Saturday 17 March 2018

Local Heroes: Om Diva's winning formula - style, sass and staying power

Ruth Ni Loinsigh has built her businesses from the ground up and managed to forge a thriving, creative enterprise that weathered the storm of recession

‘I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do,’ says Ruth Ni Loinsigh of Om Diva on Drury Street in Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys
‘I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do,’ says Ruth Ni Loinsigh of Om Diva on Drury Street in Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

The owner of one of Dublin's most eclectic boutiques Om Diva and its more recent sister store 2nd Space, Ruth Ni Loinsigh, travels the world in search of unique and quirky style, while simultaneously promoting home-grown talent.

Ruth, who is from Drumcondra and hails from a long line of tailors, seamstresses and fabric merchants, was bitten by the travel bug early in life. Throughout college, every summer was an opportunity to take in a new country and Ruth quickly became a dab hand at creating innovative methods to fund such trips.

"I left college with a degree in languages in the early 1990s when there wasn't much work around," Ruth explains. "So I headed off to Holland. I had learned how to do hair wraps when I spent a summer in Paris, where you get a little piece of someone's hair and thread different colour threads around it.

"It was a mad craze over there at that time. My friend Judy and I couldn't get jobs in Paris because we didn't speak very good French, so we decided we would try doing hair wraps. We started off with a little placard that said 'Celtic Hair Wraps' and a Burger King takeaway box with a couple of spools of thread in it, but because it was such a craze everybody wanted it done.

"At the time I was going out with a guy working in Euro Disney - they were building it then- and we were making more money from doing these hair wraps than he could earn on the building site."

"So after college when I started travelling again, I was always aware that I could make money by doing something; it started with the hair wraps and then I started making bits of jewellery and it never really stopped, it just kept progressing from there," Ruth adds. "I would make jewellery and put it in display boxes and hitch-hike around Europe selling that. Then I went out to India and got more ambitious as I went along, I would bring back rucksacks full of tie-dye clothes and things like that."

Ruth travelled around Europe and Asia for about six years after she finished college, surviving as she puts it by "buying and selling my way around the world".

However, at 28, Ruth made the decision to come home to Ireland.

"I decided that I should come home because of the Celtic Tiger," Ruth says. "My brother kept telling me I'd get a great job because I can speak a couple of languages and I did. I worked for Gateway 2000 for a while and then I worked for United Airlines and that allowed me to travel really cheaply. So one day I got the idea to fly back to India and fill up the rucksack and start doing the markets again at the weekends because I loved it.

"I think if you are a wheeler dealer - like Del Boy - it's just in you," Ruth says laughing. "I just love buying and selling; buying something that someone else wants to buy from you - it is just such an interesting exchange and I really missed that."

Ruth returned to running a market stall in Blackrock and then Mother Redcaps on the weekends and once again her unique eye and entrepreneurial edge paid off. Her stall became such a hit that Ruth began to question if she should return to her first love full-time.

"I was being offered a stall in St Georges's Arcade at the time, but I didn't really want to give up my first 'real job,' because I was doing really well there," Ruth explains. "Then I was walking down the road one night after a family wedding around Merrion Square and I found a sports bag in the middle of two cars at the side of the road and I kicked it and it rustled. I opened it and it was this giant bag of 50 pence pieces and 20 pence pieces."

"It was so heavy, but eventually I got it back to my little flat on George's Street and I counted it and there was nearly a thousand pounds in it. So I called Pearse Street station and told them and they said, 'We'll call you if anyone calls looking for it', but they never did. I took it that it was a sign for me. So I went off to India and I got loads of stuff and came back and handed in my notice at United Airlines and started the stall full time."

Buoyed by a surge in spending throughout Dublin's Celtic Tiger years, Ruth's stall in George's Street Arcade got off to a flying start.

"In the late 1990s and early noughties it was just a different time, people had a lot of disposable cash and were just wandering around town and would buy something," Ruth says. "So on the heels of that I decided to open a shop and take on a lease there. I did a pattern-cutting course too and at one point I had two floors in the shop filled with my own designs. It was just a brilliant, buzzy little business and then of course the recession hit and everybody stopped buying everything.

"Something just kind of died," Ruth adds. "Everything got so quiet and it wasn't even gradual, it was really quick. Clothing and accessories were really the last things on people's minds, so we continued on for a couple of months. I found myself wondering what I was going to do."

Ruth decided to change her approach and row with the recession somewhat, rather than trying to row against it.

"The first thing we did was we started a sewing class to teach people how to revamp a piece of clothing they had already bought," Ruth explains. "I had a friend, Andrea Cleary, who lectured in fashion in NCAD and she came on board for that. I wanted it to be fun, but I also wanted people to be getting quality for their money. So Andrea came and we all sat on the floor on these Indian cushions and did a hand-stitching class and we'd get a couple of bottles of wine."

The classes received a huge response and became very popular.

"People were delighted to alter clothes that they already had," Ruth says. "And apart from trying to make a few quid out of it and pay the bills, we started it to just have a laugh and it was great for that when people seemed to really need one."

Ruth also dropped the prices and improved the quality of the clothes on offer.

"Then we just battened down the hatches," she says. "If you don't have money coming in then you just have to make sure that you don't have money going out. If you don't spend it it's the same as making it."

"I just put my heart and soul into the business. About a year later, the VAT was still the same, the rent didn't change and the rates were still the same, so nothing was cheaper," Ruth adds. "I remember being in the shop on a Saturday, there was no one around and I said to the girl who was with me, 'Bloody hell I need a miracle' and then this woman came in and she bought a couple of things and told me that I had a really great eye."

This woman turned out to be Amanda Pratt of Avoca Handweavers.

"We had a chat and decided we might work together. So we met and had a cup of coffee after that and I was able to work with her and set up a production network for her through my contacts in Asia and co-design a collection," Ruth explains. "It took about two years from conception to reality, but just to be working away on it really helped me to tread water for a while and it was exciting to be involved with Avoca."

In 2010, Ruth moved Om Diva into a building on Drury Street.

"We were able to expand the sewing classes and give studio space to Irish designers," Ruth says. "I went to the Enterprise Board and told them what I was thinking and they were keen to support fashion at the time and put me in touch with a mentor Aileen Dempsey, who was incredible. Somehow we managed to open in Drury Street Christmas week and it has just been building and building ever since."

Five years later, Ruth opened another store called 2nd Space, which includes undergraduate collections. Between the two businesses Ruth now employs eight people.

"It has all happened quite fast because I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do and have great staff; you really need a strong team when you are in retail," Ruth adds. "We have a great balance of people, who are both creative minds and love to deal with people."

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