Emma Manley is founder and creative director of fashion and accessories label, Manley. Launched in 2010, Manley is one of Ireland's leading contemporary fashion labels. Emma learned her craft at Grafton academy, finding her unique style through internships at VPL in New York and later at Alexander McQueen in London.
Where did your interest in fashion start?
Mum never wanted me to do fashion; she knew how hard she had to work [as a fashion designer] and wanted an easier life for me. So what I did — and I wouldn’t advise it — I didn’t fill out my CAO form. I told her I did. I knew what I wanted and nothing was going to stop me.
I signed up for a portfolio prep course in Coláiste Íde, specialising in fashion and textile design. When the acceptance letter came, I handed it to mum saying “this is all that I want.” We agreed I could go on the condition that if I was to do it, I would do it well. And so I did. I worked really hard, I didn’t miss a day and got achiever of the year.
What did you do after your portfolio prep course in Coláiste Íde?
Even with my shiny new portfolio, I didn’t get into college. I had tried for LSAD and NCAD, but they said I was “too directional.” That broke my heart.
In the meantime I was headhunted by Topshop to work as a style advisor. That brought me in a direction that is such a huge part of what I do today. I was working styling women, all day every day. I got to see real women and what they wanted to wear.
I applied to the colleges twice more and got rejected each time. After the third rejection, I decided to go to the Grafton Academy. The only reason I didn’t want to go there was because that was what my mum did and I wanted to create my own path.
So what I did — and I wouldn’t advise it — I didn’t fill out my CAO form. I told her I did. I knew what I wanted and nothing was going to stop me.
How did rejection impact you?
Not getting into college is something that will always be there. I wanted, more than anything, to be able to stick my fingers up and say “I did it.” Rejection built a huge amount of drive in me, it’s the force that’s constantly behind me. Rejection doesn’t mean give up. If we all gave up at rejections it would be a very boring world. I still get rejected from things all the time, but you have to learn how to take the blows.
After graduating from Grafton Academy you moved abroad and worked as an intern. Can you tell us about that?
After Grafton I went to New York and interned at VPL, a small luxury sports brand. [Then] I moved to London and landed an internship at Alexander McQueen. I was accidentally assigned to the wrong internship; onto embellishment instead of design. At the start I hated it. I thought embellishment ruined good design, it’s now central to Manley. I was at McQueen for a year, working in a restaurant six days a week to be able to pay the bills. It was a real slog but I learned so much.
How did Manley start?
Manley started about nine months into [Alexander] McQueen. I ordered a roll of pattern paper and started drafting a collection that ended up being the first ever Manley collection. Trying to be part of the London fashion scene was just too big a mountain to climb and I was really missing home. So I packed my bags, came home with that collection and decided if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it in Ireland. Mom gave me her old studio in our family home, she thought it would be a phase. I stayed in that studio for two years until we grew out of it.
Rejection doesn’t mean give up. If we all gave up at rejections it would be a very boring world. I still get rejected from things all the time.
How do you maintain focus and continue to develop Manley?
It’s hard trying to be a business woman, a designer and a normal person as well. I always talk about the 3P’s; passion, patience and persistence. For me coming to work each day isn’t actually coming to work, I love my job so much. There’s some days I don’t even know how we got here, it’s a blur.
If you look too much to the future it’s scary. I know you’re supposed to do these five year plans and sometimes for the sake of my accountant I pretend that I do but I feel like we take it every season. Get to the end of the season, evaluate and think; what more can we do? I think that’s how we’ve gotten to the place we are today.
I learned my techniques in college, but I learned how to become me through internships.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Chill out. I feel like I rushed through school a bit too much. I was so focused. I didn’t want to learn business, I didn’t want to learn French. I wish I could speak French. I put so much pressure on myself to get everything first time around, which clearly didn’t happen. So my advice would be to chill out and enjoy the journey.