Twenty-one years ago, Lucy Downes was designing shoes at DKNY in New York – and dreaming of creating her own brand. Apart from designing a few purses “for nightclubbing” as she puts it, she had not put her name to any designs, but after working in the tough hothouse atmosphere of designer fashion for four years, it was time to return to Dublin and work on what was to become Sphere One.
After her degree in fashion at NCAD, Lucy had completed a postgraduate in knitwear technology. Drawn to designing simple, beautiful pieces in cashmere, she decided, bravely – in the relatively conservative retail market of 1999, to launch. Known for her stickler qualities – “I was referred to by a New York colleague as ‘Toughy Fine-Schmecker’ because I had rather high standards,” she laughs – Lucy was determined not to compromise to deliver a below-par (in her estimation), lower-cost product just because it was a safer bet. It would be the best of cashmere, from Italy and Scotland, hand framed and hand stitched in Kathmandu – and that would be that.
The late painter Pat Scott, known for his geometric shapes, discs and circles in particular, was a family friend. Who better to design the distinctive logo for your fledgling brand? “Pat sketched a few circles and came up with the idea of the stiches making a circle. I had a jacket that I loved that had visible stiches. I liked that it wasn’t strictly a logo but was handstitched and simple.”
The perfect cashmere sweater, Lucy says, is as lovely to wear when it is old as when it is brand new. It should be soft but keep its shape for years. “You should be able to throw it on and for it to fit beautifully, not to pull or rub, or be too tight. It should be super-light and super-comfortable.” It’s easy enough to let beautiful cashmere do the talking in a baggy sweater, it’s another thing to craft that cashmere into exciting, modern and flattering shapes which make a statement and have as important a place in the wardrobe as a big-ticket dress, a trophy jacket or an extraordinary blouse. In short, they are much more than knits. (In fact, Lucy often works in cotton too, creating pieces which complement the cashmere.) There is also always a backstory, a rich tapestry of references. Lucy’s mind goes beyond fashion or craft, to history, art and landscape.
Sphere One SS20 Fairground Blast sweater
Take Field Day, Sphere One’s current collection of relaxed featherweight knits and summer cottons. When Lucy returned from NY (she was to go back for four months every year for a further six years – DKNY found they could not do without Toughy Fine-Shmecker), she lived in the family’s house in the Sally Gap in Wicklow where in the local village, a traditional “Field Day” was held. There was a tent, with guy ropes, egg and spoon races, smelling contests, magic shows, decorated stalls – simple, colourful, pretty. A sense of fun and freedom. The contours of the Wicklow mountains are depicted. Coloured panels like those of a tent are tethered with “guy ropes” of yarn. It is playful, old-fashioned, conjuring the charm of a summer country fair, but modern at the same time. And the colours are sunny-day bright and true. Toughy sees to that as well. The phone lines to Kathmandu fairly bristle with exacting directions.
If I had to choose the standout from this year’s collection, it would be the pale pink Big Top Bomber with a tent on the back. Who thinks of making a bomber jacket in cashmere? With a tent of coloured cashmere panels on the back? Toughy, that’s who. I might equally choose the Slender round-neck sweater, or the Lucky Two Go (another reference to Field Day games) boat-neck, drop-sleeve sweater. There are things that make a Sphere One cashmere different and special – the neatest, most flattering round-neck, shoulders that make you look neater than you are and sleeves that manage to be slim, without being tight. The fit/comfort balance is the Holy Grail. “Above all, Sphere One must feel wonderful and make you look good.” Lucy does not look at what other cashmere designers do and as she says, does not conform to anyone else’s view. She does not have a particularly high profile but is hugely respected in fashion circles. Quietly and cerebrally (is that a word?) she ploughs her own original furrow and always has. She has great personal style and is extremely witty. (Disclosure: I do not know Lucy well and have only met her a handful of times but when I have met her, I have enjoyed her company enormously.)
Sphere One SS20 Big Top Bomber Jacket
Lucy based Sphere One in a studio in Dublin 4 but her cashmere-loving clients live all over the world. Stocked in Havana in Donnybrook, Kalu in Naas and Juju in Greystones, Sphere One is in 30 stores from hip Hamilton, New Zealand to Boulder, Colorado, and in Japan, Australia, Switzerland and Canada. Lucy has a showroom and sales agents in New York, as the majority of her overseas stockists are in the US, and she shows every year in Paris.
“In Paris now, lots of brands take a pop-up store for the duration of Fashion Week. I absolutely love this as it brings me right back to Field Day and the notion of having a stall which you decorate yourself.” Lucy, always knowing the right person in the right place at the right time, is thrilled to have Fionn O’Toole, an Irish cinematographer based in Paris, to help. “He is wonderful, knows where to source everything and has a great eye. This year we set ourselves the goal that everything would be recyclable or compostable. I adore window dressing, so inspired by Hermes, whose windows I always marvel at, we created a fun Field Day window with bunting and madness, making sure, as with everything we do, it was zero waste.”
Lucy funds the Paris pop-up, and a showroom in New York, because she works so hard herself, keeping the business lean in Dublin, with just a little bit of help. Since coronavirus caused manufacturing to grind to a halt (it’s since opening up again), she found herself with less to do, as samples for AW20 had not yet arrived from Nepal (the artisans at the factory she has worked with for 17 years are now back to work). She was fulfilling online orders from her own site while thrilled that many of her stockists, including her Irish ones, were able to continue to sell Sphere One via their Instagram pages, with delivery or safe collection. “In the world of fashion, the independent retailer is the best means for the designer’s spark to be kept alive, and its energy carried to the end consumer.”
She’s been packing and despatching the orders that come through directly, adding a little present of a lavender sachet to keep the moths away, recording cashmere care videos at her house in Broadstone – “My friend Honor FitzGerald told me that when she’s cooking, she pretends she’s on a television show, so I just propped my phone on the kitchen shelf and started talking!” – and building a reference library of garments (“Never had the time until now”). All this she is enjoying but it doesn’t really reflect the hours she puts in when the business is at full tilt and she is approving samples, manufacturing, selling and marketing a collection, while planning and designing the next, in fashion’s relentlessly circular rhythm.
Sphere One SS20 Cantle Cardigan
“I do kill myself at home and at work,” she admits, “but then I believe if you find something you love, that you believe has integrity, you stick at it. And hard work is so good for the psyche, as Pat Scott always told me.” If the pandemic has taught her something, she says, it’s to “evaluate what you do and how you do it”. This episode, which she feels may have tougher consequences than that of the financial crash of 2008, may force the whole fashion industry to change. It also may change our lives for the better. “We all get stuck in a rut, working too hard. We now know we need more fresh air, time to eat well, rest.”
This week, Lucy would have loved to be hosting, as was planned, a special dinner for friends and collaborators, including Tarlach and Aine deBlacam from Inis Meain knitwear (with whom Sphere One did a wonderful fisherman’s sweater collaboration last year), architect Tom de Paor, who reimagined Lucy’s own house, among other projects, and many other people who helped and supported and added their own spark to Lucy’s. Dinner was to be prepared by longtime fan Rachel Allen, in the Sphere One studio, but that will have to wait, for another time. Twenty one years on, knowing that she has created a brand, stuck to the core principles she set out with, and made a real success of it, does she feel happy?
Sphere One SS20 Field Day Stripe Sweater
She is as content as a perfectionist will ever be. “I do finally feel Sphere One has a real following,” she says modestly. “Some of my clients bought from my first ever collection, and they are still with me. Others have discovered it more recently. I get the greatest thrill from meeting or hearing from those women.” And she gratefully acknowledges the support of her loyal stockists in Ireland, all of whom have stuck with her from the beginning, through thick and thin. “Independent retailers are an important part of our social fabric and hope this pandemic reaffirms the importance of shopping in small local shops whose staff and owners really know and believe in the products they sell. It’s impossible to know, as a new customer, whether our expensive product is value for money until you’ve worn it for a few years. The longevity of our relationships with boutiques means they can recommend with belief and the customer can trust them.” Lucy is also proud that Sphere One exports 70 per cent of turnover to seven other countries, a small but net contributor to Ireland’s earnings abroad, flying the flag of integrity, originality and quality.
Sphere One has come full circle, in 21 years, with many of the same clients and boutiques it started out with. Building a brand is a marathon, not a sprint, we agree – or maybe it’s an egg and spoon race? Before we get into silly puns about wanting to be cracked to get into it etcetera, we leave it there, promising to meet and celebrate Lucy’s 21st, when this whole silly business is over. (I think Lucy is one of those secret party girls: the silver sequined knicks in the pictures are her own, “from my nightclubbing days in New York!”)
Before we finish, we exchange a few stories about cocooner duties, with Lucy describing how, when shopping for a mum and a neighbour, in the early days of lockdown, she decided to take her travel-case-on-wheels down to Mary Street to do a bit of shopping (she is a little bit New York in that way). “I just wanted to avoid dislocating my shoulder with heavy shopping bags, but I was clearly heading off on a forbidden trip, to my country house, or to the airport, judging by the disgusted looks I got. Really vicious!” She retreated back to Broadstone, trundling the case over the cobbles, making a terrible racket and cringing inside. But laughing too, at the ridiculousness of it all.
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