Saturday 16 December 2017

A family tragedy that led to a new design for success

A death in the family led the sisters and brother behind Monica John to rethink their lives, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan

A GOOD retailer is born, not made, has always been my theory. You have to have an eye for stock, an eye for a good location, and to love the wheeling and dealing and meeting with customers that is the everyday life of a retailer.

Marianne Weidner is just such a person. Born Marianne Murphy, she was reared in Bantry where her parents had a shoe shop in the town so, along with her siblings, she was hands on from an early age, making sure the farmers, bank manager and doctors' wives, were well shod.

"I always loved it, from the time I was seven or eight years old I used go down on a Saturday and help the manager of the shop, and he would say I was the best little sales girl he ever had. Sure, I could hardly reach the counter -- but I loved it.

"There were six of us, three girls and three boys, and all of us worked in the shop, that was the way we were brought up. We lived in the country and worked in the shoe shop during our school holidays all the way up, until the sun shone and my father dropped everything. It didn't matter if the queen was coming, we went to Barleycove and picnicked, so I have lovely memories of Barleycove.

"I was working in the shoe shop as I got older with my brother John and he decided he wanted to open a fashion shop."

In 1977, their parents bought a sweet shop next door to his shop called Monica's, and John and Marianne opened their first boutique, keeping the same name. This was the birth of the upmarket fashion store Monica John which came about when they had expanded to Cork in 1980, and to Anne Street in Dublin in 1981, with sister Margo Lavelle now on board.

Monica John went on to become a destination shop for the upmarket shopper, selling labels such as Georges Rech, Ischiko, Annette Gortz and many more, with a devoted following of customers who wanted something that little bit different and edgy.

The three siblings worked very closely together for over 25 years before splitting up to go their separate ways. Monica John is now based solely in Bantry and run by John Murphy.

Marianne met her graphic designer husband Jud Weidner pretty much on her own doorstep when they were both very young. Jud, whose grandfather was German, was born in England but his mother was Irish and the family used to come to Bantry on their holidays.

"My aunt was married to his mother's first cousin so we have mutual cousins. I was three years older than him and I can remember him as a child and his brother wearing lederhosen because they used to also go to Germany on their holidays.

"They didn't come over from the age of about 12 to 17 and then they came over and he was a real dish and then he came again when he was 19 and I just fell in love with him. When he finished college, he came over the next day and we got married six months later."

In 2000, Marianne went to the Pure Exhibition in London to look for new labels.

"It was getting more difficult to find new interesting labels but at that exhibition I found Helmut Bayer who was on the first day of showing his incredible Oska range."

Oska is a quality range of easy to wear clothes which is loved by women for its unstructured,slightly Japanese-style silhouettes, with funky trousers and forgiving elasticated waists. Oska works with wonderful, heavy quality linens and fine wools.

"I remember going through the pieces and thinking I could see every customer we had in that collection, I had seen a lot of collections over all the years, but this one blew my mind. We bought the collection for the following season and, as we were leaving, Helmut said he would send me a box of samples."

This was the start of a very good business relationship.

"The samples arrived and it was like sunshine coming out of the box -- linens and elasticated waists. At the time I was putting on a few pounds -- I like my food -- and Oska came along and I thought I've never had anything like it in my life."

Marianne says her customers loved Oska.

"If they went into the fitting room with the colour and the right size, it went into the bag."

However, tragedy was to hit the family.

"In 2005, our youngest brother Finbar, aged 45, took his own life and that rattled us all. Margo immediately decided to leave the business to concentrate on her family. She left first and I was unhappy.

"I left Monica John then because we all took a step back and looked at our lives. I wasn't happy. Meanwhile, Helmut Bayer was always asking me to go and work for him. I said to him to be realistic, I lived in Ireland.

"He said I would be like gold in his company so that was that. It meant living in London for three months of the year, selling to shops all over the world. I am employed now by Oska so I sell to New York, Toronto, Australia and New Zealand, I travel a lot. I look after my customers and Oska customers will travel anywhere to get Oska."

Marianne then decided she wanted an Oska shop herself and in 2008 she discovered a great premises in Toormore, near Goleen in west Cork.

"I thought about all our extra Oska past season stock and samples and rang Helmut and told him. He asked how I felt about it and I said I had a really good feeling and so the Oska Outlet Store Toormore was born. Almost 50 boxes of stock arrived and I put a small ad in the newspaper and it took off."

It couldn't be further away from the main drag but now the Toormore Outlet is a destination for Oska devotees from not only all over Ireland but from all over the world.

On the morning of my visit to Oska Toormore, people from Switzerland and Belgium were waiting to get through the doors and cars rolled up continuously with women eager to trawl the rails.

"The first season it was all outlet stock, then the second year I brought in new season stock also, so one half of the shop is last season stock with 30 per cent off and the other side of the shop is new stock."

On top of this, Marianne has this weekend opened a new Oska shop in East Douglas Village in Cork selling this season's Oska but also with a range of new edgy labels.

In addition, she is opening a store in east Cork. The Oska Outlet Killeagh opens on October 28 at the Green Barn Lifestyle Store, Restaurant, and Garden Centre at Killeagh, on the N25 between Youghal and Midleton.

Marianne and Jud have four children and their eldest daughter, Jenny, now also works for Oska, managing its Sloane Square branch, as well as covering the American and Canadian market. Jenny is also opening her own Oska shop in Greenwich next spring.

Retailing is definitely in the blood.

Sunday Independent

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