The guest speakers were Liz Quin of Quin & Donnelly (www.quinanddonnelly.ie) and Agata Stoinska of D-Light Studios (http://d-lightstudios.com/) and Blow Magazine (www.blowphotomagazine.com) This event was associated with the Designer Dublin initiative run by DCEB in June and had a record attendance of over 70.
Both Liz and Agata’s stories highlighted the importance of really believing in your idea and being determined to succeed whatever the obstacles and setbacks. The most common comment from attendees was how inspiring both women’s resilience was. Both also showed a great talent for spotting opportunities and providing products/services that meet customer needs. And both placed a strong emphasis on working hard and learning by doing.
Summary of Liz Quin’s talk
Liz said that her interest in fashion started when she was a child and as a teenager she loved to rummage through markets. She wanted to be a designer and was determined to do it even though her family would have preferred her to do something more secure.
She was determined to do it and prove everyone wrong!
She put herself through fashion design college making fun bean bags, in the shape of hamburgers, etc that she sold in the Dandelion Market.
She loved college and worked day and night. She won student of the year in her final year and was offered a job on the day of her graduation. She worked in Rave, one of the few fashion boutiques in Dublin in the 1970s. At the same time, Carolyn had her own boutique on Harcourt St and Liz made up clothes to sell in the shop. After a year and a half in her first job, she opened a boutique, Ritzy, with Carolyn. It was great fun, they bought in clothes and dyed them. They put in £1000 each to start it up. Liz got £500 from a boyfriend and £500 from her parents.
In the early years, they took it in turns to work in the shop and workroom. She had a Morris Minor and drove the clothes to the factory for finishing (button holes, etc).
They started to show their clothes at Trade Fairs in London and got orders from Harrods, Macys, etc. London is a good place to start but you need to ready to respond.
In response to question about where to exhibit: London Fashion Week is for designer clothes, Pure London is more commercial.
They actually weren’t set up adequately to meet demand at the start, didn’t have the manufacturing experience. They started to employ people – this was very different. When they were offered the opportunity to design a range exclusively for A-Wear, they were happy to do this. The partnership with A-Wear was a great success and a great training for them. They won 12 category awards on the Late Late Fashion Show over the years – this gave them great exposure. They also won the Tatler Design Award. Brown Thomas then asked them to sell exclusively in their four stores in Ireland (was same retail group as A-Wear). This provided them with the network to support manufacturing.
They now sell to Brown Thomas stores, The Kilkenny Shop and some individual boutiques. They produce two seasonal and two mid-season collections per year and have a very effective system in place now for meeting these challenges. They work with a manufacturer who can outsource specialist elements such as wool and jersey and who can amalgamate the collection. They pick up the colours that are going to be in from fabric fairs – trends tend to be clear. Some colours suit Irish skin better than others. Yellow doesn’t tend to work! This spring, there is a lot of royal blue, reflecting Kate Middleton’s style.
As a designer, you can have some scarey moments. You need to come up with creative ideas within tight deadlines. Panic can set off inspiration! Once you’re inspired, you’re fine, you will probably end up working long hours to follow through on your ideas.
They look to maintain their creativity by remaining culturally aware and understanding why people buy what they do. They are finding that Irish people are supporting brands wherever possible in this recession. Sales are down a bit but not as bad as they could be.
Liz thinks that a key reason for their success is that they always operate as a commercial designer brand, trying to design from within and produce clothes that provide women with a mix of sensuality and power. This was how Vogue described their approach: ‘Liz Quin and Caroline Connelly design clothes for women like themselves – busy active working mothers who want to look stylish and confident without having to make a huge statement’. They try to make life easy for customers, by providing matching tops etc.
They have been careful with their brand, to ensure consistency so that the fit, quality and pricing meet the expectations of loyal repeat customers. Customer workshops are great opportunities to get feedback from customers.
Carolyn and Liz have a great partnership and give each other terrific support.
Some of Liz’s key tips for entrepreneurs were:
- Be determined to succeed! She was very motivated from the beginning (she studied fashion against the wishes of her parents) and this determination to succeed helped her to survive the harder times.
- Be prepared to learn on the job – this is essential if you want to learn the business.
- It’s OK to start small, it’s all about doing things well and getting noticed.
- There is no shame in admitting that the current way isn’t working and in changing the way you do things.
- Repeat business is key to building a sustainable business so be tuned into what your customers expect.
- Recession can be a good time to start a business, there is scope for creativity in the midst of all the High Street uniformity.
- Stay open to new directions and change – this is the key to survival.
Summary of Agata Stoinska’s talk
Agata described how she moved from being an architect to a fashion photographer and how she built up a strong reputation by getting to know the people she needed to work with. Her original portfolio was made up of her sisters and friends. She gradually built up strong network and a professional portfolio and it grew from there.
She needed a studio and when her first one became too small, she found the space for D-Light Studios and drew up a plan for converting it into an artistic space, for photoshoots, exhibitions and other creative events. Her business partner pulled out at the last minute so she had to have a complete change of plan in terms of getting finance and renovating the space with a very short timeline. While this was very stressful and an enormous challenge, she thinks it actually turned out for the best. She accessed finance from Dublin City Enterprise Board and the Bank and drew on a wide circle of friends and strangers to get it ready in time. There was a successful launch and they have a network of people with a great interest in its success. As a result of the investor pulling out, the business is now owned 100% by Agata. She has nearly paid back the bank loan.
Since then, Agata has launched Blow photographic magazine in response to a gap that she spotted. They wanted to publish photos and there was nothing specialized in Ireland. They are just about to launch the third edition. It is now attracting high profile international photographers.
Agata’s key tips for entrepreneurs were:
- Find what you’re good at, what you enjoy doing and throw yourself into it
- Make your own chances
- Recognise opportunities that exist.
- You don’t need to be the cheapest but you need to be the best at what you do
- Don’t give up! When something bad happens, the next day you should dust yourself down and start again. Get to know lots of people and you will get help. Help others yourself.