Monday 26 September 2016

Kerry’s own fashion gold

Orla Diffily had never been to the Kingdom before living there and founding Kerry Fashion Week, says our reporter about founding Kerry Fashion

Published 21/12/2015 | 02:30

Style: Orla Diffily is sitting pretty but business hasn't always been good. Photo Barry Murphy
Style: Orla Diffily is sitting pretty but business hasn't always been good. Photo Barry Murphy

‘It made a substantial loss in the first two years. I don’t mind saying that. It’s a known secret.” Now in its eighth year, Kerry Fashion Week, established by Orla Diffily of Upfront PR and Model Management, is one of the most important dates on the Irish fashion calendar. But it almost didn’t make it past year one.

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Between the launch in 2008 and the actual event in 2009, recession hit, so the first year was much tougher than Orla could have imagined.  “After the very first one we sat in my kitchen, around the table, and I said ‘I’m never, ever doing that again.’ It was so stressful, so upsetting,” she remembers now. It wasn’t just the financial loss. We all had to spread ourselves so thin.”

“You have no option but to trade out of it,” Orla says matter-of-factly of the loss her business sustained. “You can’t just say ‘oh my goodness, I made a loss, it’s over’. Because what do you then?  You’ve no way of recouping it.”

Luckily, given the support it provides to new Irish designers, the following year Orla was persuaded to do it again and again. She and co-director Paul Ruane are gearing up for the 2016 event, which takes place in the first week of March.

 Paul, a brand designer, came on board in year four. Originally taking place over a weekend, it’s now a week long, with a national focus, and the prestigious Irish Fashion Industry Awards.

It wasn’t the first time Orla had dealt with recession. She had moved to Kerry from Dublin to work for the Kerry Group in the early Nineties. “I’d never been to Kerry.  Even getting the train down, I was looking for brands to reassure me,” she laughingly recalls. “I remember the first time I got there, there was a Peter Mark and a Dunnes Stores, and I remember thinking ‘it’s not so bad’.”

After three years she set up her own company, now in its twentieth year of business.

“I think when you’re 27 you don’t say ‘oh gosh will I have a pension? Will I have to make my own work for the rest of my life? You just say I really need to do this. So there was no fear,” she laughs. “There were a number of women in my life that were really strong business women, and I was inspired by them.”

Deciding to set up her own business was a decision she only once regretted — during the most recent recession. In 2000, Orla had let go of most of her staff, but when things turned around quickly, she struggled to find people with the right skills.

“So when the next recession hit in 2007, I didn’t want to let staff go. We hung on until the very bitter end. It was hard from an emotional point of view. Every small business person will tell you; you always took it personally. You didn’t look at the bigger international picture. You just thought ‘oh my gosh, I have failed’.”

Now though, she realises it has left her with a better attitude to work/life balance. “Recession gave me perspective. I now know how to separate my life from my job. And I’m really good at saying: ‘Okay, I’m going to go home and spend time with my daughter’.”

Orla’s daughter Zoe is now 16, runs her own website – teentimes.eu – and is an important part of the Upfront Group. When clients first meet her, they say “where’s your mom?” At further events it’s “where’s Zoe?” Orla recounts proudly. Hardly surprising as she essentially grew up in the business.

“I had no sense of what it was like to have a child,” Orla smiles now.  “I had committed to doing jobs within two weeks of her being born. And if I was to put everything into perspective now, it was a really rough decision to make. Zoe had colic for about six months, crying all night. Then I’d get up the next morning and go to work. it was a nightmare. It took me a long, long time to get everything balanced again.”

Being her own boss proved a godsend. At first, it meant she could dash out each afternoon to bring her daughter from school to a childminder. And when Zoe, at age five, decided she no longer wanted to go to a babysitter, she simply took her to the office, where she would happily play with her Barbie laptop.

Orla’s partner, photographer Barry Murphy, is a huge source of support.  Orla and Zoe’s father, Robert, split when their daughter was a baby but share joint custody. Orla met Barry after hiring him for a photography job. “He came round to my house to put up my curtains and never left,” Orla says, laughing.

“He’s been a rock. I’d never met anyone like him before. He’s a creative spirit. He looks at things slightly differently to me. And that was great. I’d be an organised person. I would put all the blacks together, followed by all the blues. I’m the person who lines things up.”

Barry has been in Zoe’s life since she was very young; always the one to drop her to school. “They have a great relationship,” Orla says happily. This year, she added the Ireland Fashion Showcase in New York to her roster of events. Minister Jimmy Deenihan set her up with Marietta Doran, whose brainchild the project was. The two invited ten Irish designers to show in the Irish Consulate during New York fashion week. They will definitely be going ahead with the event again in 2016, she says confidently.  For now though, it’s off to another meeting for KFW.

For information on tickets and events see kerryfashionweek.com

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