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Greetings from Ireland

MEET | Dec 20, 2023

I have arrived on the Greenwich Peninsula, a South East London land mass bounded on three sides by a loop of the Thames, home to the stadium dome of The O2, as well as newly built flats, coffee shops and restaurant chains. It's 11:45 a.m. but the area feels like a ghost town. The marching city-goers are behind their desks, the eateries are shuttered until lunch hour and a powerful breeze whips around the hard exterior of the towering buildings. I feel a bit lost in this miniature metropolis outside of the city.

By Augustine Hammond

I glance across the vast forecourt of the stadium and spot the glass front of a tower block that reads “IRELAND” in large emerald green letters – now I know I’m in the right place. I approach the entrance and am drawn in by the bulbous structure that lurks inside. Green smiley stickers attract me and the small children who pass the windows with awe – we’re all a little bit confused and amazed at the same time.

“Hang on a second, we’ve got to pump it up,” says menswear designer Robyn Lynch, as she bends down to flick the switch on the machine that inflates the ballooning structure. “Everything’s a bit rough and ready here. That's kind of the theme of the whole exhibition,” she continues. I’m here for a guided tour of her debut exhibition 'Greetings from Ireland’ – the outcome of her winning this year’s NOW Gallery Fashion Commission; the annual fund that allows fashion designers to take over the ground floor space of the gallery, to let their ideas come to life.

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Following in the footsteps of Charles Jeffrey, Molly Goddard, Nicholas Daley and more recently Matty Bovan, the Irish-born, London-based designer has filled the space with a bouncy castle getaway into the playful world of Robyn Lynch. “When I got the chance to pitch something [to the gallery], I had never done anything like this before,” says Robyn. “So I looked for people around me that I could collaborate with. My first thought was Rory Mullen – he's an Irish artist that has worked with similar themes of nostalgia and has a childlike approach to design, which resonated with me.”

After long chats about the archive, life away from home and recalling childhood memories of giant bouncy castles, the pair settled on this strange, but enchanting, house – to populate with visions of the brand’s five-and-a-bit-year journey. “We wanted the house to be a progression through the brand,” Robyn says as she ushers me towards its entrance

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We squeeze through a narrow archway and are greeted by a tall wall of reference images. Straight away, I can spot intimate backstage photographs from her runway shows over the years, soon-to-be garments laid out on the cutting table and a pair of novelty shamrock nipple tassels. This archive of references is a curated selection of the ‘JOURNAL’ tab that has existed on the brand’s website since the very beginning. “We do this so we can collate things in a way that's colour-coded,” she says, “because we work exclusively with colour-blocking, you can really tell the difference between each collection.”

Part Pinterest board, part Tumblr archive, this glimpse behind the scenes feels exclusive – it's not often we get to see the exact references that fuel creativity or the trial-and-error processes that go into the polished end result. “It’s a really nice way to reflect on where everything came from, you can see the lengths we went to develop all the unique shades,” she says pointing at different hues on the board that span sunshine yellow, Klein blue, fire-engine red as, of course, shamrock green.

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 I spin around and Robyn guides my attention to the series of three calico toiles hung up on the opposite side of the upturned bouncy castle structure. They are each punctured with safety pins bearing small sheets of paper and plastered with strips of tape marked with green handwriting, “this is exactly how I communicate my ideas with the factory. I'm not traditionally trained in knitwear, so this is how I show them what I want.”

Each toile is made from patch-worked cable knits and track tops. She tugs at the back label of one piece to reveal the Timberland logo, from another, she points to the emblem of defunct heritage wool brand Irish Piper. “I’d find old jumpers slice them up, reshape the neck, add panels and piping, and then pop in elastications,” she says, showcasing and celebrating this often unseen part of her design process.

Next, she leads me behind a mysterious, rubbery, neon-green curtain, “it's kind of slimy and seedy,” she laughs pulling back the drapes. Inside, a large screen and wool-upholstered bench are set up. We take a perch and a smile illuminates Robyn’s face as she looks up at the DIY film playing on the screen, a mash-up of footage captured over the years by the designer and her team. “I like this part, you get to feel the energy and everyone's emotions backstage,” she says, “shows can be over so quickly, but there’s so much thought and consideration that goes into everything. These people warrant more than a one-minute clip on Instagram.”

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39-minute-long and soundtracked by original footage the green-lit, latex-lined room is a space for audiences to recognise the people who have made Robyn’s journey a possibility. In this room, after taking the time to watch the film, I realise that collaboration is the most important part of what Robyn does, and it's the community she has forged that makes this display all the more moving and impactful.

For our final stop, she takes me around the back of the installation, directing me to a large portrait television screen. I step in front of the screen and AI maps my body, transforming me into one of Robyn’s emoji characters (as seen on the windows) and dressing me up in a series of her looks. It's like Stardoll on Acid, made in collaboration with gaming company Kepler Interactive, this is a new way for potential customers to “try on” Robyn Lynch in virtual reality – a nifty and playful way the designer is adapting her brand to cater to the shifting digital market. Also, one I am told has been a real hit with the toddlers that have run into the exhibition from the street, drawn in by its childish charm.

 At a time when public moments of visibility for London menswear designers have shrunk given the absence of menswear shows since Covid and multi-brand retailers like Farfetch and Matches undergoing issues of their own, it's challenging for young brands to grow and connect to new audiences and customers. But ‘Greeting From Island’ emits a green-tinted beacon of hope – proving that new ways of engaging, educating and interacting IRL are just some of the solutions. “For me, it’s a longer, slower burning process. It is about representing Irish culture worldwide and communicating my love of fabrics, that’s what I want people to take from this,” she says.

Robyn will return to the London Fashion Week schedule in February 2024 but until then ‘Greetings from Ireland’ is open from now until Sunday 25th February 2024 at NOW Gallery on Greenwich Peninsula, sign up for free tickets via nowgallery.co.uk