Heritage woven into modern life
Lynn Temple and his son Patrick give Sean Gallagher a glimpse into the long success of the Magee brand
Its official, Donegal is now the coolest place on the planet. That's according to National Geographic Traveller. Earlier this week, the iconic magazine put Co Donegal at the top of its annual roll call of the top 17 places to visit in the world during 2017. It's a well-deserved accolade, the beauty of the county - with its rolling green hills, rugged coastline and unspoilt beaches - is dwarfed only by the warmth and friendliness of its people.
Among the best-known products to have come out of the county are the famous fabrics and clothing from Magee in Donegal town. Set up in 1866 and currently celebrating 150 years in business, the company continues to thrive. It now has a staff of over 130 and an annual turnover of more than €16m.
Earlier this week I met up with Lynn Temple, the company's chairman. Along with his son Patrick and his daughter Charlotte they run the business.
"There are really three separate elements to our business," says Lynn as he and Patrick take me on a tour of the mill. "Firstly, there is the weaving which we do here in the mill. We take fibres such as wool, linen, cashmere and silk and weave them into luxury fabrics, which we sell on to the international fashion industry where they are then made into garments by some of the world's top brands.
"The second part of the business is where we design and make these fabrics into our own range of men's and ladies clothing, which we then wholesale through a network of independent retail stores throughout Ireland, the UK and Europe. The quality and loyalty of these retailers has been such a big part of the company's success to date.
"And finally, there's our own retail business where we sell through our stores in Donegal town, Magee at Arnotts and through our newest store which we just recently opened on South Anne Street in Dublin. And of course through our online store www.magee1866.com," he adds.
"The target market for our various clothing collections is predominantly men between the ages of 30-50 but we still have very many loyal customers over that age," says Patrick. "On the weaving side, our fabrics are used by luxury design houses that target both men's and women's fashions."
Everything starts in the design office. Here a team of five fabric designers and five separate clothing designers are busy creating their newest creations. The wool and other natural fibres used to make the fabric arrives to the mill already pre-spun and formed into the shape of large cones. Depending on the design, colour and pattern of the fabric to be woven, various cones are selected and then loaded onto the beams on each loom. This is an intricate process known as warping. Here parallel strands of yarn are drawn onto the looms longitudinally. Like multiple roads of a highway converging into one single lane, these are interlaced with lateral threads at right angles to form the fabric or cloth.
The skilled weavers guide their looms over and back to produce the most magnificent of fabrics, from the traditional herringbone design to those that are more colourful and contemporary.
"It takes up to five years to become a weaver," says Patrick. "This is because there is such variability in the looms that each one must be tuned every morning. But that's part of the magic of weaving," he adds.
Before the fabrics can be used though, they must first be washed, steamed, dried and then pre-shrunk to leave them feeling softer and to prevent shrinking at a later stage.
It's a complex process but one that has been honed now for 150 years since John Magee, a drapery shop owner in the town, first set up the company. He began the business by buying and selling handwoven Donegal tweeds from part-time weavers and local farmers and fishermen.
In 1887, Robert Temple, Lynn's grandfather joined as an apprentice and later ended up buying the business. It was he who built the textile factory on the current site in 1918. In 1931 his son, Howard, joined the business and not long afterwards expanded into manufacturing garments. So highly regarded was the company that, in 1962, it was selected to design and weave the green tweed used in the uniforms for Aer Lingus.
In 1974, his son, Lynn, joined the business having completed a degree in business in Trinity College Dublin.
"My challenge at the time was to bring the traditional image of Magee into the 21st century. We had become somewhat pigeon-holed into being seen as manufacturers of older men's suits and jackets - and so I had to begin to target a younger audience who were looking for a smarter casual look," says Lynn. "And I did this gradually through selecting fabrics and clothes that were more contemporary and using designs and cuts that were more stylish," he adds.
In 2008, Lynn was joined in the business by his daughter Charlotte, who looks after the design and retail sides of the business. In 2012, Patrick also joined the company and now heads up the weaving and wholesale part of the company.
"As part of our ongoing strategy to modernise the brand, we recently purchased Robert Noble, a UK brand with its own mill that specialised in more lightweight menswear fabrics," says Patrick. "We also launched our new online store in 2013, something that has also helped expand our shopfront and give us a more global reach. Customers now come from as far away as the US, New Zealand and Japan," he adds.
As a family, the Temples love the outdoors - from horse riding and hill walking to cycling and swimming. It is from here that they draw much of our inspiration for their designs.
"Everything we do now continues to be inspired by our unique heritage but with a contemporary twist," says Lynn.
Are they optimistic about the future?
"Certainly. We have a mix of great young designers, web developers and sales executives who along with those staff who have been with us for a long time, makes our current team the best we have ever had," says Lynn.
The Magee brand is one of the few truly Irish clothing brands that still exists. Lynn, together with his children Patrick and Charlotte, has succeeded in his initial goal of steering the company's safely into the 21st century. Together, they have opened new stores, expanded their wholesale market, taken their business successfully online and are now continuing to develop contemporary lifestyle collections for both men and women. Their journey really is a masterclass in how to reinvent and reposition a business in the face of changing market trends.
I tell Lynn that I think the folks at the National Geographic Traveller magazine were right after all - Donegal really is the coolest place on the planet.
"Sure, up here we always knew that. We're just happy that the rest of the world is now catching on to that fact," he says with a laugh.
As they wave me off, I leave confident that the Magee brand will be around for many generations to come.
For further information: www.magee1866.com
Sunday Indo Business