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I am not interested in an intellectual approach to food; I want it to hit you in the stomach and heart. Aoibheann MacNamara’s restaurant west of Ireland Ard Bia – which means ‘high food’ – feeds soul food for the fans and tourists for more than 20 years. It’s on the River Corrib, on The Long Walk in Galway, one of the rare, special places that seem to give you a hug when you enter. “I wanted to create a warm space that could change people with simple things.”
It was through Ard Bia that MacNamara first met costume designer Triona Lillis. In 2013, she visited a vintage fashion and furniture store that Lillis ran at the time to buy pieces for the restaurant. “We finished it right away,” says Lillis. ‘I made some Donegal tweed suits for a client, and Aoibheann recently bought a tweed to make aprons for her restaurant. We started talking about how much we wanted someone to use traditional Irish materials in a contemporary way. “
So they did it themselves and a small collection in May 2014 on the Drop everything festival on the smallest of the Aran Islands, Inis Oírr. It had a ‘homemade, earthy, humble’ aesthetic with muted colors and an androgynous feel that enabled the tweed and arans to take center stage. Early successes include a large black and charcoal shirt (£ 420) in herringbone, “tracksuits” (from £ 215) and reversible wool gilets (£ 555). All collections are still made to order – to avoid waste and dead materials, but also because Lillis and MacNamara design with the intention of never striking anything.
The vast majority of the second comes from Molloy & Sons, based in the small town of Ardara in Donegal, where MacNamara grew up, and where she started the first iteration of Ard Bia. “The production is small – they work with groups of about 38 blankets and no more,” she says. ‘We get our linen from Emblem Weavers, perhaps the only linen weaver in the Republic of Ireland – others made it in Poland and painted it in Ireland. One seamstress works across the collection. ‘Our production is very small, but we love it. That makes it all manageable, ”says Lillis.
A shop space by appointment follows in a converted carpenter’s workshop, just a short walk from Ard Bia. “The store was, and remains, very rustic,” says MacNamara. ‘You essentially walk into a workshop, with all our raw materials on the shelves and a cutting table in the middle. And then there is what we call the special branch, a length of wood from which we hang the monsters. “
The AW21 Collection, Are We Out of the Woods Yet ?, is a major departure from previous, more muted designs. Bright yarn in primary colors comes from Kerry Woolen Mills for dresses such as the yellow-and-red tartan mohair coats (£ 1,025) and bomber jackets (£ 820) with detachable sleeves, or yellow and red aran knitwear (from £ 475). Smaller pieces include large mohair pillows (£ 300) and scarves (£ 250) filled with Westport-made duvet covers — like wearing a mini duvet, MacNamara says. “If this collection can provide joy, we’ve done our job as designers,” says Lillis. “It may not be time to celebrate yet, but we wanted to start the party.”