Monday 19 February 2018

A little gem of treasures for that special occasion

Bespoke jeweller Vivien Walsh came to the business almost by mistake, she tells Lucinda O'Sullivan

Lucinda O'Sullivan

THERE is nothing to put a glint in a girl's eye more than the sight of a nice little jewellery box!

Women have always had a passion for jewellery, but something that has been handcrafted and designed for you is especially treasured.

Vivien Walsh, one of Ireland's best-known jewellery designers, quietly sells her beautifully crafted pieces from a chic little shop in Monkstown, Co Dublin.

Her jewellery is just that bit different to anything you will find on the high street – and the prices are great.

Vivien was also one of the first people to bring top international designers to Ireland in the Eighties. "I was always interested in arts, crafts, music, making, doing," says Vivien. "I wasn't the academic type."

Travel is her other passion, kick-started when she went to Spain in 1973 as a 16-year-old au pair. "When I came back I had to get a job, and I ended up in a fashion boutique. I spent a few years at that, and then I went to London and I worked with an Italian company that did high-end children's wear such as Armani and so on."

This job involved Vivien travelling back and forth to Italy, and she ended up running nine shops for this company in the UK.

"I worked very hard, was very well paid, had a great time, but there came a point when I wanted to come back home and I thought, 'If I don't make the move now I'll never do it, I'll be in London for the rest of my life,' and I didn't really want that."

Vivien returned to Ireland in the early Eighties and did a 'Start Your Own Business' course with Anco (which became Fas, and then Solas).

"I was going to set up a knitwear business. However, Anco put you through all the financials, the research, and I figured out that I couldn't afford to do the knitwear.

"But while doing the research involved I had found suppliers of beads, which in the Eighties were the fashionable embellishment for the knitwear that I was going to be doing. Then I thought, 'Maybe I can do something with the beads,' and I started making jewellery. So, it was kind of a mistake but it was a good mistake.

"I then got into the Design Centre when it started on St Stephen's Green – I got a case to show my jewellery. It was IDA backed, and the designers had to spend some time there, selling and meeting the customers and all of that."

Vivien says business grew and grew – it was a new thing for Ireland – and from there she opened wholesale accounts all round the country.

"Lainey Keogh and Louise Kennedy were there, a whole gang of us. The buyers would come and business was done. We were all a bit naive, but we were enjoying it. We were writing our orders, doing our business, and paying our way, but I don't think we were that focused properly on it. That came a bit later on."

She expanded and opened a shop upstairs in the same building. "To my own jewellery I added bags, and shoes and belts, and so on."

In fact, Vivien is somewhat modest – she also brought top international avant-garde designers to Ireland.

She laughs when she recalls Japanese shoe designer Tokio Kumagai. "He was a fascinating man. He was the first person I'd ever met who was a true designer. On one occasion he said to me, 'Do you know Samuel Beckett? I'd love him to model my next collection!' Unfortunately a year or so later Kumagai died." Nowadays you will see Tokio Kumagai's shoes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Vivien's next move was to open Kamouflage on Dawson Street. Here she showcased designers such as Rifat Ozbek, Romeo Gigli, Issey Miyake, Erickson Beamon and Philippe Model, and where she also had an early exhibition of Philip Treacy hats. Unfortunately, Kamouflage only lasted four or five years.

"I was in Kamouflage at completely the wrong time of life, in the depths of recession, in Dawson Street, in quite a big unit, very high end. Jasper Conran was next door. The sums couldn't have added up, but again I was a bit naive; it just went under.

"I spent that summer having a break and trying to figure out what to do, and then I bumped into Michelle Kavanagh from Powerscourt Townhouse; she had been involved in the Design Centre on Stephen's Green. She said, 'There's a unit in Powerscourt. Would you like to open up?' I said, 'I've no money,' to which she replied, 'Don't worry about that – get a few of your pals together and we'll see how we operate.' That's what I did for a number of years."

Vivien then took a shop on Lower Stephen's Street which had ground floor retail and the basement was the studio.

"I started to expand and sell overseas," she says. She lent some jewellery to a model for a show in London, and this led to her being accepted for London Fashion Week – a huge coup – and also Paris Fashion Week. "I sold in Liberty, Harvey Nichols, Neiman Marcus in the USA and Japan."

However, such success also led to problems. "We were in hand-made land and rents were going up here, wages were going up here, everything was going up. At that point I wasn't competing pricewise with designers in France, Italy or Spain. I did try a bit of overseas production, but that's not my cup of tea.

"So I just pared it down and stuck up my own shop with my own customers here and took the margin on the retail end – which was working up to a point when we went into total Celtic Tiger land with rent and rates and all those things that finished businesses all over the country. I thought, 'These sums don't work out any more.' I had eventually got a bit of an economic hat on.

"I was very lucky and got out. I went off to Italy for a while.Then this unit in Monkstown came up and ticked all my boxes."

In May 2011, Vivien opened her Monkstown bijou shop. As we talked, a regular client of Vivien's swished in, cocktail dress in hand, and wanted something to complement it for a special garden party.

"That's a big part of the business, people come in to have something made for an outfit. Gifts or special occasions are the main part of the business. I wouldn't say business is 'flying'. If anybody tells me that, I'm wondering what I am doing wrong. It is steady: people come, they return. People are more considered in their purchasing now – they have to be, we all have to be.

"The difference between here and town, is that it is in the suburbs, in a good area, in a small village, and I can spend the time with people. It's not all hustle and bustle.

"It is not busy, busy, busy. They come, as you saw, specifically, they go away, and then in the meantime we are making here so it works from that point of view." She adds: "I am looking to grow the online sales, the wholesale, sort of organically, slowly, slowly."

Prices range from €40 for earrings or a small bracelet, to necklaces from €45-€250.

"I'm doing a lot of heavier chains, a little bit harder edged this autumn, a kind of diffused sophisticated industrial rather than grungy, so there is a softness to it. I'm always very conscious to design something that's wearable. You can sometimes see jewellery that looks fabulous, but it shouldn't be weighing you down on your neck or your ears. It looks great, but technically it doesn't work. I've learnt that over the years."

As well as in her own shop, Vivien's jewellery can be found in Arnotts; the Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge; Elaine Curtis in Carlow and Wish in Skibbereen, Cork.

Vivien Walsh,

93 Monkstown Road,

Monkstown, Co Dublin.

Tel: (01) 214-4555;

Sunday Independent

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