With seven years at the helm of her own brand and seasons of carefully curated collections, Emma Manley has been there, done that and established one truly impressive label.

Before Manley, Emma honed her craft with two extremely prestigious placements. After studying at The Grafton Academy in Dublin, she interned at VPL in New York and Alexander McQueen in London. Working for two big names in the industry not only allowed Emma to extend the knowledge that she gained from The Grafton but it served as her education in preparing for the process of setting up her own label. “I absolutely loved it and I think it’s where all my learnings came from. I had the basics from The Grafton, I knew how to pattern draft. If I had have gone to proper art college, I wouldn’t know how to pattern draft.” At VPL, she witnessed the struggles of the start-up world as part of a small team and then went on to experience the exact opposite at the well-established McQueen, whose budgets far exceeded those of her previous employer. Having this contrasting basis gave the designer the chance to see the inner workings of brands at various levels of the industry before proceeding to have her own name above the door.

Emma Manley

From realisations about production costs to teaching herself about how to actually operate a business (an area that creative courses lack), Emma came up against both minor and major learning curves along the way but she recognises the importance of such details. “When you start out, you just make mistakes and it’s like 90% mistakes. Now I’d say we probably make about 20% mistakes and I’d hate for the day when I don’t make mistakes because I think that’s utterly boring.” So now, seven years on, how would the designer herself describe the Manley woman? “Basically she’s me.” Emma doesn’t shy away from calling herself a “truly selfish designer” as her collections form a good portion of her own wardrobe. Designing pieces that fit her own style is integral in forcing her to recognise that the brand has evolved as she’s matured – the sky scraper heels have disappeared from recent look books as the models appear in brogues reflecting the designer’s current approach to daily attire. The Manley woman is “someone that looks like she likes to look different, she likes to look unique and really interested in how a piece is made and not just buying into fast fashion and trends. A lot of what we do I would say is quite trendless and I love that.”

Being able to design clothes that you can see yourself wearing is an advantage of the job but when there’s a business to consider, removing yourself and your personal opinions from the equation can be tough. Emma realised this when she introduced jewellery to the range. As a self-confessed handbag girl, her first point of call would have been to invest in a beautiful bag over a necklace and she presumed that other Manley women felt the same. However, the figures don’t lie and the appeal for eye-catching, detailed necklaces was undeniable. So much so that the first season of jewellery sold more than womenswear for the same period pushing the designer to recognize that “it could change a whole outfit, give it a whole other personality just through a necklace and I kind of thought that was pretty damn cool.”

The Manley woman is someone that looks like she likes to look different, she likes to look unique and really interested in how a piece is made.

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Aside from seasonal collections, handbags and jewellery, bridal is the latest area for the Irish designer to delve into – a move that she was adamant she would never make. Her mother was a bridal designer and even though Emma loved spending time as a child helping with her mum’s creations, she was insistent on moving away from this when it came to forging her own fashion path. It was a case of “Let’s do something different but I love doing it. I will say that not every bride is a Manley bride. We’re a very specific girl.” Aoibhinn Garrihy wore a stunning Manley dress for her wedding last year and even though the designer felt nervous on the day that something could possibly go wrong with the dress (it didn’t – it was perfect!) she reveals that playing a role in such a magical day is an element that she loves. Emma also designed her own wedding dress this year. Two months before the big day, she abandoned her original option and decided to start over which most people would find utterly stressful. But the designer admits that she was in a privileged position and got on with completing her dream dress.

Every designer has a wishlist for who they’d like to see in their designs, so who’s next for Manley? Cate Blanchett is a definite – “I love seeing more mature women in Manley because I think that it’s so playful and it’s so cool and that sometimes people back away because they think that’s too young for me.” Saoirse Ronan and Angela Scanlon also come to mind with the latter having previously worn the brand and styled past lookbooks. The designer says that she would love to dress the TV presenter again as she admires her style and approach to fashion. “I just think she’s really unique and she doesn’t subscribe to the whole femininity of the fashion world and I love that. Like she’ll wear her boyfriend jeans with a blazer and you’ll never know where her waist is and that’s what I adore. Very pared back, never too much makeup, never with the fake tan, freckles out. She’s embracing who she is instead of being what the fashion world tells us we should be.”  

Embracing who she is instead of being what the fashion world tells us we should be

With 2017 almost coming to a close, Emma is passionate about using next year to communicate exactly how she does what she does. Transparency within the industry is something that the designer is keen to see and wants to do her part by conveying how Manley pieces are created. It’s unlikely that a fast fashion store could make a similar endeavour in the near future, meaning that Emma can use her position for the better. “I think the conversation of fashion is utterly important now. It’s not just about the clothes that we’re putting out there, it’s about the conversations that we’re having around it.”

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About Sarah Orr
Sarah moved to London last year to complete her postgraduate studies at the London College of Fashion. On returning to her native Dublin, the fashion photographer and writer immersed herself into the world of PR working with a range of fashion and beauty brands. When she’s not behind the camera or laptop, Sarah enjoys drinking copious amounts of tea, instagraming everything and anything and dreaming of summer all year long.