Queer designer Colin Horgan on the journey from smalltown Ireland to the international fashion scene

Making the move from a rural childhood to dressing celebrities and storming the catwalks, Colin Horgan's journey is the stuff dreams are made of.

A man fixing the outfit of a male model on a photoshoot
Image: Marc Shelley @NotAnother INTL

Growing up queer in Kerry, Colin Horgan couldn’t have predicted his designs would be worn by celebrities including Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa and Little Mix, and go on to grace catwalks galore. Sharing some incredible looks from his new collection, Colin sat down with Alannah Murray to talk about his rural upbringing, the alter-ego inspiration for his fashion, and his advice for the next generation of queer talent.

As a designer, the work of Colin Horgan has developed significantly. If you compare his 2020 Resort look book with his latest collection that just premiered at London Fashion Week, they are completely different.

The 2020 resort collection was a mixture of futurism and leather. It was reminiscent of a dystopian heroine, without overt sexualization. It was empowered. It was figure-hugging. It was exhilarating.

This Spring Summer ‘22 collection, while it still features the distinct look to the future that Horgan is known for, takes a different approach; something Colin summed up in three words: “Refined, accessible, adaptable”.

Growing up in rural Ireland with three brothers, accessibility to fashion wasn’t easy. Colin described, “It’s quite a rural sporting area as such, a little bit far from the world that I create for.”

Ben wears Maelstrom Showpiece (€1,125) Assimilate Top (€450) Maelstrom Skirt (€220)

Colin spoke fondly of growing up in Kerry despite knowing he didn’t exactly fit the mould. He was always destined to be creative, rarely without a pencil in his hand. He never really enjoyed the academic side of school, and frequently spent his time content in his own company, drawing and doodling, his mind often wandering in class in favour of more fulfilling pursuits. He quickly found that he could tell a story much easier visually than he could ever express in words.

“I remember doing my geography exam, and I got three percent because I drew such a nice picture; I did not answer any of the questions!” he said, laughing about it now. He set his sights on art college, having been preparing his portfolio since his penultimate year in secondary school. With only one option on his CAO – Limerick School of Art and Design, the all-or-nothing approach Colin has for fashion had clearly been fostered young. However, to get there, he still needed the points to get in, which was nerve wracking for a young man who didn’t consider himself a student

“I had little cue cards to help me. I mean, I barely scraped by in the actual Leaving Cert,” he confessed, “but I got into art college, which was great.”

His family was always supportive of his endeavours and his aim to do whatever made him happy, and for him, that was initially studying fine art.

Ben wears Opium Coated Jacket (€530) Profile Trousers (€840) Motocross Gloves by Colin Horgan

Having worked for years on his portfolio, he had finally gotten where he’d aimed to be; until he realised it actually wasn’t what he wanted. He found the lack of structure to be problematic, he needed something with clearly defined deadlines that also pushed him creatively in order to keep his mind active. Something that had always been at the back of his mind had been his interest in fashion design, but he’d never pursued it.

As someone who couldn’t sew, thread a machine, or know how to make a pattern, he didn’t believe he could succeed. Luckily thanks to the nature of his fine art course, students had to sample other courses; including fashion. Colin found the structure that he had been searching for, and from there he was hooked.

“When I trialled fashion, I literally kind of got addicted to how demanding it was. And I kind of wanted to prove it to myself, for someone that didn’t have any skills. I wanted to soak up, like a sponge, everything at the one time.”

It all fell into place from there. Colin graduated college and from Limerick went on to complete a Master’s degree in the Fashion Womenswear Programme at The Royal College Of Art in London in 2017. I asked him about the transition from life in a rural area to the sacred streets of London; being both a fashion enthusiast and a rural gay myself.

Ben wears Modify Top (€525) Nubile Leggings (€350) Double Faced Vortex Trousers (€515)

While Limerick was open and liberal, it couldn’t have prepared him for London, he described. “I felt fully realised by that experience in London, you know, you meet such interesting characters that are really, fully, content in themselves, and they don’t care what happens.” He reminisced about the differences between Limerick and London, not just the urban-rural divide, but the differing queer experience. “I became friends with a lot of people that, you know, would walk down to the tube in a pair of 18-inch hooker heels while wearing a men’s blazer,” he laughed. London was a “culture clash of magic”.

However, the bright lights of London could be blinding. Colin found the big city’s club culture, something that Ireland was sorely missing, enticing. It allowed him to draw inspiration from the fashion that he would see on nights out, and there was a lot. “London is a hub of creativity and it is a forward-thinking capital city in terms of fashion. All the other countries look to London for inspiration. It really is that kind of nest for new designers and new thinkers and new questioners.” But ultimately it wasn’t enough, and the pull of home proved too strong to resist. Colin moved back to Kerry to begin working on his Spring Summer ‘22 collection, which was unveiled as part of London Fashion Week via livestream from an empty industrial space.

It is clear that Colin is passionate about his craft, and it shows in the skill he put into the Spring Summer collection. It feels ideal for someone who wants to up their street style A-Game, and it has pieces that can be dressed up or dressed down. The edge is still there in the accessories, like the buzzsaw earrings, but it is definitely his most accessible, consumer friendly collection so far.

Ben wears Bonded Oblivion Gilet (€500) Rival Top (€275) Satin Attune Dress (€530) All accessories by Colin Horgan

“It’s not just for the singers and the celebrities, it can be for anyone that wants to wear it,” he said. When discussing the inspiration behind the clothing, he mentioned his ever present alter-ego. “I’ve always been led by one woman, kind of a one woman show. So the collections are really about an alter-ego of mine. I guess it’s a reflection of me, but in a fantasy realm”.

Horgan believes that his clothes also defy the barriers of gender. With that in mind, I asked him if his queer identity played a role in his style. He was quick to say it did, and it felt only natural. “It’s essentially my responses to what maybe I could wear in a kind of a digital realm, or say something in maybe a realm where I was ‘her’. I feel like I know her inside and out. And that’s because of my own experiences. Like, I’d never seen her in a pair of board shorts, you know, it wouldn’t happen.”

The link between designers and their identities is something that has been part of the fabric of fashion for years; from Horgan’s representation of futurism and gender, Jessie Shroyer’s graduate collection at Parsons on American pop culture and identity symbolism, and Graces Wales Bonner’s Senegalese streetstyle-inspired Autumn Winter collection.

Ben wears Relinquished Coat (€910) Zippered Ripple Trousers (€580)

Looking further to the future, I asked him about his history of dressing celebrities, and if he could dress any queer icon; who would it be?

“Oh, God, that is very hard! I did recent projects for a singer-rapper, Kehlani. She is a queer performer, and she’s really cool. She’s really stunning and she’s so talented.”

“There’s so many. I’d love to dress Troye Sivan. I think he’s amazing. I think he’s really stunning as well. You know, I think he could work with the clothes and do something special.”

It’s clear that Colin has forged a path despite not having the traditional fashion background. He has made his mark on the industry, designing looks for pop stars like Lady Gaga and Rina Sawayama, and pushing Irish design further while doing so, proving that you don’t need to be from a fashion capital to do it; something that has the potential to inspire a generation of queer designers.

When asked what he would say to a queer person who aspired to follow in his very fashionable footsteps, he thought for a moment before answering. “I think, advice wise, definitely don’t look for the end goal straightaway, y’know? Enjoy the ride because I think, definitely as a queer person, myself, you learn so much along the way. It is a hard road, I’m not gonna lie, but it is so enjoyable and rewarding at the same time.”

Ben wears Gyre Showpiece (€1250) Limitless Dress (€350) Reconcile Dress (€530) Accessories and Pendant Earrings by Colin Horgan

He also spoke about the old adage that many Irish grandmothers often impart on their grandchildren: ‘what’s meant for you won’t pass you’. “I think I just had to, like, let go a little. I think when you let go, things have a way of finding you. Is that the expression? I don’t know, I’m still on the ride and I’m enjoying it.”

The idea of going out on a limb for something you want resonates with a lot of queer people; and as a queer designer, Colin has not only pushed his boundaries but also redefined them.

HAIR: Lisa May at NHO: New Hair Order, Dublin
MAKE-UP ARTIST: Jessica MacDermot at New Hair Order, Dublin
NAILS: Tropical Popical, Dublin
MODEL: Ben Harte at NotAnother INTL

Make sure to keep up to date with Colin Horgan by following him on Instagram.

This article originally appeared in GCN Issue 369 which you can read in full here.

© 2021 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

This article was published in the print edition Issue No. 369 (December 3, 2021). Click here to read it now.

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Issue 369 December 3, 2021

A blonde woman wearing a polo neck jumper as seen of the cover of GCN December 2021 issue
December 3, 2021

This article was originally published in GCN Issue 369 (December 3, 2021).

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