Fashion and Tech: The Digital Age Revolutionises Fashion and its Applications in the Heart of Belfast (Part O1)


An example of fashion and technology. Photo Source: Decoded Fashion

Shauna Graham, Contributor. 

As a former student of Queen’s, and a person who loves fashion and the arts within Northern Ireland, I wanted to help the university explore more practical courses that could lead to amazing opportunities and life paths, for students and graduates to come. Imagine if Queen’s could offer more practical tech-led courses with a particular focus on fashion and design; it could lead graduates into growing these innovative and cutting-edge industries that are shaping the way we shop right here in Belfast and abroad. We have so much untapped creative potential among our students and graduates who could go on to build their own creative empires if pointed in the right direction.

I have interviewed some outstanding designers who are actively involved in these sectors, who are out there leading the way for others in Belfast, and are willing to share their stories on how they became successful by incorporating tech into their own original creative businesses. These leading creatives actively tackle how their design businesses are hitting back against the ever-growing problem of our ‘throwaway culture’ that high street fashion is promoting, and almost cultivating, to a worrying degree in our city. As problematic as it sounds, technology is the way forward for those graduates, and people of this city, who are more ecologically-minded and keen to reduce their own carbon footprint when shopping for that new killer outfit. As these top designers will show you, through use of cutting-edge methods of production, they are able to reduce waste, cut time and create beautiful bespoke pieces of materials to fit any occasion. All these wonderful innovations come at a cost, as they are made with the mentality of ‘buy less but buy better.’

Having said that, some choose to go against the revolutionary tide of technology in Belfast, and stick with the more traditional forms of hand-made design and time-consuming craft. This can be more rewarding for the creative behind this approach; and can bring more attention to their stand-out and sought-after creations, as they are truly one-a-kind. Whether you choose the more traditional or branch out to a tech-inspired journey of design, these veteran designers are more than willing to share events and opportunities; that are available to fashion and design students out there right now. These could help propel new budding entrepreneurs into the spotlight of the lucrative fashion, design and tech scene; as new creatives are key to these industries thriving in our city with their fresh and vibrant ideas being brought to life in this digital age.

Karishma Kusurkar. Photo Source: Karishma’s World on Facebook.

Karishma Kusurkar: CEO of a multidisciplinary design business ‘Karishma’s World’.

A leading and award-winning multi-disciplinary designer combining two great industries of tech and fashion in the heart of Belfast. Consolidating her knowledge of design with professional studies in the Belfast school of Art and at the University of Arts in London, Karishma established her studio here in Belfast in 2014. It’s aptly named ‘Karishma’s World’ and produces an array of pieces such as games, accessories, stationery, and books. Technology can prove to be a useful marketing tool and a way of establishing connections with like-minded artists. Therefore, she also incorporates digital media into this business such as podcasts, illustrations, graphic, social and events designs and other services, all with the goal of ‘selling her own story’ to the people of Belfast. The vision for her business is to produce ‘ethically-based but affordable’ merchandise, all under one umbrella company that specialises in textile design, print, typography, animation and graphic design. She wishes to work with as many local designers and freelancers that have expertise across many design industries on a range of projects.

Perhaps due to influence of her origins in India, she also aims to work with a variety of people from different backgrounds, incorporating a sense of ‘diversity within design.’ Since her emergence on to the creative scene, Karishma has collaborated on a range of enterprises such as ‘Belfast Design Week’ and ‘People Make Design’, to encourage local talent of all ranges of skill across the design industry. She believes that local designers are key to keeping the industry fresh and vibrant, whilst also offering new ideas and ‘selling their stories’ through their own unique visions and approaches in their work. In her own words, she summarises that, ‘people are the driving force of the business’ as they promote the functional and commercial aspects of the products being created. ‘Belfast fashion week’, in particular, drew out the potential of local fashion and that there was a genuine ‘gap in the market’ in this within Belfast. Manufacturing could produce more jobs here for the younger and older generations combined, as they could be employed to produce more freelance work on a mass-scale within the city.

Technology is ‘the future of faster fashion’ in our CEO’s eyes, so it makes sense to employ this in her business and beyond to make the bucks. Karishma incorporates a motto that ‘fashion is all about invention’ and focuses on creating new accessories and jewellery. Her methods of production are printing on materials, so in essence digital print as a form of mass-production, focusing on scarves and bags.

On trend with being ecologically aware, she employs pattern-cutting into designing. This method results in less waste being made during production of her creations. In 2010, Vogue recognised this as the primary technological trend within fashion itself, and so this has spread to Belfast designers in their approach. Karishma would advocate on behalf of local designers as there’s simply not enough local support for their talents. There are a range of obstacles for the individual designer despite their methods of production, such as difficulty getting into stores, such as high-street retail stores will not usually seek out new talent. Therefore, Karishma seeks out freelancers through the design week to be able to display their unique styles; and sell some of their pieces which are primarily jewellery. Another stand-out programme that Karishma would advocate the importance of would be ‘INVENT’. This focuses on how brands can be set-up, and how to pitch their products once they do. One of its primary aims is to ‘help people understand that fashion isn’t frivolous’, and to create this awareness by seeking people out who are inventive, and people who can create commercial ties in the fashion industry and beyond. It’s a credit to Belfast to have such a hard-working woman in business and technology, who has turned her creative spark into a multi-faceted enterprise that will inspire many generations of designers to come.

Liz Cullinane (on the left), Traditional costume Designer for ‘Kabosh Theatre Company’. Photo source: GettyImages

Liz Cullinane: Costume Designer

A woman who takes a more traditional approach to the area of costume design, and focuses on the story and characters she’s helping to collaboratively create. Cullinane has prioritised the theatre as the main setting for her creations over the years, and still stays true to this refined industry as a reputable multi-disciplinary creative force behind the scenes. Cullinane’s creative journey began at home with her Grandmother as a milliner. This led to her experimenting in designing her very own lavish hats/headdresses, which would serve as a foreshadowing for the future. Moreover, her mother trained her in the dying art of sewing. As a teenager, she experimented with modelling which gave further opportunities to display her hat designs while on the runway. Imagination sometimes trumps reality, and Cullinane found it difficult to source clothing to suit her own individual tastes. Naturally costume design would follow from her desire to create her own clothing. This may prove that individual designers, with the motivation and desire to stand out, may be one reason to compete with mass-produced pieces by those making use of technology.

Her time as a student of fine art specialising in sculpture and painting at Crawford College in Cork, alongside complimentary courses in fabric printing and weaving. It would be while here, that she would truly build upon her understanding of the craft by learning all processes involved; and researching for her ideas. Cullinane relies on more traditional methods of gathering information for her projects, ‘I scrapbook my ideas much as I might for a painting with lots of scribbling going on and fabric samples added, as I get nearer to resolving a character.’ Cullinane got her first break into her area while on a year out from college. She began doing costume work for a local theatre company. True inspiration for her work came from trying to make ends meet while in college, where she would make the most of the local markets to sell her clothing. However, it would be the theatre that would prove to be the home for her creativity, and where she would draw true inspiration from.

Perhaps it’s the more intimate space of the theatre that would require a more personal touch; in terms of creation instead of the cold and clean cuts that technology provides. Her designs are a result of a collaboration between the director, herself, and observing the actors’ performances and crafting of their characters. It would be this collaboration that would provide the most interesting ideas for her costume design. There’s also a sense of community within this sphere that spur this artist along as ‘the director and actors are part of the process and their opinions are important in shaping the character,’ and their corresponding outfits. It would be from this community that she would expand her creative talents into areas like set and design; and reaching out externally by contributing to community artworks with carnival costume designs. Recently she’s returned to her small beginnings as a fine artist for inspiration; with studying certain fashion periods focusing on how political and cultural influences of the times to help craft her next line of creations. Cullinane sums up her vision for the future of her costume design enterprise as wanting to, ‘keep learning, keep exploring, and build on the experience I have gained with each project.’ I’m confident that an artist who grounds herself so deeply into research of her pieces will continue to wow audiences at the productions she’s involved for years to come. All of this without the aid from the ever-growing tech-dominated world around her.

Leonora Ferguson: Hi-tech Fashion/Costume designer

Photo source: Leonora Ferguson Millinery on Facebook

Originally from Cookstown, this well-established and talented hi-tech designer, still pays homage to her hometown as being a base of inspiration for her break into the world of fashion design. She’s a renowned milliner and digital print designer who’s now established a base for her designing business in Dublin. Leonora has firm connections to the city as she was a graduate of the national college of Art and Design there. Since then her momentum hasn’t stopped as she has established her fashion accessories label in 2011, ‘Leonora Ferguson Millinery’, where she creates unique pieces for anyone who has a taste for the aesthetic. These unique designs include beautifully hand-made hats, fascinators and bridal head pieces; and come at no cost to the environment being all made of sustainable and eco-friendly materials only. Also, since the beginning of the label she has branched out into digitally printed accessories including silk scarves; which are made by a combination of her original photography and artwork; and utilising the readily available new tech.

One of her most impressive feats to date has been her work on ‘Game of Thrones’, where she worked in the costume breakdown department during the earlier seasons. She had created some of her most challenging and crazy pieces while there, with snow and ice being made from wax, and sea salt staining being used in some of the costumes to create subtle changes in colouring. Ferguson loved the amount of detail that went into each piece made for the characters, and that the costume creation development reflected, ‘how much the characters had grown by the subtle change in colouring in the costumes.’

Leonora has great belief in tech producing high-quality fashion; to produce clothing in a more environmentally-friendly way. She believes that higher-priced clothing could be produced also, with the idea that people would buy less but buy better. However, there are downsides to using tech, as Leonora advocates that most designers would prefer their creations to be locally produced, only the tech element doesn’t allow for this. Although, Belfast is incorporating a lot more innovative and cutting-edge tech; through companies offering laser-cutting and etching services throughout the region. One outstanding local designer that caught Leonora’s eye amongst others was Grainne Maher, who has embraced laser-cutting in her work to add to its mass appeal across the industry. Ferguson gives her excellent commendation to her fellow designer as Maher is, ‘making waves both locally and internationally’, and standing tall due to combining both the tech and fashion elements in her business.

Leonora’s creations explores ‘the craft of lace-making and millinery, the engineered aspect of hats, and the flattering sculptural forms created by use of wire lace.’ Due to the level of intricate design and craft that goes into each of her individual, highly artistic pieces; they are often produced in limited quantities. That makes each of these highly desirable; and a higher price point for the fashionista looking for that special something out there that will last. Having said that, Leonora’s designs have wide appeal; as her label supplies both high quality retailers; and are sold as personalised accessories as part of bespoke fashion.

I love that designers advocate for the needs of other fellow designers, as if they are a part of something bigger working towards a goal of creation and production. However, in order to keep the cog wheels turning, funding is severely needed in the design sector. Funding which has been severely lacking in this country especially when concerning the arts. Investments in the design and manufacturing sectors would greatly benefit others here; in terms of job creation through creation of local production hubs; and producing eco-friendly and sustainable clothing for future generations to come. This could be the great gap in the market where individuals could be trained; and bring a return to high quality linen being produced in Belfast again.

According to Leonora, education and awareness is needed as ‘consumers become more aware and appreciative of traceability, then sustainability, ethical production and caring about the reduction of the carbon footprint of their clothes’ would follow. Ferguson stands out as a unique leader in the fashion industry, as both a respected and resourceful costume and tech designer; with a great respect for Belfast as the creative hub that has unleashed ‘a rising tide of designers who are trying to make it happen’. At the same time, Ferguson has been inspired by an international leading lady from across the sea, who ‘s been combining tech and fashion for some truly inspiring and innovative designs, Iris Van Herpen. Ferguson gives her a glowing report as a fellow creative whose work, ‘is futuristic yet wearable, but takes incredible skill to realise, and whose designs are only made possible through tech.’ Leonora adds a feminine touch to the man-made tech world that has been interwoven into Belfast’s fashion scene of late. All with the vision of creating environmentally-friendly, sustainable and beautifully crafted bespoke pieces; that are both artistic and creative, yet produced partially by machine.

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