Advertising | Metro Eireann | Top News | Contact Us
Governor Uduaghan awarded the 2013 International Outstanding Leadership Award  •   South African Ambassador to leave  •   Roddy's back with his new exclusive "Brown-Eyed Boy"  •  
Print E-mail

Stylish fashion - without hype

Last update - Friday, April 12, 2013, 10:44 By Tolu Omoyele

Trained nurse Maria Cárdenas traded the medical profession for the fashion world, transforming into a designer and maker of quality coats, jackets and shirts.

Originally from Colombia but now based in the Mournes of Northern Ireland, where she’s lived since 1996, Cárdenas has taken part in shows around the world in such prestigious spots as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Bellevue Arts Museum in Seattle, and events like CraftBoston and Croatia Fashion Week. Her eponymous womenswear label is based on natural fabrics with a

subtle, elegant look – and is branching out into bespoke soft tailoring menswear. Cárdenas specialises in well-made tailored garments, and works alongside her partner Leo, a hard worker and true professional with a high standard...


Hi Maria! You are from Colombia - tell us a bit about your homeland.

I spent most of this winter in Colombia, and it is great to see family and friends and to recharge a bit. Colombia is very beautiful, and has every landscape, most climates, two oceans, a part of the Amazon – the list goes on!

It has more than its fair share of problems, but the people are very warm and positive, and there are peace talks taking place. It has great talent and resources and traditions, so has big potential for the future.


What is your background, and how do you feel it prepared you for a career in design?

I tried nursing and office work first, and then I went back to clothes. My education showed me that I like some independence – but I do like working with others, and have enjoyed working for others as well.


What happened after you finished college?

I went to work in administration. Everything I have learned about design and making comes from experience.

I have done some short fashion and design courses in St Martins in London, and a ‘women in enterprise’ course in Belfast. So I don’t know very much about the fashion colleges here, and would still like to find one that is more open and friendly to non-college people.


How did you get started in a fashion design career?

I used to watch and help my mother. She made outfits at home and knew how to make patterns. I learned an awful lot by watching her. I still experiment with different ways of cutting and putting together, and always have. At school I used to make tops and blouses for school friends.


What drew you to fashion and specifically to starting your own line?

I had always had something to do with clothing and fashion, in my own country and here. In London I worked in sampling for a few companies.

We had heard there was a fashion unit in Belfast with machines and support for small businesses starting up. Unfortunately it had already gone without trace when we arrived here!

Starting my own line seemed a good idea at the time, and was logical, as it was based on my own ideas and styles. I may be interested in looking at a more generic identity – using another name and idea for the label.


What material do you use in your designs?

I try to use natural fabrics where I can. I use a lot of Irish linen, sourced down the road from here, and was very pleased to be invited to become a member of the Irish Linen Guild. Irish linen has always had input from outsiders, right back to the refugees from Europe who brought a lot of the weaving skills hundreds of years ago.

I also use silks, especially a rough woven silk that looks similar to linen; jerseys in linen, wool and silk; cottons; and Harris Tweed. I am also hoping to source some good Donegal Tweed, and have a source in England for Chanel-type fabrics. Sometimes, too, people entrust me to make items with fabrics that are very precious to them, that they may have kept for a long time.

Do you outsource any of your design work, or you do everything yourself?

I do all of my own actual designs, and make the patterns and the samples. When I get bigger orders I can get some made by friends, outworkers or a small factory. I’m always keen to meet up with people who can make to a high quality. At present I am being asked for bespoke and small boutique orders that I mainly make myself.


Typical design work can be tedious. How is the process for you?

I can design and make something fairly quickly if I have to, but it still can take a day or two to have the sample. The creative process involves thinking about the design and the fabric, making the pattern, possibly a toile as well. Sometimes I use a doll, and make a small version to see how it looks.

A lot of my designs develop over a long time; I like to improve on a shape, and don’t see any need to always change everything.


What does a typical outfit creation involve?

It would involve meeting the client and discussing what they’d like, showing some fabrics, possibly sketching out some ideas, taking good measurements. Then it would be ordering fabric and trims if need be, making a pattern on pattern paper, and possibly making a toile in a less expensive fabric to see how the design works.

Next it is cutting the final fabric, machining and hand-stitching together, then making adjustments to make sure the finished garment is perfect. If it is bespoke, there would be at least one fitting, a readjustment if needed, then a final fitting.


What is the most difficult aspect in launching your own label?

Getting to the right customers and outlets you want is challenging at first.

Access to opportunity and to other markets is not easy when you are not well connected; it’s quite a closed world and neither of us are good at trying to network with the fashion and business gatekeepers.

Scaling up production with the finish I want is hard as well. It would be very useful to have access to advice and mentoring from someone with direct experience of independent business.


Do you have a style icon?

I don’t really have a style icon. Very often it is seeing people in the street or at an event who look comfortable and stylish, in Dublin, London or at home. Bianca Jagger, Cate Blanchett, the movie stars of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s are my inspiratons.


What do you most enjoy about a fashion design career?

I suppose it is getting an interesting order, meeting a client who is really enthusiastic about what I have made for them, and finishing an order!


In your experience what is most challenging about a fashion design career in Ireland or the UK?

It is a crowded area at present. The colleges have encouraged a lot of young people, especially during the boom years. Support is for the first three years or so – and there is a culture of ‘fresh meat’, and the hype of the new. This is also very lucrative for training and retraining, consulting, mentoring, etc. I have established a bit of a niche for well-made tailored garments that last a long time in terms of construction and style.

I was involved with a Best Of British fashion event before the Queen’s visit to Ireland, and have been exhibited as an Irish designer in the US, England and Croatia.


And Northern Ireland?

There is an identity issue in Northern Ireland, in fashion as well as other areas, and often it seems hard to fit in to the official version. The official version is the image of here that is supported and promoted by the agencies and public sector in general. We hope it is getting broader and will soon include more diversity.


What skills are important in a fashion design career?

The making skills are crucial, as is an individual sense of style, and an idea of how to develop sales and keep motivated.


What do you wish you had known before entering the fashion industry?

A lot! You can really get your eyes opened. There are people who feel it is their right to rip you off, if you are stupid and naive enough to let them.


Where do you see your business in the long term?

I’m going to keep to my ideas on style and function. I would like the opportunity to do some more abroad as well – and am sending off some orders to Canada and Bavaria in Germany. But the bread and butter has to be in Ireland and in Britain, and I am keen to consolidate here and develop more ways of collaborating over the long term with a few retailers, fabric suppliers and small producers.

The fundamentalist drive for globalisation of the past, while here, is not the only way to operate!


What is fashion, in your opinion?

It is dressing yourself – it is that basic and broad. The fashion I am interested in is well made, in natural fabrics, and tries to make somebody look and feel good. My fashion is to make simple elegant clothes. That simplicity can involve a lot of work, though! I can make hats and do some upholstery.

Making for me is design and the actual making: the making skills transfer across. I usually say I’m a tailor and designer – tailor first, as it is making the pattern, then the sample or the actual garment, that is the most important.


What is your greatest design achievement to date?

Getting asked to make something for an important occasion such as a wedding or an important meeting. I have made outfits for an audience with the Pope, for a chef doing a small dinner party for the Queen. It might be the invite to take part in shows. I was part of a Best of British Fashion group at the ambassador’s house in Dublin before the Queen’s visit, and in the Showcase Fashion 2013 show at Showcase Ireland at the RDS this January.

I was really pleased to be asked to design and make an Irish linen outfit for actor, director and Simon Community activist Glenn Gannon, to play the role of a modern Jesus in ‘The Trial’ at the RDS last summer during the International Eucharistic Congress.


Aside from design, what other interests do you have?

Plenty – there is a lot more to life! Cooking, walking, travel, the garden and growing food, alternative health, reading, and meeting up with friends and family.


What advice would you give a fashion newbie or student looking to become a designer?

Have a good look at it first. Work for other people, make sure you get the skills. It can be a demanding and very competitive career, and hard work, contacts and some luck is needed.


Any closing thoughts?

Fashion is important. Everyone has to wear clothes and feel good about themselves. But I’m not really a fashionista, and don’t talk about couture. I think those words have been used a bit too much. It is time for a bit more honesty and a lot less hype.


- Find out more about Maria Cárdenas’ designs at

Latest News:
Latest Video News:
Photo News:
Kerry drinking and driving
How do you feel about the Kerry County Councillor\'s recent passing of legislation to allow a limited amount of drinking and driving?
I agree with the passing, it is acceptable
I disagree with the passing, it is too dangerous
I don\'t have a strong opinion either way
Quick Links