The Baldoyle-based company is looking to the home market after building a strong brand abroad since they opened in 1988
From Baldoyle to the set of James Bond, and the opening scene of the latest 007 film, Paul and Brendan O’Sullivan of IrelandsEye Knitwear looked at the movie and knew instantly, that was their cashmere and wool throw.
The opening scene in No Time to Die is grizzly. The murderer looks in through the frosty window but it’s hard to miss it – the €149.95 grey throw with its blend of traditional Aran stitches of honeycomb, lattice and cables, designed and made in the O’Sullivan’s north Dublin factory.
“You always recognise your own work,” says Paul O’Sullivan, managing director of the family-owned business which opened in 1988 and now commands a turnover of around €7m, producing close to 150,00 garments a year with 70pc exports to 20 countries.
Four siblings and their parents started the business doing contract manufacturing for other companies – such as John Rocha at Awear – and over the last 34 years, the O’Sullivans have become a major player on the Irish knitwear scene.
They have a burgeoning export business for their products but now IrelandsEye is looking at the home market with fresh eyes and a new chapter starts next Tuesday when a special bespoke order of new looks go on sale in the Create showcase at Brown Thomas in Dublin.
Inspired by the colours and birds on Ireland’s Eye island located off the coast of Baldoyle, the fashion pieces were designed by in-house head of design Maria-Christina McPadden, and sell for around €280-€340.
The special order with its play on contemporary oversized silhouettes and heritage stitches was chosen by Shelly Corkery, fashion director of Brown Thomas Arnotts, and includes contemporary knits and shorts.
“God, we were so green at the start and when we went out to crack the German market, we didn’t have as much as an order book or a business card. We opened up some businesses with fairly high-end mail order accounts and to this day, Germany is our largest export market and it would be near enough 20pc of our total business,” said Brendan O’Sullivan, a director of the company.
IrelandsEye is one of the few Irish knitwear manufacturers still operational in the east of the country. Their range of 80 hand-finished fashion and lifestyle products are made in all-natural yarns.
Early on, the O’Sullivans invested in a Japanese Shima Seiki knitting machine that cost €50,000 at a time when a new family home cost €35,000. That gamble paid off and they now have 26 machines and a workforce of 60 in their 30,000 sqft factory in Baldoyle Industrial Estate where 20 pairs of hands touch every garment.
Knitted sections are assigned a radio frequency identifier and travel on a ‘smart’ journey on an overhead ‘Eton’ rails conveyor system which lowers garment pieces to the machinists.
“We put that system in about three years ago and we are the only knitwear factory in Europe that we are aware of that uses this technology,” says Brendan.
“It is used in car manufacturing and the Eton shirt people designed the system for efficiency making their shirts. It was so good, they made it a separate business.”
Going back 20-30 years, there were around 20-25 knitwear companies, “but now it’s down to probably half a dozen doing it on any kind of commercial scale”, said Paul O’Sullivan.
“We would be in some of the top shops around the world but sometimes you have to succeed abroad before you succeed at home.
"In the minds of Irish people, when they hear about companies like IrelandsEye they possibly initially think ‘Arans, oh that's for the tourists’.
"So I think the Create showcase will allow Irish people to see a business and a brand like ours in a different light.
“We want to take Irish Aran heritage and with modern design and modern yarns, make it relevant to today, take Irish knitwear into the future, and we are passionate about doing it in Dublin with Irish design talent and employees.
Paul O’Sullivan says they believe in a process that values quality over speed.
“If you look at the bigger trends in terms of sustainability, authenticity and the revolt against fast fashion, we are very much part of ‘buy less, buy better’. That is the space we are in. We are in the right place at the right time.
"It took us 34 years to get into the right place and we are in that space to make things slowly, that last a long time.”