Designer Daryl Kerrigan: The Woman Uptown Fashion Marches Out When They Need to Define ‘Hip.’

Wading through the male-dominated designer fantasies of fashion to find real clothes has become a feminist issue. Even women suited for the grandeur of, say, John Galliano or Alexander McQueen don’t know what to wear on the chauffeur’s night off. Everything is either too hip, too theatrical, too provocative or too damn dull when the speeded-up terms of so-called real life require striking all these poses at any time during any given day.

So there was a great, celebratory feeling when the 33-year-old designer Daryl Kerrigan presented her lively, modern Daryl K collection on Nov. 7. Her venue was the Pitt Street pool off East Houston Street and, despite the threat of a northeastern tempest that evening, International Herald Tribune writer Suzy Menkes declared the show “upscale and cool,” and, in Women’s Wear Daily on Nov. 10: “Daryl does it again! Her influence has been seen on runways all over the world … The girl may still epitomize the street beat, but she’s definitely growing up. And the clothes oozed elegance and refinement without losing their hipness.”

In her Bond Street studio one week after the show, Ms. Kerrigan was reluctant to rejoice too soon. “I’m wary of success,” she said. “What goes up comes down. So I take success with a pinch of salt because I don’t like the idea of disappointing myself.” Nevertheless, it’s been a good year, critically if not financially. Ms. Kerrigan launched her second line, called K-189, and opened a second boutique, a commodious space at 21 Bond Street. Her first New York shop, on East Sixth Street, opened in 1991. This past winter, she received the award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America for new fashion talent.

“How am I?” asked the Dublin-born designer. “I’m pregnant. That’s how I am,” said Ms. Kerrigan who, in looks, is a cross between the French actress Charlotte Rampling and Hollywood’s Angie Dickinson, but without makeup. She settled her slender self on the sofa by the window of her large white design room and ran a hand through her hair. She cuts it herself. “Can’t you tell?” As the gray marble sky filled with blue autumn clouds, Ms. Kerrigan could see her shop across Bond, near Lafayette Street. Her partner in life, fashion and, soon, in parenthood, Paul Leonard, a handsome man with a healthy complexion, came and went. Although Mr. Leonard, who once was a photo assistant to William Wegman, is also from Dublin, the couple met here 10 years ago.

Ms. Kerrigan wore tailored gray hip-huggers, about $280 at her shop. She layered a camel-colored wool sweater over a beige sweater. Ropes tied at the sleeves kept them from sliding. She wore light-brown suede cowboy boots with carved pale wood feminine heels she designed. “There it is,” Ms. Kerrigan said, patting her stomach. “Our fourth month.”

On some of the suits and dresses in the spring collection, there was a cool neon piping. There were clever knit dresses, soft leather pants and shorts, dresses with old rock-concert T-shirts screened on them, and tank tops and pullovers made from Duplex. “Cut with a bend in the sleeve because that fabric doesn’t fall; it points,” Ms. Kerrigan explained. “Basically, what I tried to do with the collection was go forward. Each fabric group had its own design. A little punky, but mostly sophisticated.” All the designs seem intrinsically related to a woman’s body.

As Ms. Kerrigan has observed from the women who come to her shop, the fitness revolution means her customers can range in age from “16 to 80.” Her favorite fabric in the collection for spring was a membrane print on a stretch dress. “I’m not very convoluted with clothing,” she said. “I can appreciate more theatrical designs, and if someone wanted me to design that way I could, but for me, for this label, I like to come across as a real person. It’s the feeling of the fabric, the woman, the street, the vibe, what’s happening in the city and with music. How do I want to feel and represent myself in the world with other people?”

Fashion people talk a lot about Daryl Kerrigan being incredibly hip. The young anti-fashion fashion sorts who attended her show certainly oozed hipness, all these good-looking young things of hip-hop and urban detachment. I’m sure Daryl Kerrigan is hip, except the officially hip rarely let you know, as Ms. Kerrigan does with her warmth and kind smile, that she is having a marvelous time, well, most of the time. Another thing: Although Ms. Kerrigan is geographically based in the East Village, the point is, she makes more than hip-huggers and ruched T-shirts. Ms. Kerrigan is a woman for all neighborhoods.

“I like the idea of a woman who knows where to go all the way uptown,” Ms. Kerrigan said, then laughed, her Irish accent softly spoken. “When I dress, I dress to be able to experience life every day. On the street. In the subway. It’s nice to feel you’ve given yourself all the things you need in your clothes: femininity, sexiness and protection, too, if you’re caught on the corner on your own. I think I know how to clue into a woman’s head,” Ms. Kerrigan said.

“Being creative, driven and thrifty makes the cake,” Ms. Kerrigan responded when asked about the ingredients for her success. She recalled growing up in Dublin as the one daughter among three sons. Her father was a businessman, “many businesses,” Ms. Kerrigan said, “but none in fashion.” Her mother was “a pretty big clothes-head. Elegant and sexy, certainly she was a lot more stylish than other women in Dublin, that’s for sure.” Ms. Kerrigan remembered her mother shopped when there was money. She remembered watching her mother making her clothes. “She inspired me a lot, but actually my dad did, too. I loved the idea of his crisply made suits and shirts. I loved what his clothes did for him. The power a suit gave him. I guess what I do now is mix the two.”

During holidays from the National College of Art & Design in Dublin, Ms. Kerrigan came to New York and waitressed. “Nothing famous, no place where I’d know anyone,” she said. After college, she settled in a sublet in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and found work making costumes for such films as My Cousin Vinny and Mystery Train .

“Clothing in New York at that time was a pretty dismal affair,” she said. So she made her own, or reworked pieces from vintage clothing shops. With about $40,000 in savings, she opened the East Sixth Street shop. “I feel like a weirdo, but I’ve always been thrifty. When one of my father’s businesses failed, we had nothing. It taught me a lesson.”

Like most young designers, Ms. Kerrigan, who employs about 25 people, finds finances aren’t easy. “There’s a major danger for designers in my position,” referring to those who must expand in order to succeed. “We recently ditched our Japanese partners and sacrificed the financial help to save our self-respect.” The recent fashion show, she said, was the result of lots of people working for free, including the models who worked for clothes. Short of hitting pay dirt with a new line of baby clothes-which Ms. Kerrigan felt was highly unlikely-one solution might be striking a deal to design clothes for a luxury house, as Marc Jacobs has arranged with Louis Vuitton and Narcisco Rodriguez with Loewe.

“I could be tempted,” Ms. Kerrigan said.