'I'm a single mum, so price is a big thing for me' - Designer quits job to focus on Irish tweed revival
Fashion graduate Anna Dobson quit her job in 2017 to focus on tweed brand Love Mo Chuisle, writes Gabrielle Monaghan
In the 1950s, designer Sybil Connolly helped rehabilitate Irish tweed from its image as a coarse, itchy fabric worn by the peasant class for its ability to keep the damp climate at bay.
While the hardwearing material enjoyed a mid-century heyday on the international catwalks, in subsequent decades the material was perceived as the preserve of jackets and caps worn for hunting and fishing by the gentry - and the odd university professor.
By the 1970s, the arrival of mass-market clothing had made tweed woven on hand-looms uncompetitive, leading to the introduction of power looms and the near-demise of the ancient skill of hand-weaving. The looms fell silent, including at Avoca Handweavers, which was rescued in 1974.
It was in the eponymous Co Wicklow village, that Anna Dobson, founder of Irish tweed range Love Mo Chuisle, first fell in love with tweed.
"We were always around the tweeds," she says.
"Tweed had disappeared for so many years, but has become so fashionable over the last two years, even at mass-market level, where they use a cotton/tweed/wool mix."
The revival of the fabric even saw Penney's launch a formal menswear collection in 2016 that featured a heritage-style suit using Donegal tweed, while three-piece tweed suits and flat caps have been popularised by MMA fighter Conor McGregor and the crime drama Peaky Blinders.
But Avoca native Anna has managed to tap into a whole new tweed market - by becoming the only designer in Ireland to create a full tweed range that includes clothes and matching accessories for children, women and men.
After graduating from a degree in fashion and textiles at the University of Ulster in Belfast, Anna worked for Dunnes Stores in Dublin, designing their homewares. She then went to the UK, where she designed mass-market menswear, sportswear and womenswear for a company owned by Mike Ashley, the billionaire owner of Sports Direct. While working in the UK, she met her now ex-husband, a Donegal man.
The pair then lived in his home county for 12 years and began raising a family.
After becoming pregnant with the first of her three sons in 2008, Anna worked as a freelancer for six years, designing for companies such as Heatons after Ashley had acquired a 50pc stake in it.
But when her marriage broke up, Anna moved from Donegal to Avoca to be closer to her parents. She brought back her two industrial sewing machines - and the name of a tweed supplier she had come across on a day-trip to the seaside village Downings - and set up a studio at the back of her house. "I started making chair covers and curtains and clothes for the kids to keep costs down," Anna says.
"Then I began making little waistcoats for the boys and coats for myself and everyone commented on them."
In 2015, Anna began co-managing Fashion Hothouse, a design and production facility in Dublin where she worked with influential designers such as Helen Steele. But the commute from Co Wicklow to the capital was taking its toll on life with her three sons, Rhys, Sonny and Archie.
So, in 2017, Anna gave up her job to dedicate herself full-time to her own Irish tweed fashion brand. Its name incorporates the Irish for 'darling', because the budding entrepreneur calls her sons "my darlings".
Once Anna had experimented on tweed pieces for her sons and friends, she set about creating a collection. In April 2018, she shook off her nerves about pitching her designs to retail outlets and showed samples to Quills in Killarney.
"I didn't have any experience in selling anything - but once you do a couple of shops, there's no fear," Anna says. "Quills took the boys' waistcoats and ties. Since then, any shop I've approached has stocked it and I approach about one shop a month."
The brand's other stockists include the Kilkenny Design Centre, Shannon Airport Duty Free, The Design Loft at the Powerscourt Estate, and Amora in Bray.
The hand-crafted clothes feature not just traditional grey and navy herringbone tweeds, but have a contemporary twist in the form of shades of mustard, bright blue, raspberry and palm green. The pieces are fused with cotton to soften the look and ensure they drape well.
Love Mo Chuisle's range of matching waistcoats and bow ties for fathers and sons have proved particularly popular among grooms and their son, Anna says. She sought to keep her designs competitively priced, with the bow ties for boys priced at €27.95 and men's ties costing €59. The women's coats have a price-tag of €359, while the version for little girls retails for €149.
"I'm a single mum, so price is a big thing for me," Anna says. "When you're travelling to countries as a student, you want to buy something from the area you're visiting, but price can be an issue. I wanted prices that younger people could afford."
These days, Anna can make her working week - which can range from 40 hours to 80 hours - fit around family life. She cuts patterns and sews in lining and buttonholes while the children are at school, gone to after-school activities with Anna's mother, or after they have gone to bed. The blonde-haired boys also play their own small roles in the business, such as modelling the clothes for Love Mo Chuisle's website or labelling the bow-tie boxes.
Indeed, Love Mo Chuisle is a family affair. "All the kids who feature on the website are part of my extended family, my uncle is the photographer, and my aunt and mum do labelling and tagging.
"I'm now stuck for space, and all the packaging and boxes around are starting to creep into the house, so I'm looking at moving to a production facility. It's scary to commit to renting and taking on employees. I have three girls on contract who do the sewing, and I still make accessories myself. But I'm taking on a full-time employee this January.
"One of the big stressors about expanding and taking on new business is the lack of seamstresses available."
Along the way, the entrepreneur has received grants and funding from the Local Enterprise Office and mentoring from Acorns, a programme that supports and mentors rural-based, early-stage female entrepreneurs.
"The Acorns programme helps us set future goals for the next one, two or three months and shows us how to reach those targets," Anna says. "We are all in a WhatsApp group, where can all support each other. When you're on your own, it's great to have someone to bounce ideas off with."
The targets and support have paid off: business at Love Mo Chuisle is progressing at breakneck speed. In June, Anna won the arts category in the Businesswoman of the Year awards organised by Network Ireland's Wicklow branch, and, in September, she started selling to customers directly through her new website.
After focusing on national sales throughout 2018, the businesswoman's goal for this year is to start exporting. This is where exhibiting at Showcase Ireland comes in. The creative expo, which runs from January 20 to 23, attracts some 5,000 buyers from more than 20 countries every year.
Sunday Indo Business