Helen Steele On The Secret To Turning Art Into Sportswear

Following the launch of her second collection with Dunnes Stores, Nurture and Nature we caught up with Irish designer and artist, Helen Steele about her journey into the fashion industry, her relationship with colour therapy and the story behind designing a sportswear collection.

What drew you to the fashion industry?

Honestly, it was something that was just in my bones. My grandmother, my mum and along the female line on my mum’s side were all dressmakers. During the famine, it was lace making that kept – on my mum’s side – her ancestors, alive.

My degree is in fashion and when I finished college I worked in the fashion industry for a while. Then I went and studied under a South African artist living in Dublin. I studied with him for three years and worked as his apprentice.

When I left college, one of the most important things I did was when I worked with a company who at the time did a lot of clothing manufacturing for Simone Rocha’s dad, John Rocha. So I cut my teeth on the cutting room floor and tables and that was really, really instrumental in helping me understand blocks and shape and cutting and that is something I’ve never lost.

This is your second collection with Dunnes Stores. Can you talk us through the process of creating the collection and bringing the designs to life?

I come at it from the art first and then the clothing so I create the prints and then the shapes are defined from that. But with the sportswear (of this collection), it’s way more intricate so everything is delicately placed and is placed either for performance or to create a positive outcome. So certain prints are placed in certain areas to visually stimulate or to balance.

What made you choose sportswear?

When I started my own mainline in 2012, there was a stylist working for a few different companies and one of the companies she was working for was Warner Brothers music. At the time she was styling Jessie J and Rita Ora and I ended up doing t-shirts and leggings and catsuits and stagewear for them which was an amazing experience. That really gave me a good insight into performance and how flexible fabrics need to work with and against the body. I always really liked the whole head to toe print look, it’s very matchy and matchy. The t-shirts and leggings that I was doing at the time sold out in South Korea because they love that whole matchy-matchy thing. We sold into two different stores and one was in Gangnam. I couldn’t understand why they kept re-ordering the same t-shirt the whole time. When I was there I was asking, well do you not want the spring summer stock and they were adamant that all they wanted was this one t-shirt and how quickly could I get it to them. It turned out it was because, at the time, there was a K-pop band called f(x). One of the girls wore one of the t-shirts and then she wore another one and it just kept selling out and selling out which was fantastic. I remember going onto Google and watching one of their videos and it was mad. They had 60 million views and it was mad seeing my t-shirt there.

Going back to the sportswear, myself and my sister were walking her kids to school in Dublin one day and I noticed that everyone was wearing leggings. I couldn’t get over it. Windbreakers, t-shirts, oversized t-shirts – I thought it was mad. I live in a little tiny rural village so it wasn’t a trend I’d seen very much but everyone was wearing leggings. We realised we were both wearing leggings from Dunnes that we’d had for years and had stood the test of time really well. Around the same time, I did an interview about how I personally thought that Dunnes Stores were possibly the most supportive company in Ireland to Irish design and I really think they are. I think even more so than some government-funded bodies. And then people from Dunnes got in touch with me and that got the conversation going. It all happened at the same time. It was fate like it was meant to be. It happened quite organically.

Colour is at the heart of all of your designs. Tell us a bit about the importance of colour therapy.

I’ve always been drawn to colour. When I was five I won the Tesco art competition which I lived off for a quarter of a century (laughs). I’ve always been drawn to colour. I have ADHD so when I was a kid, the painting used to really help me concentrate and I lost myself in colour and in making clothes or making dresses for dolls, that kind of thing. You either have no concentration or you’re just absolutely, totally consumed and absorbed in something and that’s what happened with me with the arts and fashion design. Colour theory and colour therapy was something I touched on in college and then I’ve just taken with me. I use it in my artwork but I especially think it’s most effective in clothing because it’s actually on the body and you’re seeing it the whole time and you’re taking it with you. We’re constantly fed by so much imagery and messages and we don’t really understand the effect that colour actually has on us. Really, good positive colours, always have really good positive effects.

What excites you most about the fashion industry right now?

That there’s such change, there’s such incredible change. What excites me most is about how being your authentic self is definitely supported, how diversity is finally being realised when it comes to body shape and everything like creating clothing for people like Sinead Burke. She’s incredible. A lot of people tend to give out about social media but I really like how it brings me directly to people who wear my stuff or people who just like bright colours that I can be talking with someone in Japan. Yes, there is a lot of narcissism (with social media) but the other side of that is how it brings people all over the world closer together.

When are you at your most creative?

When I’m relaxed. A lot of the time ideas come to me when I’m on the road. Ideas come to me when I’m surrounded by nature or on the road surrounded by nature, that kind of visual impact is really positive, just being in my studio surrounded by paint and colour.

Helen Steele’s Nurture and Nature collection is now available to shop in Dunnes Stores, Abbey Centre.

Niamh Crawford-Walker

Niamh is a full time fashion and features writer at The Style Edit. Her work has previously appeared in IMAGE magazine, image.ie and Emirates Woman.

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