Let’s Do Lunch With Angela O’Kelly

Over a late lunch on Thomas Street, NCAD‘s ANGELA O’KELLY explains to ANNE HARRIS how being an artist herself helps her support her students …


The young woman bounding towards me could have come straight from Central Casting as the quintessential art student. Head to toe in black, hair cut into a silken raven cap. But hold, that translucent complexion, those sparkling eyes – where is the regulation pallor, the hollow-eyed angst caused by self expression and alienation? This is no art student. This is the head of fashion, textile and jewellery students in NCAD – Angela O’Kelly, whose mission is to create a seamless robe of vision and enterprise for her students and the future of Irish fashion.

We are to have lunch in The Luncheonette, the Thomas Street destination for hungry artists and tourists, run by sculptor Jenny Moran. In fairness, O’Kelly has planned to head straight for lunch. It is I who spot out of the corner of my eye, a group weaving at looms. “Would you like to see what they’re doing?” she asks in the pleasure tones of a mother proffering her baby. And thus begins, for me, a window into a world of ravishing creativity, where art meets craft and crafts meet each other. From the pre-Raphaelite verdigris silks, splattered with gold leaf – a collaboration between textile, fashion and jewellery – to the weatherwear inspired by Kinsale fishermen’s nets by Caoimhe Hill, which has just won the €3,500 River Island NCAD bursary for Fashion Design.

She leads me from the weaving wonders to the digital printers (whose work is currently being showcased in The Textile Project an exhibition of mannequins, mounted by John Redmond of Brown Thomas); from gossamer laces to filigreed rubber inspired by the octopus (stunning actually); from laser cutting to lurid club wear. We meet the second years – the year the imagination is given permission to soar – and the serious final year students. And the thing that strikes me most – apart from her familiarity with each student and their work – is how they work in groups. That and the way they are already engaged with the retail industry through bursaries, internships and exhibitions.

It is well past lunchtime when we get to The Luncheonette, where starving students have demolished most of Jenny Moran’s organic menu, but in a flash she rustles up a baked brie and caramelised onion salad.

I am keen to get to the core of O’Kelly’s hive of industry. Or more particularly to the keeper herself. “I bet you don’t buy clothes online,” I hazard. She’s surprised at the guess. No mystery really: for fashion lovers, it’s all about touch and feel – without that tactile pleasure, what’s left? The physicality of her aesthetic is palpable. We discuss an artist we both admire. “He needs to get dirty. I’d say he doesn’t get dirty,” she laughs. She has a really dirty laugh.

It’s at moments like this you realise she’s not just a Head of Fashion, she’s a hugely respected artist in her own right, not to mention a wife and mother of two boys. So what’s her elixir of youth? “I’m 43. I dye my hair. I’m always busy. I love it. I go to bed early.”

Hard work is in her DNA, although the only fashion connection is her grandmother. “My nana was a seamstress – working with her hands, like me.” All her inspiration came from teachers, from the schoolteacher who was a jeweller, to Peter Donovan and George Vaughan in Grennan Mills, Thomastown who encouraged her to study textile, jewellery and silversmithing at Edinburgh University. Inspired by teachers, she is an inspiring teacher. “I love that interaction.” Teaching, as writer Anthony Burgess pointed out, fulfils the artist and inspires the student.

All artists need a break: hers came early. “My degree exhibition was spotted and promoted by the British Crafts Council. It was shown at Sotheby’s and in the US. I was straight in at a very high level. Although I worked on a big scale with metal, paper was better. I created a piece called ‘Hundreds and Thousands’ combining the newsprint of the Financial Times with silver and gold. The British Crafts Council bought it for their permanent exhibition.”

Brian Kennedy, a London curator, saw her work and exhibited it for the Irish Crafts Council. “So I came back and set up my workshop in my brother’s shed, where it still is.” At 29, she decided to get out of the workshop and thus began the long journey, via an arts administration masters at UCD, and part-time work, to NCAD, to Head of Fashion.

We look at her work. Wild, wonderful adornments for the body. And then, she thinks of her students and their future. “Jewellery has applications across other things. You can use jewellery to track certain medical conditions.”

So function, as well as beauty, is her leitmotif. And collaboration is the means? “Yes. They’re called ‘T-shaped’ students. Each has a specialisation but works across other disciplines. I get all the second years to work together. We get them to do internships in the industry.” When I mention that they seemed unusually happy collaborating, she is wry: “I’d like a little more of a competitive spirit.”

One bursary which is guaranteed to get the competitive juices flowing is the €4,000 Brown Thomas “Designer to Watch” bursary which, besides a mentoring programme with the store’s management team, offers a place at Create, Brown Thomas’ prestigious annual exhibition of Irish fashion design. (Last year’s winner, Aideen Gaynor, will shortly embark on an MA at Parsons fashion school in New York.) Before Create all degree students’ work will appear in a video sponsored by The Westbury hotel.

But is it all very commercial now? Where is that time-honoured tradition of art students excoriating the establishment? Or are Brown Thomas, River Island and others the patrons? The Medicis of modern design?

O’Kelly has no doubts. Her protégés need patrons. “People took chances on me. I want people to take a chance on my students.”

Anne Harris

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