Tuesday 12 December 2017

There's more to fashion than frocks, says the force behind Fran and Jane

She dresses Miriam O'Callaghan and many other top Irish women - but Fran & Jane's Laura Nolan tells Joyce Fegan that the fashion business is tough (as well as fun)

Laura Nolan by Jon Berkeley
Laura Nolan by Jon Berkeley
Joyce Fegan

Joyce Fegan

International jet-setting to Paris catwalks and buying trips to Hong Kong might sound glamorous - but for Laura Nolan, busy mother-of-one and creative director of Irish fashion label Fran & Jane, life is more of a round-the-clock slog.

"We're running a business - I'm answering emails 24-hours-a-day, that is actually no lie. I'm doing night feeds at about 5am in the morning and when I'm up at that I'm replying to emails," says the 29-year-old businesswoman.

Laura was born into fashion. Her mother is Fran Nolan, who set up the label Regine 40 years ago. When Nolan joined the fold at 21 it was given a makeover and re-branded to Fran & Jane.

"When I came into the business first it was all Regine, except for the two Fran & Jane stores in Blackrock and Cork.

"So it was kind of my very first project pushing the Fran & Jane brand and trying to establish it, so that's what I did when I came straight out of college and I really focused on it," says Laura.

While most of her friends were queuing for nightclubs Laura was busy re-branding one of Ireland's oldest fashion labels. Contacts and the media were a big help, admits the fashion dynamo.

"We were fortunate enough in the fashion side of things - we had amazing contacts. The girls from TV3 were across the road from us, literally on our door step, Lisa Fitzpatrick was a good family friend and Constance Harris was also a huge help. When we changed from Regine to Fran & Jane she was very much interested in the change, and was writing pieces on it.

"Then Xpose came along on TV3 and it was all very new, so they were constantly on to us. We were an easy kind of target because we could do anything at the drop of a hat," says Laura.

Contacts are gold in the setting up and running of a business, but it was not just luck for Fran & Jane as Laura, who's well-known on both the London and Dublin social circuits, is both affable and engaging.

We're talking as she is getting ready to head to work in her Ballymount headquarters. She is also packing up her 12-week-old daughter, Elizabeth, who's coming into the office for the day.

Night feeds and nappy changes aside we get down to the meat of the matter - how's business?

And if she's frank about motherhood she's even franker about the company's balance sheets.

"The team is a bit small, but the way things are at the moment we just don't have any other option. It is working - I mean, by no means are we cleaning up or anything like that - in fact, it's extremely difficult," she says. .

While the fashion label might be one of Ireland's best known brands its business model and various markets are probably the lesser-known side of its affairs.

"We run three businesses - retail, wholesale and we manufacture. Ciara Hewett is an amazing marketing manager, my mum is incredible at coming up with products, Jane Baker is an unbelievable retailer and I run the production side of things," says Laura.

When Laura was just 23 years old, she headed to London to expand the brand.

There the young Dubliner met estate agents, buyers and solicitors, before opening up Fran & Jane on the King's Road in Chelsea, their first store outside of Ireland.

While in London, Laura immersed herself in the social scene and moved in with her stockbroking boyfriend, Ronan Horgan, who is now her husband. They married in Castle Leslie in 2010.

While the relationship blossomed, the shop in London floundered, but it did open up the UK wholesale market for the company.

"The wholesale is keeping us going. It's the strongest element of our business," says Laura.

While most might know Fran & Jane as a retailer, the pretty pink stores Irish women know and love are proving tough business for the company.

"Retail is a tricky one with the recession - we're constantly having to change. I mean, we've opened and closed stores, it literally changes week by week.

"So we closed Clarendon Street and we went to Brown Thomas on Grafton Street, thinking that would be the right idea, but it absolutely wasn't. So we're now out of Brown Thomas in Dublin city and we're in BT in Limerick and we're in BT2 in Blanchardstown and both of those are doing really well," says Laura.

With well-known clients including Fine Gael TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor and RTE presenters Miriam O'Callaghan and Claire Byrne, Nolan believes Fran & Jane's clothes are "ageless", but agrees that price is key.

"If you've got the right product at the right price it'll sell through, so it's just a matter of being able to get that product. I find that people still want the quality - but they don't want a higher price point.

"This friend of mine in America always repeats the mantra: 'Sell to Target (a large fashion discounter) and you'll wear Chanel, but if you sell to Chanel you'll wear Target'. We're kind of in the middle there - it's like saying sell to Penneys, it's a lower price point that appeals to the mass market," she says.

And if retail is proving a challenge for the 40-year-old Irish brand so too are all the usual business headaches, such as cash-flow.

"I am one of my own customers, I've just had a little baby and that excess cash just isn't around. So it's a tricky market to be in," she says.

An average Fran & Jane dress sells for around €200.

To make up for the tightening of the nation's purse strings, the business is concentrating on exports.

"My dad says 'export, export, export,'" says Laura with a laugh.

Her father is George Nolan of Nolan's Seafoods. Her grandfather was charismatic businessman Vincent Nolan.

The story goes that Vincent was once asked: "If you play golf all day and the piano all night, when do you sleep?"

"Life is too precious, I don't have time for sleep," replied Vincent, who died in 2010 at the age of 87. He was always known for saying that working was a means of making money to enjoy life.

The 18-year-old Vincent moved from Belfast to Dublin in 1941 knowing no one. It wasn't long before he was playing golf and cards with Taoiseach Sean Lemass, out on the town with his great friend Jeff Smurfit and throwing legendary Leopardstown parties after the races.

He also counted a former governor of New York, the late Hugh Carey, as a life-long friend.

Like her grandfather, Laura Nolan is known for her joie de vivre and glamorous dinner parties in her London pad with the who's who of the city's social scene in attendance.

And just like Vincent, who once played the piano with Frank Sinatra, she has a love of music. While in school in Holy Child in Killiney, Co Dublin, she formed a band called Lase, but fashion finally won her affections.

But it is not just her sense of threads that has seen the Irish label through a lengthy recession where it simultaneously transformed its image and business model - it was also Laura's impressive marketing know-how.

"The thing is that with Fran & Jane we have a brand, and that is what is really well-known. We've spent so much time on our image.

"I think even things like our carrier bag have definitely helped. The brand is such a huge thing," she says.

Without giving away too many secrets to the competition, Laura does reveal some of the insider goings-on behind their pristine image.

"In all our shops, we have a store policy across the board and it just makes it easy for the staff and for the customers to see exactly what the brand stands for and where we're going," she says.

This "policy" applies to headquarters operations too.

Every email that gets sent out from Ballymount, be it to a manager in one of their seven stores or to a manufacturer overseas, bears the same logo and sign-off. And any product image that leaves their computer system must be of a very-high quality resolution.

But for the Irish fashion label everything boils down to one important thing - product.

Every pattern is designed and cut in Dublin. Fabrics are sourced in places such as Italy and Paris and the garments are manufactured in Poland.

"Fran is still very much at the helm of the creation process," says Laura of her mother - and this year marks her 80th collection.

"The quality of product coming from Poland is absolutely incredible. Some of the factories that we use there are family-run and have been around for years - we've built up really good relationships with them," says Laura.

Aside from fashion design, the company buys in knitwear from Italy and accessories from places in the UK and France.

Accessories have proven fortuitous for the company in recent years.

"We've been focusing more on cheaper pick-up pieces and that's definitely helping things - because every person that walks into the store will have a certain amount of cash to spend. It mightn't be the €200 for the dress - but it could be the €20 for the scarf.

"We're trying to appeal to everybody," she says.

As Fran & Jane expands overseas, designs are now also available in the UK, Kuwait, the US and Italy.

They show their collection twice a year in London and for customers farther afield they view it online.

Right now is their busy time and it's "batten down the hatches", as they're about to begin the job of selling.

"Sometimes I wake up in the morning and ask myself am I absolutely crazy?" says Laura with a laugh.

She says that "by no means is the company making big bucks" - but, like her grandfather before her, this family affair is all done for the love of it.

"I ask myself am I absolutely bananas, is this for real? We definitely put our backs into it, but it's for the love and buzz of it," she adds.

Pausing as she tries to get baby Elizabeth strapped into her car seat, Laura attempts to explain why she works 24-7, if not for the money.

"We get an adrenalin kick out of when you're selling a collection and people love it. It's like, I can't tell you what it's like, it's just a high."

The socialite who reads baby books

If I wasn't doing what I do, I'd be...

"I'd like to set up a safari camp and be a ranger, but it's not realistic - so my second choice would be a TV presenter."

The last music I downloaded was...

"Not Final Artwork by Hozier."

An unforgettable place that I've travelled to recently is...

Ol Seki in the Masai Mara, Kenya. I was there on honeymoon nearly four years ago."

The best gift I've given to someone recently is...

"A laugh - I've a knack at cheering people up when they are feeling down."

My greatest indulgence is...

"Good food. I love great restaurants and am loving Marcel's on St Mary's Road, their chocolate and nut desert is so good."

If I didn't live in Dublin I'd live in...

"We did a stint in London - which I loved - but I think I'd like to be out of a city and in Africa - in the middle of nowhere."

The book on my bedside table at the moment is...

"Baby books."

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