Tuesday 26 September 2017

'Start small and make your mistakes while no one is watching' - Chupi

Designer Chupi Sweetman launched her eponymous jewellery brand in 2014 and now exports to 64 countries
Designer Chupi Sweetman launched her eponymous jewellery brand in 2014 and now exports to 64 countries
Ellie Donnelly

Ellie Donnelly

Chupi Sweetman, the Irish designer behind the jewellery brand 'Chupi' has been designing and creating since she got her first sewing machine at the age of five.

Now 32 and a rising star in business as well as fashion, she says that key to her success was starting small enough to find her own way without dire consequences if things didn't always pan out. "Make your mistakes while no one is watching," she advised.

A set of Chupi’s ‘Brief Shower’ earrings
A set of Chupi’s ‘Brief Shower’ earrings

Chupi officially launched on April 1, 2014, and is already exporting to 64 countries, but its founder insists it's not a case of overnight success, she has been in the design game a long time.

Initially that meant designing and making women's clothing which she sold in Dublin's Temple Bar to help finance her way through college.

It paid off. Having just completed her first year of a fashion design course, a scout for Topshop spotted her work and offered her a position at the multinational clothing company.

"I joined the team and designed collections sold in the UK and Ireland. It was all women's clothing, I hadn't started designing jewellery then, I loved it."

However it was not a complete fairytale, and meant working on three-week contacts, something she admits was tough.

In addition she says her lack of business training made it a real baptism of fire.

"I went in with a collection and on the launch night we almost totally sold out, I remember being so excited but also so terrified because we had no stock, I had no idea we were meant to have replenishment stock," she said.

Her lack of business knowledge at the time was, she said, something that is a failure of education in the creative sector.

"We teach design students the creative side but no business and this is something I see being repeated in design universities, that you have these brilliant talented graduates, with no business acumen.

"This is why so many designers leave Ireland and go to work for the big houses. We don't teach them that they can be a designer and a business person."

It was during her six years in Topshop that Chupi learnt to become a businessperson. "We only had three weeks, we had to figure out a way to make it work and there is nothing like fast fashion - innovate or die because you have a new collection launching every six weeks."

After six years Chupi had sold about 40,000 dresses in Topshop but said she "fell out of love with it".

"My boyfriend had just proposed and my grandmother had left me a necklace and I suddenly owned a piece of the past and a piece of the future though jewellery. I had been getting frustrated and bored in work so I stared making jewellery as a hobby."

It was to be a move that changed everything. Having started selling her "hobby pieces" in the Loft in Powerscourt while still working for Topshop for about a year, she then quit Topshop to commit fully to her jewellery business.

Success did not come easy and Chupi said that in order to venture out on her own she saved "like crazy".

"I have always been 'quit what makes you unhappy and chase the dream, but be practical' - I was so broke for those first few years but that's just part of it, you have to change everything you do and you have to have a plan. If it hadn't worked I would have figured it out, but I knew my heart and soul was there."

In terms of the biggest challenges in setting up her own business, Chupi highlighted the difficulty she had in asking people for help and knowing who to ask for help.

"I was proud and self-sufficient and was embarrassed by my mistakes," she said.

In addition, being a woman and running a business brought its challenges, "I was 21 when I started. I walked into a bank with a contract for Topshop and I couldn't get a credit card, my then boyfriend (now husband) was a student at the time and they gave him a credit card with a €5,000 limit. The way my husband's company is treated and mine is completely different."

However the barriers to funding that she experienced has in the long run benefited the company.

"We have bootstrapped the entire company. We don't have any debt, any overdraft or loans, but this was tough. We were self sufficient not out of strategy at first, but out of necessity," she said.

For a company like Chupi which has over 125,000 fans and followers across various platforms, social media plays a very important role both in terms of marketing to the target audience and engaging in market research.

She said it enables tiny companies to find people who love what they love for free.

"Social allows us to tell the story of our designs online. It is easy to get caught up in the idea that your product is unique, but any product I make can be replicated - you could make a thousand of them in China without even thinking about it."

And despite the fact the jewellery is 100pc made and designed in Ireland, this is not necessarily something that translates very well outside the country.

What is unique is the product story: how it's made, why it's made, she said.

Irish Independent

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