The first time I met Helen Hayes, she was getting coffee at her local café, which happens to be the one where I work. She was wearing a gorgeous cranberry satin bag, with an intricately pleated design; a unique piece that immediately caught my fashion-enthusiast eye. When I asked her where she got it from, she simply replied “I made it myself.”. This particular ease usually pervades her discourse about her work, “I tend to keep it very simple actually” (she tells me later during our discussion), although her creations are anything but simple. Her pieces consist of layers of textures, finely pleated cotton, double-folded squares in duchess satin, and multiple hours of meticulous work. The passion she has for her work is what makes it seem so effortless. 

However, fashion wasn’t her first option, as she initially started her career in graphic design. “I never really thought about getting into fashion, but I grew up surrounded by people working with their hands (her grandma knitting and her mother sewing). And graphics, even though it’s a lovely field to work in, it’s very digital.” Her desire to make something that “stands on its own”, as she says, prompted her to study fashion design at the Grafton Academy, “It was only when my daughter started school that I went to Grafton.” When asked how she felt returning to school as a mature student, she replied “I think these days if you really want to do something, you easily can.

Her unique path in the world of fashion mirrors the distinctiveness of her brand and creative process. For Hayes inspiration is everywhere, “It can be from the most obscure things. It literally can be anything.” 

Her artistic eye can be trusted to find inspiration in something as mundane as an old Wedgwood teapot, which inspired her first college collection, or the reflection of light in stained glass windows, which influenced the sculptural silhouettes she is renowned for. “Everyone seems to think there’s an origami feel to my pieces, although it’s completely unintentional. What I wanted to do was to actually get a sense of the light that reflected off of these individual panes of beautiful stained glass that were almost diamond shaped as opposed to square.”  She uses satin fabric and jewel-like colours to make the double-folded squares to recreate the glass, “When you walk, the squares move differently into each other.”, the movement of the fabric replicating that of the light.

Her work exudes a timeless elegance which strays away from today’s trends. “I deliberately probably tried to avoid doing anything that people can easily get a version of somewhere else. It doesn’t have to look like this year’s version of anything.” Fashion is something rather personal for Hayes, it is something that revolves around learning rather than commercial success.  “When I started in Grafton, I didn’t even know that I could have commercial success, I just wanted to learn. After that, one thing led to another, and I have tried to keep it small intentionally because I didn’t want it to become stressful in any way.” 

Even now, years after her debut in the industry and having accumulated numerous awards and achievements, including a UCD award for ‘Fashion Student Designer of the Year’, and her participation in Brown Thomas’ ‘Create’ 2023, she is still the one doing all the work. “Most people, if they’re doing a collection, they’re trying to sell it into a shop. What I’m trying to do is to work away in my own little bubble. If I were in a big studio with a lot of people, it would be very different to what I do now.” 

Instead of overproducing, she prioritizes the quality of her pieces, “I don’t make vast quantities of each piece, and they are usually customized to suit, which makes them more interesting than making the same top over and over again.” She tells me this as she shows me her newest design, a stunning backless top, with pleated elements inspired by her grandmother’s feral knitting print. The top is part of a collection which came out only recently, on the 14th of March, and can be viewed on the website of the Council of Irish Fashion Designers, of which she is a member. The top will also be included in the collection designed for the ARC cancer support fashion show, a fundraiser to support the families of those battling cancer, another exciting project for Hayes that will take place on the 28th of March. 

Lastly, Helen’s advice for those wishing to break into the fashion industry is to “take your time, ask a lot of questions, ask for help when you need it, and you always have to think that you still have stuff to learn!” 

What Hayes’ craft manages to convey is that it is crucial to value authenticity. Working in our “own little bubble” might well be the key to success. 

Aniela-Maria Eftimie – Reporter