Bonnets of brilliance
By Michelle Newman
Not every milliner can count celebrities such as pop singer Lady Gaga amongst their fans, but Margaret O’Connor is one of them. The 32 year-old from the Burren in county Clare who runs her own studio and shop in Ennis, has and is experiencing the success she once dreamed of, all whilst retaining her charming humility. Margaret - who is ‘one of eight’ children - had a flare for design and creativity from a very young age, a talent her parents whole-heartedly encouraged.
“They’re quite normal,” she laughs and says when chatting about her other siblings. “My sister’s a nurse, my other sister’s a teacher, there are a few additional jobs but I was just very creative and I don’t know where that came from. My mother always let me do what I wanted, like I’d be painting on the table in the sitting room or whatever, I was quite lively as a child and it was a good way of keeping me quiet.”
Still unsure of what she wanted to do when she finished school, Margaret decided that art college was where her heart was telling her to go. After completing a degree in textiles, she ‘fell in love’ with the idea of being a ‘hat designer.’ “I saw an exhibition in Dublin and I was really into sculpture so a combination of textiles and sculpture would be hat design.
“I grew up on a farm and mammy would send us to look at the sheep or whatever and I wasn’t reading any magazines or looking at any other art really. I didn’t have that much influence with the creative industry at a young age because I was so far removed from it. So then when I went to art college I learned all this different information about different artists and painters and creators and sculptors. I think I was a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing because I had been from such a pure farming background, to come to something like this, I think that probably makes me more creative,” she says. “Sometimes people look too much at what’s gone before then rather than sailing their own canoe.”
In order to gain some experience in the world of millinery, Margaret moved to Edenborough in her early twenties, found work with a hat designer and spent a year learning the tricks of the trade. Wanting to work with ‘bigger’ names within the industry, she then sought out other opportunities and landed an internship with internationally acclaimed milliner, Noel Stewart. “I wanted to learn and develop my skills. I knew I needed to work under big companies or work under people who were really good at what they’re doing,” she says and whilst working with Noel she got that in spades. “We were constantly doing all of these fun things because he is quite recognised in the British Fashion [industry].”
Margaret then applied to work with Philip Tracey in early 2011. Her timing could not have been more perfect as this happened three months before the biggest wedding of the year and she ended up working on some of the most memorable hats from the day. “I was only supposed to work for a month and then they asked me to stay on for the Royal Wedding. I met Princess Beatrice and Zara Philips. I had my tea with Princess Beatrice, it was crazy.
“It was just all a bit mad but it was really nice it was like a lovely feeling and it kind of made me think, ‘You know what? Anything is possible for anybody.’ You’re capable of anything; even if you’re educated late in life or if you decide to change your whole career in the morning, you can!”
It hasn’t all been plane sailing for Margaret. Despite being very lucky, she has also worked incredibly hard to get where she is today. Even though family support has never been in short supply the opinions of ‘begrudgers’ and struggling to convince people to take her ‘seriously’ are all issues she has had to contend with. “They didn’t take me seriously at all, no one had. That’s why I left Ireland and that’s being very honest. It’s hard when you’re that age and you want to do something and then once they found out that I made a hat for Lady Gaga then everything changed.”
Whilst working part-time in a bar and restaurant four days a week, Margaret spent her down time tirelessly working on her own designs and creations – efforts that were not in vain. After entering a competition, her work was spotted by public relations company who were keen to work with and represent her. “I was like, ‘No I don’t have money to pay you so I can’t have you as my PR company and then they rang me the following day and asked me would I give hats to Lady Gaga for Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!? The Alexander McQueen and Philip Tracey exhibition that was on in Somerset House,” she says.
“They requested six hats for the stylist and I put in one extra and I called it Marion, after my mother and that was the one she picked. Then I saw all these photographs and I nearly had a heart attack I couldn’t eat for one day and that’s a fact because I just overwhelmed that someone like her would wear my hat.”
Missing her family and friends back home in Ireland, a few years ago Margaret made the decision to move back to county Clare where she spend a full year making and compiling stock before opening her own store. In 2017 Margaret travelled to China with her friend, knitwear designer, Derek Lawlor. Before this trip she worked day and night to create 30 headpieces which accompanied Derek’s designs on the runway during Guangzhou International Fashion Week - the pair even won the Global Original Fashion Design Award while there. More recently Margaret was responsible for creating hats for some of Dublin’s most famous statues during the Fringe Festival last September; a project that began at the beginning of last year.
“I had itchy feet and I wanted do to something substantial so I contacted the Fringe Festival and I asked them would they be interested in contacting the Dublin City council and seeing if they would let me put interesting head gear on the statues? I wanted to get young people talking about the statues. It was so much fun. Like I was afraid of heights and I had to go up on a cherry picker at four o’clock in the morning measuring Daniel O’Connell’s head,” she says. “For a week Molly Malone had this amazing headpiece. It was my favourite headpiece I’ve ever made. It made her look glamorous, it made her look beautiful. She gets a bad rep and I was like, ‘No, we’re going to make her gorgeous.’
I’m still a normal person I just want to do outrageous things, I want to do stuff that’s going to be recognised for Ireland and maybe give other young girls or boys the hopes to actually do something that is global, international and you don’t have to think, ‘Because I’m in Ireland I can’t do it.’ Of course you can.”
For more information on Margaret O’Connor see www.notionsbymargaretoconnor.com