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LCF alumna Henrietta O’Connor launches womenswear brand inspired by Pre-Raphaelite art and her 90's childhood

Written by Alexandra R. Cifre
Published date 20 January 2019

What style of loungewear would someone from the 17th century wear? That's what designer Henrietta O'Connor asked herself when she was in the process of developing her brand No Wallflower Project. Mixing her love for Pre-Raphaelite art and her childhood memories from the 90's, the BA (Hons) Fashion Design Technology: Womenswear alumna has created a label for empowered women who feel free to choose who they want to be — and are not afraid to show it!

We caught up with Henrietta after showcasing her first collection 'Ophelia Reborn' to find out more about the message behind her colourful, zero-waste designs.

LCF alumna Henrietta O'Connor graduated from BA Womenswear in 2016.

Hi Henrietta! You’ve recently launched your own brand 'No Wallflower Project'. What can you tell us about it?

It's a womenswear and accessories brand for sleep and street inspired by my childhood in the 90’s, when I used to spend many afternoons watching my grandmother in her workshop making extravagant soft furnishings and tasselled curtains for her customers. I combined this with my love for Pre-Raphaelite paintings and a hint of contemporary sportswear. I wanted to create pieces that were versatile and match the way women dress today. They’re comfortable and can be dressed up or down. Also, being inspired by the past, I wanted to create a sense of timelessness and pieces that can be enjoyed for years to come.

Very interesting name for a brand! What’s the story behind it?

A wallflower is someone that stands at the side-lines in life because they might be shy, self-conscious or have been pushed there. I felt like that a lot when I was young, and with this brand, I wanted to resist that. Using ‘no’ in the name, although a negative, it felt like an affirmation that I’m not that person anymore, I can choose who I want to be. Although it’s a work in progress (a project!), to me the name is really about learning to love yourself.

How do you describe No Wallflower Project’s style? What makes it different or unique?

It’s like loungewear someone in the 17th Century would wear, with soft velvets, satin and embroidery. It’s based on the art of dressing up and down — dressing for yourself in pieces that balance comfort and opulence. It’s being all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Presentation of 'Ophelia Reborn' - Photography by Josh Cadogan (left) and Roshan Whittaker (centre and right).

You showcased your debut collection ‘Ophelia Reborn’ at London Fashion Week. How was the experience of seeing your designs on the big catwalk?

It was a big relief! I wanted to do some kind of collection launch and asked a few people. But I didn't anticipate everything would fall into place better than expected and I'd be showcasing the collection at Fashion Scout. It took a few sleepless nights to finish the collection earlier than I had planned, but everything worked out and came together in the end. I was like a giddy child peeking at the catwalk from backstage!

I love fashion shows. It’s chaos backstage with the dressing but serene out there. I love the drama of it. The energy and excitement.

Where did you get the inspiration for this collection?

I wanted to create a collection with timeless yet contemporary pieces. I was inspired by Pre-Raphaelite women who’s depictions were quite unlike other paintings at the time. The subjects draw you in, they’re central characters in their story, they’re nuanced and they weren’t confined to typical notions of beauty in their day.

This sense of freedom to be who you want to be inspired me to create a collection that anyone can wear, and is available in a wide range of sizes (UK 6-26).

I also imagined if Ophelia, who dies in Shakespeare’s Hamlet because she doesn’t have the will to save herself, was reborn in the 21th Century as a soft and strong, gentle and powerful woman.

Presentation of 'Ophelia Reborn' - Photography by Josh Cadogan.

You incorporate elements of sustainability in your designs. Why is this important for you as a designer and how are you promoting a more ethical fashion through your brand?

I’m not a fan of throwaway fashion. Often, as a plus size woman, I’ve felt limited in my clothing choices and, unfortunately, that meant fast-fashion seemed like the only option for me — considering most designers don’t seem to make anything bigger than a UK size 14. I’d much prefer a wardrobe of investment pieces that are well made and are special to me. That’s how it was in the past and for the sake of the environment and the people producing clothes, is something I believe the world should return to.

'No Wallflower Project' is zero waste, locally sourced and locally produced. Through my brand I want to promote season-less style and timeless fashion for the contemporary woman.

In the future, I'd like to have a greater emphasis on craft and work to re-educate consumers on the traditions and history of embroidery so that we may learn to appreciate again the true value of our clothes.

For those thinking of launching their own brand, what can you tell us about the challenges of becoming an entrepreneur? Any advice for future fashion designers?

You really have to be committed to the dream and work on ir every day. For me, I felt like I would just regret it if I never tried to start my own business. If that is your dream, be all in, especially when you are young and have time to make a few mistakes and learn along the way. It’s also a good idea to have a job on the side if you need to — you can learn from that experience as well.

Why did you decide to study BA Womenswear at LCF?

LCF seemed like a place where you could nurture your creativity, while also gaining a practical understanding and skills in the production and business side of fashion. It lived up to that and I’m glad I went to LCF. I had so many really incredible tutors who had so much knowledge and experience.

Presentation of 'Ophelia Reborn' - Photography by Roshan Whittaker.

What’s your favourite memory from your time at LCF?

The very funny, eccentric and inspiring characters I met over the years in the Curtain Road campus. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves in retrospect but we were all in it together. I loved spending my days there, seeing what people were making and hearing their stories.

And what’s the biggest lesson you learned during your course?

Don’t take everything so seriously. A tutor once said to me when I was very stressed: “It’s only fashion.” As much as I wholeheartedly feel the importance of fashion and clothing in our lives, and considering fashion is really my first love, it's true that fashion students particularly tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves! It’s not the end of the world if things aren’t going exactly how you planned or if you mess up and make a mistake. In fact, it’s probably a good thing because you can learn from it.

I’ve learnt to embrace mistakes as they might just turn into happy accidents, and to look after myself and find a healthy balance while accepting my imperfections. I enjoy my passion a lot more when I take it less seriously — it opens me up to playing around with ideas and finding more joy in it.

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