The business of fashion is an arduous one. While the Celtic Tiger roared, many small fashion businesses opened up shop and thrived, thanks to the new boutique-shopping phase we were all part of. People spent more than they earned on designer clothing and knick-knacks from whatever kitsch store had been opened that week. However, once the bubble burst, many of these boutiques and designers that had been so optimistic during the early noughties were unceremoniously chewed up and spit out – the remnants of success past.
Some braced themselves against the recession and came out the other side with their businesses and brands still standing. So what was their secret? What do these businesses have that others don’t to stay afloat? Natalie B Coleman, a renowned designer who has shown at fashion weeks all over the world, believes that it is all about the product you provide to people. “I think there are always difficulties [during a recession] but if you have a good product and reliable production then you will survive.”
The designer set up her eponymous label in 2011 at the height of the recession and has been invited to present her collections from New York to Copenhagen. However, although Natalie sells on an international stage and many Irish celebrities have worn her designs, she found raising the money to start her brand difficult.
“I set up the business in the recession but from the beginning I participated at international fashion shows so my market has mainly been foreign. Funding was difficult; I set it up by myself but got some help from Leader funding. “
Other designers used the recession as a reason to start their businesses, such as Lisa McCormack, the owner of Capulet & Montague. The jewellery designer worked hard to build her business up from scratch with help from the Back to Work Scheme and has been featured in magazines like Image, Life magazine and Social and Personal. Her bad luck during the economic crisis led to the setting up of her brand, which now stocks in Atelier 27, “I fell into it [designing] mid-recession after losing my job. It was a blessing in disguise! Having the time and opportunity to create and being self-taught, it opened very different exciting doors for me.”
Her advice to others starting their own business is simple and resonates with what most others had to say: work hard. “Prepare to be working hard and into the late evenings. Try to keep momentum as it’s worth it when you see someone wearing one of your pieces on the street or the feedback you get from clients.”
Retailer Ella de Guzman has two shops in the Temple Bar area dealing in vintage and consignment shopping, a concept that became popular in Ireland after the economic climate toughened. Although her store Siopaella thrived, thanks to the drones of tourists frequenting Temple Bar and a hard-working team, the business has not been without its hurdles, thanks to the high rates that business owners have to pay.
“We are currently looking for our third location but it is still challenging to find suitable premises. Some landlords are asking crazy high rents that only international chains like Starbucks can afford…The rates are really what make us cringe: it’s crazy expensive here and we are not really quite sure of what the rates actually pay for.”
Wendy Crawford has set up two boutiques in Dublin in the past five years and has had her share of difficulties. Opening Bow in an expensive retail outlet such as the Powerscourt Towncentre when the economic troubles began meant business was slow but Wendy and business partners slowly built up a reputation that stuck. Earlier this year, they felt the time was right to part ways at the Powerscourt Towncentre and Wendy set up her own boutique Scout in the Smock Alley area.
Although she agrees with Natalie that a great product is one of the most important qualities to have in your business, she thinks that passion, working hard, studying your demographic and fantastic customer service are what really keeps a business like fashion retail alive.
“There is about 5% glamour & 95% paperwork, stress, hard work, sweat and tears! Take things slowly, try to take educated risks where possible and know exactly whom you are trying to sell to & target appropriately. Also never underestimate the value of top-notch customer service. I really believe apart from quality products, this is the one key factor that has also got us through some rough patches over the last few years. Customers like to feel special & well considered.”
The path to owning your own business is a long and arduous one and the recession made the journey no easier to endure. But these business owners have proven it can be done: the best approach to making and selling a product that people want. A mixture of passion, drive and hard work is essential but funding for projects like this can be hard to come by so many talented entrepreneurs are missing out on their chance at success. The worst thing about the recession, according to Ella, is that it “affects us in the sense that even though we are growing, all of us still have to work so hard everyday to make sure the business stays where it is.”
It will be a long road to the point where the business of fashion becomes easier to break into and until then, only the fittest can survive. Nonetheless, one thing can be said – we have a plethora of talent on our small island and Irish designers such as Orla Kiely, Sir Philip Treacy and J.W. Anderson are known the world over. With a serious look at how loans and business rates could become more accessible for up-and-coming entrepreneurs, we can soon become a country known for cultivating our best talent.
This article was first seen in the Sunday Independent.
Photos c/o theprowlster.com, v-for-visala.com, flickr.com, failteireland.ie