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'A surveyor told us to walk away from it, it was in such bad condition' - Inside the home of children's wear designer Cairenn Foy

 

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Childrenswear designer Cairenn Foy in her sitting room, which doubles as an office. She put in panelling as it adds character. The period-style mantlepiece is also new. "Unfortunately, all the mantlepieces downstairs had been ripped out," she says. The glass units are by Liam Grant

Childrenswear designer Cairenn Foy in her sitting room, which doubles as an office. She put in panelling as it adds character. The period-style mantlepiece is also new. "Unfortunately, all the mantlepieces downstairs had been ripped out," she says. The glass units are by Liam Grant

Cairenn Foy likes traditional style, so she opted for white hand-made, hand-painted units, with Silestone work surfaces. The floor tiles are from Trunk

Cairenn Foy likes traditional style, so she opted for white hand-made, hand-painted units, with Silestone work surfaces. The floor tiles are from Trunk

This wood-burning stove in the extension is one of Cairenn's favourite elements of her home

This wood-burning stove in the extension is one of Cairenn's favourite elements of her home

Cairenn with two of her three children, Ava and baby Marcus - she also has Connor (five). Ava is wearing one of the dresses from Cairenn's collection. The garden is landscaped by Maryland Landscapes

Cairenn with two of her three children, Ava and baby Marcus - she also has Connor (five). Ava is wearing one of the dresses from Cairenn's collection. The garden is landscaped by Maryland Landscapes

The sitting area in the new extension is full of light and has lovely views of the garden. The furnishings are hard-wearing; it's mainly Ikea 
sofas with washable covers. The curtains are by  Helen Turkington

The sitting area in the new extension is full of light and has lovely views of the garden. The furnishings are hard-wearing; it's mainly Ikea sofas with washable covers. The curtains are by Helen Turkington

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Childrenswear designer Cairenn Foy in her sitting room, which doubles as an office. She put in panelling as it adds character. The period-style mantlepiece is also new. "Unfortunately, all the mantlepieces downstairs had been ripped out," she says. The glass units are by Liam Grant

The Leaving Cert results will be out shortly, and both students and parents are on tenterhooks. Even though most Leaving Cert students are over the age of 18, their parents often manage to insist on their offspring doing what they think is best for them.

Fortunately, the parents imposing their will isn't necessarily a disaster, as engaging blonde Cairenn Foy will testify. With much protesting, she did the kind of degree her parents wanted. Though she finally moved away from that area into something she is passionate about - childrenswear design - she recognises that her years of experience prior to starting her increasingly successful childrenswear company have stood to her.

"I was quite shy when I was younger," Cairenn says. "If I had gone directly into something that was a creative environment, I don't think I'd have been able to deal then with the levels of rejection you deal with when you're working for yourself."

The eldest of three, the 30-something entrepreneur says she wanted to do something in interiors or fashion, but her parents were having none of it. "They wanted me to do a business degree, and said I could do something creative after. I did European languages and business. I did not enjoy it; it was like trying to push a square through a circle," she says. She marvels at the fact that she continued in that vein for the next 10 years, almost as if she had forgotten her original aim.

"I went on to work for large blue-chip companies - eBay, Eircom, Microsoft. I worked in sales, and it was a really tough, aggressive environment, with mainly male teams and large targets. In some jobs, you can hide behind your team, but not in those. It's very much about your target and what you achieve.

"You live and die by the numbers," the softly spoken Dubliner says. She adds: "I did meet my targets, but I was never passionate about technology and telecoms."

During those years, she met Paddy Smith, a GP, in Kiely's pub in Donnybrook, not a million miles away from her parents' home in Ballsbridge. They married, and had three children in quick succession - Connor (now five), Ava (now four), and Marcus (five months). After the arrival of Connor, Cairenn realised she was burnt out from the job, and then, when Ava arrived 13 months later, the idea for a whole new career dawned on her.

"Ava had bad eczema, as do I, and I found it quite difficult to find the kind of designs for her that I like - by an Irish designer, using natural fabrics. I always like to support Irish, but I couldn't find what I was looking for," she says. It hit her - there was an opening for an Irish childrenswear designer.

Instead of taking it easy on her maternity leave - if looking after two babies could ever be called easy - Cairenn used the time to enroll at the Grafton Academy for a course in fashion design. "I wanted to understand the industry before making that leap," she explains. "I spent most evenings reading up on the different types of fabric, so that when I did decide to have a conversation with a manufacturer, I would know exactly what I was looking for."

Before she had finished the course, she had designed seven dresses. "All my inspiration comes from the past. I was a huge Shirley Temple fan; I have all her dvds. I did tap dancing from the age of three until I was 15 - mad, I know," she hoots at the thought of her teenage self. "I just love old, traditional styling. And I get inspiration from the pattern of the fabrics, and the feel of the fabrics, too."

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Once she had the designs, she had seven samples made up, and she started to go around to the various childrenswear boutiques - cold calling, as she says herself. "I said to myself, 'Worst case scenario, if I don't make any sales, I have seven beautiful dresses for Ava'."

Trying to make sales was often challenging. "I remember phoning one major retailer and I locked myself in the bathroom for two minutes while the two children, aged one and two, were in the playpen," Cairenn says. "I wasn't expecting to get through to the retailer, but I did, and I nearly had a heart attack when she started to talk to me, because all I could think about was the two children, hoping they were OK, but I really needed to have this conversation," she laughs.

"I did get an appointment with Avoca, but it took months and months of emailing, calling, sending samples. You have to be so resilient, take nothing personally, and you have to be able to get up the next day and do it all over again."

And that's where she realises the years of sales were an advantage. "Even though I didn't have the time of my life in sales, it definitely stood to me," she says. Cairenn does admit that then when she got her first order from Avoca, for two hundred dresses, she was terrified.

Her range of dresses for little girls, under the label Cairenn Foy, went on the market in 2016, and is now sold in several childrenswear boutiques, as well as in Avoca and Brown Thomas - 18 stores altogether. The dresses are extremely pretty -100pc cotton in sweet colours, and with traditional touches like broderie anglaise. The collection has now expanded to include skirts and cardigans.

"When my first delivery of stock arrived, I was so petrified it would be robbed, that I slept with it in my bedroom," Cairenn laughs. She says the range is made in Europe, and she emphasizes that it's made by adults who receive fair wages. That was a conscious decision. "It is a business and I have to make money, but I want it to be done properly," she says.

Not content with what she has achieved to date, she's planning to go into communion dresses. She also intends to go to New York in November, and is currently trying to set up appointments with buyers there. She's been shortlisted for several awards, including the prestigious Drapers Best New Brand 2018, which will be announced at an event in London on September 12.

"My husband is coming with me," Cairenn says. "He's been incredibly supportive. He reassures me when I worry about failing - 'So it fails; it's cheaper than an MBA' - and he's right, it's been an amazing learning curve."

Paddy is quite the high achiever, too; as well as his practice, he's a Fine Gael councillor, which is like a full-time second job. "I was hoodwinked," Cairenn says. "I was in the labour ward just before having Ava, and he was on his phone canvassing."

Fortunately, they had already bought their beautiful home before they got involved in so much productivity between their work situations and their family.

It wasn't actually very beautiful when they bought it, in 2010. "A surveyor told us to walk away from it, it was in such bad condition," Cairenn reveals.

Despite this advice, they bought it. Then their architect told them that the existing extension could last 30 years, or it could collapse the next day; needless to mention, they thought it best to knock it and build a new one. They also had to rewire and replumb. "And it was infested with rodents," Cairenn volunteers.

Planning and building took a year-and-a-half, and over the last few years Cairenn has gradually been restoring the house in a way that respects its period. "All the fireplaces downstairs and the cornicing had been ripped out, which was a shame," she says.

The open-plan kitchen/dining/living area is new, as are the children's bedrooms above it. They put in new bathrooms as well, and kept the original reception rooms the same - Cairenn uses one for stock and one, while it is decorated as a living room, doubles as an office.

There's also a gorgeous garden, which was the most recent part of the renovation. "It took me ages to get around to it," she says.

The wonder is that she got around to it at all. This is a very busy household - three kids under five; one a newborn who doesn't sleep. "I have a lot of energy to begin with," Cairenn says. "If I can do it without sleep, imagine if I had sleep? There would be no stopping me. I'm quite driven. I am competitive, but only with myself. I don't like doing anything half-assed. At the end of the day, I'm not curing cancer, I have to keep perspective."

See cairennfoy.com

Edited by Mary O'Sullivan

Photography by Tony Gavin


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