Office, which served as the HQ for the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916.
Far from simply paying homage to relics, though, Rothwell brings her muses firmly into the 21st century, both conceptually – her print based on the Book of Kells, a 9th-century illuminated manuscript, is also inspired by outer space – and technically, as all her designs are digitally printed. They are also manufactured close to her studio, leading to a low carbon footprint.
The eclectic nature of her work has won Rothwell fans around the world, and her designs have been seen on celebrities including Irish singer-songwriter Enya and English actress Jodie Whittaker.
The cultural impact of her work is also obvious: she was asked to be an ambassador of the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin following the launch of her Harry Clarke-inspired collection and her pieces are often worn by Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Geraldine Byrne Nason. The diplomat was even the guest of honor at Rothwell’s New York trunk show, where she called the designer’s work, “the essence of what it means to be Irish.”
FashionNetwork.com also attended the event, held inside MAP Digital’s exhibition space at 56 Ludlow Street, and met with Rothwell to discuss the spirit, impact and future of her craft.
FashionNetwork.com: Why did you choose MAP Digital to host your trunk show?
Jennifer Rothwell: I liked the correlation between digital, technology and fashion. This is also a gallery space, and I’ve just been doing an exhibition in Dublin that highlights the connection between art and fashion. For me, what I do is wearable art – fashion married with the digital and the modern, the Celtic Revival married with modern elements to bring it into the 21st century. I like bringing technology, history and culture all together.
FNW: How would you describe your brand?
JR: There’s a very ethereal theme behind all of my work. The brand values would be empowering, uplifting, positive. If somebody puts on a Jennifer Rothwell print, you’ll come alive. It brings positivity, it brings people to you, it empowers you, it makes you feel good. Customers can also feel good that they’re buying something handcrafted, something that’s meant to be an heirloom. It’s meant to be passed down.
FNW: What is your distribution like?
JR: It’s printed and made in Ireland, we sell online on the website and we also sell on Wolf & Badger and on Not on the High Street. But I’d love to sell on Net-a-Porter and a few other places. I’m looking to expand online. The good thing about that is, if you do things online, you can be based anywhere and distribute. I also do bespoke orders, like for the U.N. ambassador. We do ship a lot internationally.
FNW: Who would you say your core demographic is?
JR: My pieces are popular across all ages, that’s what I love. We have customers from all age groups, from 17-year-olds to 90-year-olds.
FNW: Your work is digitally printed and made locally in Ireland. Is supporting local industry important to you?
JR: It is. I’m very passionate about reigniting Irish manufacturing within Ireland. I’m kind of the only one who’s doing it, and I’ve been canvassing for the last 10 years to the Irish government to do our version of the ‘Made in Italy’ campaign. All of the other countries are coming back to themselves – ‘Made in the USA,’ ‘Made in Britain’ – and I’m really trying to get our government in Ireland to support ‘Made in Ireland.’ I think my passion started when I lived in America, and ended up really falling in love with my culture in Ireland. When I came back, I thought Ireland was so magical.
FNW: What is it about Irish heritage and culture that made you want to dig into it?
JR: I think we’re a very special nation. I suppose I don’t want us to lose our identity and how special we are and our culture. I’m very passionate about bringing that into this century. I feel like we don’t really appreciate what’s gone before us. I’m doing my part to bring that back. If one 19-year-old discovers Harry because of my work and I can get them to come into the museum and learn about him, I feel very proud.
FNW: There’s a reverential undertone to your work – you’re looking to strong women like Saint Brigid, bringing attention to artists like Harry Clarke. How has that impacted your career?
JR: I think I like to speak to what I think is important through fashion. For example, the new collection is called the Féileacán print, and it’s meant to bring awareness to endangered species. Every print has a story behind it. It’s what I’m inspired by, and then I design around that.
Saint Brigid was a patron of art and design and craft, and I was inspired by that. She’s bringing people to me, and the same with Harry. The Hugh Lane Gallery asked me to be an ambassador, which is great because I take every chance I get to promote Harry or try to get people to the museum.
FNW: Can you say more about what themes you think you’ll pursue moving forward?
JR: I’ll probably do a lot more inspired by nature, things like pollination. Maybe we’ll do something about Irish endangered species as well.
A lot of people want me to do the Celtic Revival forever, but I’m going to divert every so often. I’m going to do a new Harry Clarke collection, but that’s because I asked one of his grandchildren what print was very special to her heart. So that started another series of prints which I have already designed.
FNW: Can you speak about the sustainable aspect of your brand?
JR: I’ve always been passionate about sustainability, inherently, not because it’s a trend. I wear things that are 20 years old, I never throw things out.
With my brand, we don’t waste any fabric. We turn extra fabric into bow ties and pocket squares. In the last 10 years, I’ve never thrown out any of my fabric. Any extra that’s not being used by me, I donate to my children’s school to use for art projects.
FNW: Any particularly exciting projects for the future that you can share with us?
JR: I can’t say much, but there will be a lot more women and men in very high places wearing Jennifer Rothwell.
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