Interview with Irish Milliner Leonora Ferguson

Interview with Irish Milliner Leonora Ferguson

Photo Credit: Frank McKenna @fmckphoto

Leonora Ferguson is an Award Winning Milliner whose works of art using wire lace have become known the country wide. The structure and final elegant aesthetic that she creates has made her one of my favourite milliners to follow, and we are delighted to be featuring her today on Floralesque.

Interview with Irish Milliner Leonora Ferguson

Her work as part of the V&A Exhibition

Leonora graduated from the National College of Art and Design, Dublin in 2005, specialising in Embroidered Textiles, and went on to found her label in 2011. I personally fell in love with her work when I seen her pieces exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London as part of the 2016 Animal Ball. And the stunning Cara Delevingne actually wore her endangered iguana piece at the event. The structure of the wire lace drew my attention and I have been a fan of her work since. You may have also seen her millinery designs as part of the Art of Millinery Afternoon Tea at the Westbury, Dublin last year. She also took part in the Create Project in Brown Thomas in 2017.

She already has had quite an accomplished career and has won Awards from the Traditional Lacemakers of Ireland Award at the RDS National Craft Awards 2016 to the Eleanor de la Branchardiere Award for innovation in lace at the RDS National Craft Awards 2015. She is also a finalist this year in the Irish Fashion Innovation Awards that are happening in March this year. And I for one cannot wait to see her pieces on the catwalk.

Interview with Irish Milliner Leonora Ferguson

Photo Credit: Frank McKenna @fmckphoto

What drew you into the craft of millinery – have you always loved the craft?

In college (Textiles BDes at NCAD) I made a few hats along the way but it only really occurred to me during my degree show. I had made textile sculptures, everything I did seemed to evolve into 3d work.
A fashion tutor visiting from the RCA was looking at my exhibit and said, “have you never considered millinery?”. That was when the penny dropped and I first realised it was a way of bringing sculpture, fashion and craft together!

Can you please tell us a little about your career path into millinery?

When I left college I dabbled making headpieces that I sold in the first incarnation of the Loft Market at the Powerscourt Townhouse. I was still making art pieces, but they didn’t pay the bills unfortunately. A couple of years out of college I moved to London and did a lot of work experience in costume, which led to paid roles. I did a millinery course in Central St. Martins that armed me with the basics of hat making.

Working in costume you pick a lot up from the talented individuals around you, and things get thrown at you to make and you just have to work it out. I’ve learnt from old millinery books, and looking at many different hats. I learned to carve Styrofoam hat blocks and to cobble something together from whatever you happen to have.

I didn’t have a lot of cash, but every birthday and Christmas I’d ask for a contribution towards a wooden hat block or materials. When a customer asked for something different, I’d make that my next hat block or adapt one I already had.

Interview with Irish Milliner Leonora FergusonWorking on pieces for productions such as Game of Thrones compared to pieces created for events like a ball must be very different. What are the main challenges or differences in the thought process when you are brain storming the pieces?

I worked on Game of Thrones as a costume dyer and breakdown artist, at the very start, when they were making the pilot. Then after my year in Australia, I came back as a costume daily for a few seasons. It was an exciting time as the designer Michele was bringing together all these influences for the costumes, imagining what and why a character would wear something. So there was a lot of colour sampling and experimenting, they were working out how they wanted the show to look. I remember dyeing dozens and dozens of cloaks!

In other productions like Dracula Untold or for Madame Tussauds, I was making hats. Sometimes the design is very collaborative, sometimes you get the vaguest instruction and sketch it out or mock it up and ask, “is this how you want it?”, other times it’s a very precise brief. Ultimately you’re fulfilling another’s vision. Good communication is so important in those situations and can be the difference between a nightmare and a dream job.

When it’s your brand you bear the full responsibility to come up with an idea, challenge it, then make it happen, working within a self imposed timeframe. Bespoke brings both approaches together: it’s your customer’s brief, you might have to coax out what exactly they want or help to shape that vision, and then design it.

Interview with Irish Milliner Leonora Ferguson

I simply love the chequerboard lace designs – can you please tell us about the inspiration behind the collection?

This was the first collection that was purely wire lace. There are lots of ideas at play, I was thinking about a wisp of fabric being caught in a breeze, and trying to capture that movement and lightness. Then imagining shadows cast on the face, like light coming through a window or sun on the sea reflecting on the skin, and how the lace can create shadows. Connecting with this, when paint on ageing portraits starts to crack it’s like a web between the viewer and subject.

In wearing veils we put a distance between ourselves and others, to hide or reveal, or give an air of mystery, to separate ourselves. So I guess what I was looking for in all of that was the appearance of something fleeting and ethereal, an illusion.

The chequerboard pattern reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, and that pattern is often used to illustrate perspective. It’s a nod to the surreal, going back to that wisp of fabric that is actually a static solid structure, the veiling net that is actually metal!

Interview with Irish Milliner Leonora FergusonIs there a particular textile that you prefer to work with in your millinery work?

At the moment there is a lot of scope in terms of shape and pattern with making wire lace, I’ve only scratched the surface. It’s also a privilege to work with very fine vintage straw. It feels like fabric, blocks like a dream, but can be expensive and hard to source.

Being in Create in 2017 must have been amazing – it is an amazing achievement and the standard there is always so high. Do you think initiatives like Create are important to the Irish Designer and do you think that we should be doing more to support Irish Designers?

Thank you! It has genuinely been the biggest boost to my business so far. It’s a seal of approval, a stamp of quality, which is so terribly important to a young business. It’s a reassurance to potential customers that you are the real deal. It justifies the price you have to charge to survive. It means being taken seriously. We are definitely seeing Irish designers being picked up by big Irish retailers like BT and Arnotts, but many more people need a leg up.

Being self employed, our income can be very unpredictable. That brings such stress, instability and fear. There’s no safety net for the self employed in Ireland. While there is great support for tech businesses here at the moment, we need that same boost for designers. With the right measures in place we can thrive, grow and contribute to the economy like any other business.


Interview with Irish Milliner Leonora Ferguson

Photo Credit: Frank McKenna @fmckphoto

Although I am sure hard to choose in such a rich career – what has been your career highlight to date?

Cara Delevingne picking my lizard headpiece to wear to the Animal Ball 2013, and the honour of my lemur hat being shown in the V&A’s Conservation Couture exhibition of 2016 alongside pieces from Christian Dior, Burberry, Matthew Williamson and Jimmy Choo!

Would you have any tips for those hoping to start a career in millinery – something that someone had said to you when you were starting out?

The best advice I got was from one of my first stockists. I was trying to fit too many people’s ideals of what I ought to be, without focusing on my own goals. She told me, “You don’t have to listen to advice! If it doesn’t help to take you where you want to go, say thank you and quietly disregard it.” My sister told me, “you just have to take the reins!”

With the very best of intentions people will tell you that you should do this or that, but only you really know what you want your business or creative output to be. Sometimes other people can shut down an idea because they don’t understand it, they can’t imagine it or they wouldn’t/couldn’t do it themselves. But you’ll never know unless you try it. Have confidence and trust your gut (and take the reins!)

Where would you like to see the brand going in the next five years?

I’d love to expand into more accessories or clothing than just the hats and silk scarves, that’s far off yet and a job for more than one person!

And lastly a very important question…. Lyons or Barrys tea? And favourite dipping biscuit?

It’s Barry’s in our house, but I’m not too fussy cos good coffee is my lifeline! You can’t beat a Viennese Whirl, but only a quick dip or it’s bye bye biccie!!

Interview with Irish Milliner Leonora Ferguson

A massive thank you to Leonora for the interview, we loved learning more about her journey and the story behind the brand. Her website is just beautiful and if you are looking for some inspiration or to buy a beautiful gift I would highly recommend checking it out. You can also find her on Facebook and Instagram. Best of luck to Leonora in the upcoming Irish Fashion Innovation Awards!

All images kindly provided for use.

If you enjoyed this interview in the ‘Floralesque Meets’ Series, then you can click here to read more exciting interviews with designers, creators, artists, photographers, entrepreneurs and more – enjoy meeting the makers!


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