A design for life: Irish business star Chupi chases jewellery dream
'Start small and make your mistakes while no one is watching' - Chupi
Chupi Sweetman, the Irish designer behind the jewellery brand ‘Chupi’ has been designing and creating since she got her first Singer sewing machine at the age of five. Now 32 she says that key to her success has been starting small and making mistakes "while on one is watching."
To the outside eye, the jewellery company Chupi, which was officially launched on 1 April 2014, has been an overnight success, exporting business to customer to 64 different countries, and exporting business to business to six countries, but as she says herself, she has been in the design game a long time.
Prior to setting up her namesake company, Chupi, alongside her brother, wrote a cookbook for people with food allergies, "we were about 16 and 13 when we wrote it, it was called 'What to Eat', it sold all over the UK, Ireland, we sold the American rights, the German rights, it sold out everywhere...we were talking about food before it was cool," she says.
Then, to get herself through school and college, she began designing and making women’s clothing which she sold on Cow’s Lane in Temple Bar.
It was here, having just completed her first year of a fashion design course that she got her first big break in the fashion industry, when a scout for Topshop spotted her work and she was offered a position at the multinational clothing company, as she says,
"I joined the team and designed collections sold in the UK and Ireland. It was all women’s clothing, I hadn’t started designing jewellery then, [the clothing was] all made in Ireland, and I loved it."
However it was not a complete fairytale, working on three week contacts, something she admits was tough.
In addition she says her lack of business training made it a real baptism of fire.
"I went in with a collection and on the launch night we almost totally sold out, and I remember being so excited but also so terrified because we had no stock, I had no idea we were meant to have replenish stock," she says.
Her lack of business knowledge at the time was, she says, something that is a failure of education in the creative sector,
We teach design students the creative side but no business and this is something I see being repeated in design universities, that you have these brilliant talented graduates, with no business acumen
– this is why so many designers leave Ireland and go work for the big houses, we don’t teach them that they can be a designer and a business person. I spent a long time thinking I couldn’t be both."
It was during her six years in Topshop that Chupi learnt to become a businessperson.
"We only had three weeks, we had to figure out a way to make it work and there is nothing like fast fashion – innovate or die because you have a new collection launching every six weeks, there is no such thing as seasons in fast fashion any more, you produce every six weeks, if you walk into Zara and they have the same clothes they had six weeks ago you are like oh I have already seen this," she says.
At the end of the six years Chpui had sold about 40,000 dresses in Topshop but she says she “fell out of love with it.”
"My boyfriend had just proposed and my grandmother had left me a necklace and I suddenly owned a piece of the past and a piece of the future though jewellery, I had been getting frustrated and bored in work so I stared making jewellery as a hobby".
It was to be a move that changed everything. Having started selling her "hobby pieces" in the Loft in Powerscourt while still working for Topshop for about a year, she then quit Topshop to commit fully to her jewellery business.
Success did not come easy and Chupi said that in order to venture out on her own she saved "like crazy",
"I have always been like 'quit what makes you unhappy and chase the dream, but be practical'
- I was so broke for those first few years but that’s just part of it, you have to change everything you do and you have to have a plan.
If it hadn’t worked I would have figured it out, but I knew my heart and soul was there."
In terms of the biggest challenges in setting up her own business, Chupi highlights the difficulty she had in asking people for help and knowing who to ask for help, "I was proud and self-sufficient and was embarrassed by my mistakes," she says.
In addition being a woman and running a business is something that has brought its challenges.
"I was 21 when I started, I walked into a bank with a contract for Topshop and I couldn’t get a credit card, my then boyfriend (now husband) was a student at the time and they gave him a credit card for €5,000 limit... The way my husband’s company is treated and mine is is completely different even though we have 21 on the pay roll."
However the barriers to funding that she experienced has in the long run benefited the company,
"We have bootstrapped the entire company, we don’t have any debt, any overdraft or loans, but this was tough, we were self sufficient not out of strategy at first, but out of necessity, we had to do it," she comments.
For a company like Chupi, which has over 125,000 fans across various social media platforms, social media plays a very important role both in terms of marketing to the target audience and engaging in market research with the target audience, as she says, it enables tiny companies to find people who love what they love for free.
"Social allows us to tell the story of our designs online, it is easy to get caught up in the idea that your product is unique, but any product I make can be replicated, you could make a thousand of them in China without even thinking about it."
And despite the fact the jewellery is 100pc made and designed in Ireland, this is not necessarily something that translates very well outside of Ireland.
However she says "the story behind the products, and that the products are made with love, made responsibly, made socially and ethically that is the unique."
For those looking to get into the jewellery design business, Chupi offers two internship programmes; Content & Design and PR & Marketing.
The Content and Design internship is currently open for applications until next Friday, while the PR and Marketing internship is opening for applications in about a month, however the idea of internships is something that she was initially against, "I’m really conscious about not taking advantage of people," she says.
Finally, I ask if she has any plans to return to the clothing business, after all it is where she started out at the age of five, Chupi assures me that there are no plans for such a return, "we are in the happiness business...there is nothing like making a ring that marks a moment!"