Young fashion designers are offering quality and price – and make customers feel they are part of something great
When social media influencer turned entrepreneur Rosie Connolly Quinn’s husband Paul found himself out of work due to the Covid pandemic, the couple decided it was time to take a gamble.
Connolly and Paul had saved up for a mortgage, but as the market was unpredictable at the time, they felt it wasn’t the time to make the move. Amid the uncertainty, Connolly felt it was time to chase the dream – start her own fashion brand with her husband.
“Would we gamble our mortgage money, put it into this business to get it off of the ground?” says Connolly.
‘It was a really hard lesson and I did spend some days in bed crying’
“It felt like everything was aligning – we couldn’t wait anymore. We said: ‘Let’s do it.’ I knew I had an audience. As much as it was a risk, it was a calculated risk. I knew what my followers liked from working with other brands – I knew what they’d react to and what they’d buy from me.”
From the launch in December 2020, Connolly’s athleisure brand 4th ARQ flourished. Its first release sold out fast – and the husband and wife duo realised they had been overly cautious on how much stock they would need to match demand.
The next run was successful again – but it was too successful. In March 2021, 4th ARQ moved to a fulfilment model, and the system it outsourced to couldn’t keep up with the online traffic. It oversold by 6,000 – meaning Connolly had to manually refund and email those customers.
“Bad as that was, it showed us that if we had had 6,000 more units, it would have sold out. It actually proved to us the demand.
"It was a really hard lesson and I did spend some days in bed crying, thinking: ‘This is it, it’s all over.’ But look at how many people purchased. It was a turning point – it gave us the confidence to really put money behind bigger stock orders, and it just took off.”
4th ARQ has continued to grow. The metric of 80pc of customers returning to make further purchases has bolstered confidence, with Connolly now saying she hopes to hit “double-digit millions” of euro in revenue this year.
That level of success helped attract the attention of investors.
John Kelly, son of eShopWorld founder Tommy Kelly, backed the business early on, after watching the hype build around 4th ARQ. He helped push the brand to the next level.
“This was the perfect partnership,” says Connolly. “At the time, as John said, we were in the weeds. We were drowning in stock and orders. It was a no-brainer. He came in and pushed us past where we felt confident enough to go. He is aggressive with numbers – but he’s always right.”
Connolly isn’t alone in attracting investor attention. Irish fashion and beauty brands – from the luxury end to everyday wear – have been winning backing.
Luxury jeweller Chupi recently secured nearly €3.8m from investment funds including BVP and Abbey International. Last year, Irish athleisure brand Gym+Coffee raised €17m in a round that included Tommy Kelly’s family office, Castlegate.
With money pouring in, what does the future hold for Ireland’s fashion and beauty brands? Can it use domestic success as a springboard into the lucrative international markets – or will challenges such as the cost-of-living crisis catch up with it?
There are many options for fashion entrepreneurs to raise finance
James Doody, a director of IBI Corporate Finance, says Ireland has great ability in creating strong brands. But investors want to see if these brands are more than just consumers ‘putting on the green jersey’ when they go shopping. Investors want to know if the brands have longevity, and can be scaled internationally.
“An investor these days is much more sophisticated – they’re looking at the key performance indicators and the trends. The brand needs to be built for scale.”
Doody says he is seeing more and more fashion and beauty brands looking to raise finance to fill functions such as sales and marketing, as they look to grow.
“Nowadays there are more options for entrepreneurs to raise finance,” he says.
“Investors are always looking for good businesses. For entrepreneurs in the fashion or retail space, having a clearly articulated growth plan – and a clear view on an exit – are always important.
“The branding and stuff are good, but investors are looking for a return on their money – be it an exit, a trade sale, or a refinancing opportunity.”
Aoife McNamara is another up-and-coming Irish fashion entrepreneur building a reputation in the industry.
Her luxury-end clothing brand, also called Aoife McNamara, which is inspired by nature and sustainability, has been taking the big fashion meccas by storm.
Founded in 2019, Aoife captured the attention of fashionistas after turning heads at Paris Fashion Week. The success of her first shop in Adare, Co Limerick, has led to pop-ups opening across Ireland.
International attention – critical for all Irish brands looking to grow – has helped propel McNamara’s hopes for success. The brand is to be showcased during New York Fashion Week in September, and it is looking at opening a pop-up shop and selling the clothes through a boutique.
“You can’t turn down that opportunity,” she says. “The market opportunity in the US is huge.”
‘You need to give your customers something more than just a product’
Her success has not only placed her on the lists of top up-and-coming designers in the fashion industry.
Her brand has attracted the attention of investors – but McNamara has so far opted to continue growing the business herself. Though she recognises that investment could be something she will accept when the time is right.
McNamara says there are clear opportunities for Irish brands to tap into Ireland’s international reputation and succeed in global markets.
There are challenges in the industry though, with input and production costs becoming more expensive for smaller companies.
The effects of rising input and production costs are more easily sucked up by the bigger players – both in the luxury and everyday fashion markets.
Rosie Connolly says that what helps 4th ARQ and many other Irish brands stand out, is the sense of community offered by Irish fashion brands, versus the bigger players.
“There will always be competition,” she says. “You have to be competitive on price – but quality needs to be up there. And you need to give your customers something more than just a product – there has to be that feeling that you are part of something.”
Looking ahead, Connolly says 4th ARQ has implemented a new logistics model, and is looking at the potential for pushing into the UK and Australian markets. She is also looking at implementing some pop-up shops, with wholesale an option down the line.
“For us, the next three to five years is all about growth,” she said, adding the brand had been growing at nearly 300pc a year.
“We are very aggressive with targets, but it is very calculated. We know we can do it.”