After finishing a degree in fashion and textiles NCAD Dublin, Irish designer Debbie Millington worked her way through the costume departments of Hollywood. For the past seventeen years, she has worked on various feature film productions including Star Wars and Moulin Rouge before starting her own design company. In her own words, Debbie Millington talks frankly about her idols, proudest careers moments and the importance of achieving a level of sustainability in her brand.
(1) Why did you choose to work in fashion ?
From a very young age I was designing clothing, writing books and accompanying them with fantastical costumed illustrations. Influenced by some of the all time great designers such as french designer, Jean Louis, I would watch old black and white movies, idolising the exquisite costumes and on screen goddesses. I remember distinctly Rita Hayworth’s black satin strapless dress in Gilda and the sparkling nude gown that Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" in 1962. The idea of dresses being a nude colour coated with crystals, stunned audiences at the time it was so revolutionary. My grandmother was very creative and she would teach me how to make fashion pieces and miniature headdresses out of shells and pressed flowers. She taught me needlework and how to sew. In later years I studied fashion and have always stayed glued to the industry, combining it with work in costume for film and theatre.
(2) What is the most exciting part of your job?
Travel of course. Working in both film and fashion allows me to combine my two loves, work and travel, giving me the opportunity to broaden my horizons and feed my desire to see the world. Movie-making opened many doors and opportunities for me, learning new skills and working alongside great talents and celebrities from stage and screen. Travel allows me to experience first hand exciting new traditions and cultures. I’m continually fascinated by ancient techniques in ethnic textile print, weave and design. I get such a buzz trawling market bazaars in pursuit of that unique vintage piece or unusual textile.
(3) How have places and stories from far away lands influenced your work and style?
Everything I do and everything I am has influenced my designs and have become an amalgamation of my life’s experiences. My style and perspective on life and the way in which I see things, is totally unique to me. Each one of us is inspired by different things, and for me these inevitably find their way into my work.
All my designs are inspired by personal travel stories and experiences from around the world. Before I became a mum, I travelled on my own with my backpack and a vague intention. My parents would pull out the large Atlas and follow my escapades through email and sporadic phone calls. My camera was my tool for keeping my memories safe and record everything I saw.
My lust for travel has taken me to every corner of the globe from the yoga Ashrams of Rishikesh, the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the lush backwaters of Kerala, Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala and the safari trips into the Rajasthan desert, India. Cycling the world most dangerous road in La Paz, Bolivia, visiting the enormity of the Himalayas, remote Buddhist temples and Everest basecamp in Tibet. Trekking in the Annapurna mountain range and swimming with elephants in the Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Witnessing the enormity of the Perito Moreno Glacier and hiking Torres Del Paine in Patagonia, Argentina. Climbing the enormous Inca temples in Mexico and Guatemala and the ancient civilisations of Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
From gold panning in the most northerly Arctic town of Alaska, Tuktoyaktuk, to the most southerly city in the world, Ushuaia. The wonderful red lakes and pink flamingos of the Atacama Desert in Chile, to the powerful Iguazú Falls in Brazil. Unforgettable sunsets in Bali, Indonesia, scuba diving the coral reefs of Tobago, sitting at the highest lake in the world Namtso lake in Tibet, to the Huaraz valleys and Colca Canyon in Peru, the Great Wall, Hanging monastery and the terracotta warriors in China. Visiting the parched trees of the petrified forest Deadvlei desert and the highest Big Daddy sand dune in the Sossusvlei, Namibia.
I would always have my camera at the ready to snap anything that caught my eye: an interesting mosaic tile floor, an ancient ceramic or wall carving, an intricate textile embroidery or vintage traditional costume. I see the world as a myriad of patterns and colours. The way light plays such an important part in creating pattern, as it shines through the fronds of a fern or branches of a tree. The shadows it casts on the pathway or the reflections it leaves on the water. The way it beams coloured light through a stained glass window. The segmented shell of a tortoise, the husk of a pumkin, the thick skin of the elephant, the peeling paint on an ancient city wall, the tenticles of a starfish, or the uncurling fronds of a fledgling fern.
(4) How did your working in film influence your designs and thought patterns?
The costume department is always an exciting place to be. Especially interesting in the early stages of preparation, researching various costume genres and fashion eras for the script and its characters. I love the initial weeks of " hunt and gathering ", trawling fabric and haberdashery shops for interesting fabrics, braids and trims. Filling notebooks with inspiring colours, textures and ideas. Marvelling at all the wonderfully exquisite antique lace, embroideries, intricate needlework, print and woven textiles that one finds. The variety and diversity is certainly what keeps my work so stimulating with an endless constant stream of inspiration.
(5) How long does it take to develop a new collection ?
I am constantly jotting down ideas for designs so when the time comes to actually physically sitting at home in my studio, at my desk, I am full of ideas and I get really excited watching them come to life and take shape within the square. I will design. new collection over the course of a week to two weeks and then send off imagery for sampling.
I now have a “hero” collection of designs. These are designs that have come to be recognisable signature pieces to my brand, such as the “Jellyfish” inspired by Castlegregory in Kerry, the “Zebra” inspired by the wildlife of the Ngorongoro Crater, Kenya or the “Hot House” inspired by the cacti hothouse in Toronto botanical gardens. I add new designs throughout the year keeping the collection fresh faced, upbeat and interesting. No two scarves are the same and all are completely different, from the subtle tones of the “Guinea Fowl” birds to the loud powerful statement print of the “Jester”.
(6) When you are creating a design, what comes first?
The ideas come first, an object usually… be it a flower, or a temple. I am never without my camera and more often than not, something will catch my eye. It could be a texture or a colour, an interesting tile flooring in an old house, an age old wooden doorway with studded framework, detailed stone carvings, a weave or a beautiful fabric, an intricate print on a traditional dress or delicate embroidery on a vintage stole.
More often my fascination and source of my inspiration is nature and the natural world. Ever changing and offering a constant flow of intrigue for me. Whether it is the swirling sea life or the intense colours and intricate detail on plants and flowers. Inspiration is all around me providing me with a constant flow of ideas. I often combine two or three elements that I like and see how they work together as a design idea, sometimes isolating parts of a photograph, an object, bird, flower or animal that I will keep to use on a future design concept. So I keep a huge amount of ideas archived in my head and leaving them dormant until I stumble upon the perfect image to compliment them.
I also think it is so important to embody the mood of the design in each scarf. I try to embody all the colours , smells, textures and mood in each design like this design the Quiver Tree inspired by my visit to the Namibian Desert and the golden quiver tree.
(7) How do you create and finalise the unique individual patterns for every scarf?
I do a lot of sampling initially for the upcoming collections. First I sample various colours and patterns to see which work best. Initially I might sample 20- 30 ideas but only choose maybe 10 favourites. Its s a a ruthless process of elimination but often I will come back and revisit a sample i liked and try it out in a different colour to see if it works better.
(8) How do you decide on what colours to use?
I love to photograph textures, like the reflection on water, the spines of the starfish, the huddle of terracotta water jugs, the elaborate ceremonial dress of the elephants at the Purham festival India, the golden bark of the African Quiver trees in the Namibian Desert. I generally look through my photos for colour references, extracting interesting colour combinations, usually found in nature. I draw on colours from flowers, plants, birds and fish but I can also find interesting colours in a vintage embroidery, a painting, a temple wall painting, a ceramic. I also gather feedback from by stockists about what colours their customers are looking for and also keep up to date with upcoming colour trends for the following year. The conclusion for me is bright, everyone loves colour and are usually looking for a scarf to brighten up an outfit. I find the more unmatched the colours the more dramatic and unusual the design. I try not to pigeon hole my designs into seasons, however some design colours lend themselves to being more ‘summery’ and others more ‘wintery’ and this usually depends on the colours people associate with winter i.e: deep greens and reds = winter, oranges citrus brights = summer.
(9) Why did you chose silk as your medium?
The silk scarf is such a versatile accessory and for me acts as a blank canvas to let my artistic ideas flow. I have sampled in lots of mediums, wool blends, cotton and modal mixes. But I felt the images printed so beautifully on the silk and nowadays silk is such a valuable commodity, people are valuing their purchase more. When its cotton people are more likely to send it to the charity shop or it goes to the bottom of the wardrobe. If the scarf is that bit more expensive and then people will have it forever, they choose well and consider their purchase and choose longevity over throw away fashion.
(10) Do you find that you have more freedom when creating collections because your designs do not follow seasons?
As an emerging label, a major part of the DM brand ethos, is that the label is non season led. The collection is made up of well-designed favourite staples and ‘Hero Classics’ that can be repeated season after season and mixed with new designs that are released twice a year. This allows the designer to keep the collection fresh, interesting and ever-changing, taking the time and care with each individual design and product, to ensure the silks are of the highest standard in every way. Leaving more time to focus on what is really important - the brand, quality of design and craftsmanship.
There is something always for everyone in my collection. I have such a variety of colours and shapes that I can match according to what the stockists have at any given time and match accordingly. Everyone has a different wardrobe and outfits within the wardrobe that they need to match to. No two wardrobes are the same so no two scarves are the same. There is something to suit every style, taste and personality. Some designs are chic in gold and black, perfect for evening wear, others are punchy and bold, ideal with a jacket or jeans more casual. But I think the scarf is an extension of your own personality, so everyone will pick a different colour and style, be it the small necktie or the long narrow stole. It is whatever suits your personality best.
(11) Describe your style and that of your scarves/designs.
From the earliest stages in designing for my brand, I understood something very important. There was no point in designing just another scarf. They had to be the different and an accessory that added an extra level of sophistication to ones look. Be it the lady at the races creating a look to stand out from the crowd with an elaborate silk wrap, the busy professional wanting to spruce up their power suit with a classic square or the girl in her trench and trainers who just wants to add a little pizazz to her casual jeans look with a splash of colour necktie. Either way, looking chic is part of our identity and we appreciate unique and exclusive designs that aren't available on the high street. It is important to me that my scarves become an extension of ones personality, adding that extra chic and glamour to ones dress and style.
(12) What fashion designers inspire you and why?
I have always loved Zandra Rhodes who was the pioneer of printed textiles. Her feminine patterns always had an intriguing twist of character, hinting on the side of theatrical, with a wonderful use of bright bold colours and eccentric patterns. I don't really follow fashion designers as such, but I do love fashion. To wear myself I love Isabelle Marant, her tom-boyish approach to styling and her interesting mix of colour combinations and textures within one look. I also love Stella McCartney’s approach to sustainable fashion. Above all I love Colleen Atwood and her incredible reportage of costume designs, from the kimonos in Memoirs of a Geisha and the iconic designs of Johnny Depp as a clown-faced Mad Hatter and Helena Bonham Carter as the cartoonish Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland.
(13) Who is your style icon?
Iris Afpel. I have always admired her incredible style and how she puts together such unusual outfits. Her eclectic use of tribal accessories and zany layered jewellery, fur and flamboyant feathery stoles is very personal and unique to her. I love how every outfit she wears is a wonderfully mixed palette of colour, pattern, and textures.
(14) What efforts have you pursued to achieve a level of sustainability in your product?
All designs in the DM collection are timeless classics that can be worn season after season, year after year. The brand reinforces the importance of the “considered purchase” and buying a product that offers longevity in your wardrobe. As brand designer and consumer, Debbie has always supported efforts in developing positive change in the fashion industry and one of the main concerns in the development of the brand, was the sustainability of the product and its impact on the environment and “safe” fashion. There are no tiny hands exploited at any stage in production of this product. The scarves are made by a highly reputable UK based company and not mass produced in China or India. Scarves are digitally printed onto silk using non toxic “Azo Free” dyes, biodegradable inks, recycled water and less energy and our designer gift packaging is made from 100% recycled card and paper using soy based dyes.
(15) Any fashion or style rules ‘dress to please yourself not others ‘?
Stay true to yourself and your own personality. Be individual, don't be swayed by passing trends, as they are just that, transient.