Monday 23 September 2019

From Dublin to Qatar and back...Irish designer Caroline Kilkenny shares her personal career highlights

Ellie Donnelly

Ellie Donnelly

Caroline Kilkenny’s career has seen her dressing and designing for the royal family of Qatar, as well as collaborating with her sister Nicola with the N&C Kilkenny label.

A graduate of the Grafton Academy, her first break came at her college graduate show when one of the judges at the show offered her a position in his company as a junior designer.

Caroline Kilkenny
Caroline Kilkenny

From there she spent a couple of years with the company, which she describes as great, "now you probably wouldn’t get the same experience."

"It had the full factory, you had your design studio, your dispatch, and production, everything under one roof, this gave me a good base, because you still really are learning after you graduate," she says.

After a few years in Dublin, Caroline ended up in the Middle East, an experience that continues to inspire her designs today.

"Before I went, tailored work would have been my strongest area, but you get to love colour there, and the Irish customer adores colour, they don’t want to be in black."

The initial plan was to spend a year in the Middle East, where she was living with her husband, however they ended up spending nearly eight years living there.

Caroline worked for a company at first, before spotting a gap in the market and working for herself.

The Emma and Leah dress from NC Kilkenny
The Emma and Leah dress from NC Kilkenny

"A lot of people asked me if I would be interested in designing more from a European point of view for the local market and I ended up opening a business there all geared towards local clientele."

The business focused on evening wear and bridal wear and Caroline describes the time as "brilliant and incredibly creative."

The Elle jumpsuit from the 'Sisters' collection
The Elle jumpsuit from the 'Sisters' collection

"I went to a lot of weddings! It was a lovely time for me, but we decided to come back to Dublin, so I sold the business."

It was when she made the move back to Dublin that Caroline started to work with her sister Nicola, who also has a design background.

Pen dress from the 'Sisters' collection
Pen dress from the 'Sisters' collection

"Fifteen years on we are still running the business. Now we are just introducing another collection called 'Sisters by CK' - this is kind of lovely, we are excited about this, direction wise it is a bit more girly, suited to the 20s-30s market, girly but still quite sophisticated."

The collection will launch in July for the Autumn-Winter season.

"It’s a different target audience, but we are very confident in it."

In terms of career highlights, Caroline says that it is "the small things" that you get a buzz out of.

"But one of my biggest moments was when I opened my own studio when we were out in the Middle East, I had a lovely space, everything was hand sewn and hand beaded on the premises, that was a really lovely time."

The second career highlight that she mentions is when she returned to Dublin and set up the label with her sister.

"It is lovely to work together, to work on a project with somebody."

In terms of industry challenges, she cites a common concern among small business, that is, the issue of accessing finance as you grow.

"For banks and businesses to be confident in you, that you can finance your collections, that is really hard when you are starting out as a young designer.

"Young people when they come out of college, they are probably designing and making everything themselves and it is very small and niche, but when you grow a company like ours, our production would not be huge – it’s still a designer brand – but it still requires finance."

In addition she says that as there are so many facets in the industry, "you have so many different hats on", no pun intended.

"What I would say to any young person going into fashion, they would really want to love it because it is a craft, and like any craft it requires a lot of hands on.

"Having said that, if you love it, you go into work and you don’t even notice the day, you kind of have to love it to stay in it."

Caroline says that it is a good idea to go into business with a partner.

"It does help to kick ideas around..for any young designer starting up, maybe go with somebody, start the path with another designer or somebody in marketing, something to bring it together, it’s hard, but it certainly makes it more interesting and easier."

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