Jen Byrne is a sustainable fashion designer from Dublin, now based in Edinburgh's Abbeymount Studios.
Tell us about yourself and your creative background?
I'm Jen, a slow fashion designer and maker from Dublin now based in Edinburgh. I knew early on that I loved nature, expressive creativity and protecting the environment. I also knew that I didn't want to be part of the traditional fashion system, contributing to the environmental and social exploitation that comes with it. So after graduating from fashion design at LSAD (Limerick, Ireland) in 2015, I didn't go the traditional route. I started selling my designs in the heart of Dublin’s creative quarter alongside lots of new and established designers.
I loved making colourful, expressive clothing that people found joy in, but I found myself disheartened with creating waste through offcuts and that I knew little about the origins of the eye-catching fabrics I was drawn to. I wasn’t sure at that point how to make my brand as sustainable as I wanted it to be while also keeping it colourful, exciting and consistent. If any of those qualities were missing, it just wouldn't be true to what I wanted to create. So after 2 years designing and making I decided I wanted to go deeper into sustainable fashion and came to Scotland to do a masters of ethics & sustainability in fashion at Heriot-Watt, Galashiels in 2017.
After that, I spent a little time exploring how I could work within fashion and creativity while staying true to my values. This brought me to the world of charity retail. I've never been able to pass a charity shop without “a quick look” so I already knew the value to be found secondhand but seeing the volume that comes in every day really hammered home the excess we have consumed our way into as a society.
One day in 2020, furlough provided me with the space to start designing and making clothing again. I was reminded how much I loved it and instead of worrying about what it would all look like as one brand if I were to use upcycled fabrics, I focused on creating pieces that I felt proud to make and that aligned with my values. And then it all sort of fell into place!
Can you give us an insight into your practice and what you do?
I’m a big lover of vintage clothing (60’s & 70’s in particular) so that provides a huge source of inspiration in terms of design and quality of finish.
I would say that I work in the total opposite way to the traditional fashion industry: at a slower pace and with a focus on consciously crafting made to last, comfortable and unique pieces that you can cherish. All of my patterns are hand drafted and have developed with me over the years. I’ve also taught myself the art of pattern grading so that I can slowly work towards being able to offer a broader range of sizes / customs pieces Made to Order and work towards making my brand as size inclusive as possible. A big goal of mine this year is to photograph my pieces on a diverse range of bodies - something I’m already working on and prioritising in my production schedule.
I always choose fabrics with a low environmental impact, using mostly second hand fabrics sourced largely from the local area and as well as from around the UK. In this way I can support the local economy, small businesses and individual sellers, rather than large corporations.
Often the style of the fabric that I’ve found will dictate what I make with it, for example I recently had some great 70’s curtains that I’ve made into a very 70’s inspired 2 piece! The amount of fabric I have to work with will also dictate the design - what size it could be, sleeve length, whether I can add a collar or cuffs etc. A lot of the pieces made from secondhand materials are one of a kind and I’m working on being able to offer one of a kind pieces on a made to order basis as well - another big goal for this year! I solely make things I know I can be proud of in terms of sustainability, quality of fit, finish and design. I also have some sustainably sourced linen and tencel that I bought for the initial made to order pieces.
Do you have any exciting projects or events you’re proud of on the horizon?
This year I’m focusing on growing my made to order offering. That way I can offer more inclusive sizing and be sure that there’s no unwanted garments leftover. Working out how best to go about this when there’s only a limited amount of each fabric available to me has been a bit of a challenge - but I’m slowly making progress!
I’m also excited to prioritise photographing the pieces on people other than myself. Because of the lockdowns, finances and limited time I’ve been a bit restricted, but this year I have the time to make a range of pieces and rope in some pals to give me a hand with modelling. If anyone reading this is interested in getting involved - give me a shout - all bodies welcome!
I’ve also slowly been building up my supplies of second hand vintage materials so I’m looking forward to just generally creating more joyful slow fashion!
What makes Edinburgh a good base for creatives?
As my creative education was in Ireland, most of my experiences and connections were based there, so it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve been discovering all that Edinburgh (& Scotland) have to offer. I’ve found there to be lots of organisations supporting businesses and creatives who are really welcoming and genuinely want people to reach out and engage with them (such as this feature initiative from Creative Edinburgh)!
There’s lots of funded workshops and short courses available as well as the opportunity to network with like minded people - both of which are invaluable as starting your own business is a really daunting and lonely experience at times.
Once I moved into my work space in OOTB Abbeymount Studios last October it opened up lots of new possibilities, which I’m really grateful for. In particular, the chance to meet other creatives. As a bit of a blow in to Edinburgh’s creative scene, I’m keen to grow my network and discover more of the great opportunities available here!
What advice would you give to people thinking of pursuing a career in the creative industries?
The opportunity to network and be part of the creative community here. Especially as someone who isn't from the city, I felt like it was important to push myself to get out there and meet some like minded people. It gives a great insight to the opportunities available in the city, and discover lots of things I wouldn’t otherwise be aware of!