Heroic journey of an Irish institution
Support Magee and other Irish brands, not for being Irish but for being excellent, says Constance Harris
Recently, as I said goodbye to a chap, I stroked his arm (as a gal is wont to do) and exclaimed: "Gosh, what stunning fabric." (Which I guess is not the kind of response a chap generally hears.)
But it was lusciously soft, stunning wool, in the most gorgeous-looking tweed. The chap then remarked that it was incredibly warm, too, and well able for the harsh weather we were experiencing.
Had I been told it was by Etro and cost €3,000, I would not have been surprised. It was truly divine. But, in fact, his coat was by Magee of Donegal and cost just €499.
Magee of Donegal is one of Ireland's near-heroic institutions. It has been around since the 1860s, and has weathered depressions, emigrations, wars, recessions and punitive government taxation policies.
Ironically, according to Lynn Temple -- a direct descendent of Magee's founding fathers, and chairman of the company -- it was the Celtic Tiger that nearly put the nail in the coffin of this wonderful company.
"Irish people changed their consumption patterns," Lynn explained. "Up until then, they were brilliant about buying Irish. You could rely on their loyalty. It kept us going as a clothing brand.
"But during the Celtic Tiger, they turned their back on Irish brands in favour of international ones. It was nearly disastrous for us."
Sadly, I have heard this a lot from Irish menswear brands during the past 10 years. But survival being the mother of invention, Irish menswear companies, which looked to reducing costs massively and put an emphasis on exporting rather than the home market, have come through.
Another big irony here is that Lynn and all at Magee have been for decades designing and creating the fabrics for the prestige houses, which the Irish nouveau riche had developed a penchant for -- Armani, Burberry, Etro, etc.
The same quality of silk, linen or wool fabric goes into a Magee garment, as in the luxury brands. The only difference will be in the price -- and that will be huge.
But what the change in Irish consumer patterns revealed was that the Irish mentality is not so much price-conscious as spend-conscious: a garment is deemed of good quality if you spend a lot on it. Which really is quite nonsensical, especially when you consider the incredible quality that Irish firms produce.
Fortunately, that tide in perception is changing. Not only is the original customer coming back, but Magee is also attracting a new, sartorially cool, younger customer; one who appreciates quality and heritage -- the two biggest buzz words in fashion currently.
Last year, when Life fashion supported the Movember men's health awareness campaign and photographed Irish men in Irish menswear brands, it was the garments by Magee that had most of the discerning men on our shoot drooling.
During the past decade, while the retail scene in Ireland was changing, so was Magee's design stamp. It now makes much sharper, slim-line suits. It does continental, soft tailoring and it is very on-trend this season, with its contemporary-styled, unlined summer jackets, with funky trims and luxury details.
It produces gorgeous linen shirts, jackets and suits, and sumptuous, chunky, flecked wool sweaters which bring out the rugged in even the puniest of guys.
And it has been innovating. I thought its quilted gilet -- sleeveless jacket -- was brilliant, combining Magee tweed beauty with pure function. It also has done stunning raincoats which challenge even the smoothness of Burberry.
Plus, it has been creating some womenswear lines and household pieces, such as table linens and sumptuous blankets -- all at great prices for the quality you get.
Last year, it launched a men's formal wear hire service, available through all their stockists and stores, and from their website. It has been a tremendous success.
When I visited the Magee factory in Donegal just before Christmas, I did not expect to be as surprised by the modernity and broad reach of this company, or as moved by what it does, as I was.
Charlotte Temple, Lynn's daughter, and sales and marketing director, took me on a tour of the company and introduced me to its talented team of weave designers, led by the brilliant Gill Mudie.
Then Charlotte and Gill took me down to the mill floor to see how yarn was woven into fabric. In this raw state, the fabric is full of natural oils and though more matt in luster, it is inspiring and humbling in its beauty.
Charlotte pointed a corner out to me where several extraordinarily skilled women work, able to correct any slight issues on newly woven fabric. She tells me they can even add a colour at this stage, if a customer wants it.
Every corner we turn, every man and women we meet are about skill and talent.
Magee employs 120 people in an area where, beyond fishing and tourism, there isn't a lot else. Just imagine the lack of career choice.
No wonder emigration is a big part of the landscape. Magee used to employ more, but time and economics took their toll. When Lynn refers to closures and the loss of employees whom he had known all of his life, you can feel this is a source of personal disappointment.
In a recent interview, Manchester United's Alex Ferguson said it was loyalty he valued more in players, rather than friendship. Lynn's whole life and family history, and future, is Magee of Donegal. Nothing will ever trump that emotional commitment. An international firm will pull out the minute profits fall. An Irish firm will stay until its last gasping breath.
But Lynn and his family are full of vim and verve to see Magee well into the future. They are up with not only fashion trends, but also environmental issues and retail developments. I can see "never rest on your laurels" as being the Temple motto.
Irish consumers forgot our loyalty for a while. It is time we appreciated our own and supported them. Not because they are Irish -- but because they are excellent.
PHOTOGRAPHY Tiberiu Coroliuc, www.photo-tiberiu.com
STYLING Patricia McDyer, assisted by Ernie Brown
MAKE-UP Karen Jarvis
HAIR Claire Boyle
MALE MODEL Emanuele Fiore, Nevs Model Agency, London
FEMALE MODEL Charlotte Temple
Shot on location at Bellinter House, Navan, and Salthill House, Donegal.
Stockists: Magee clothing can be found in: Magee of Donegal, Wicklow Street, Dublin 2,
Arnotts, Dublin 1, and selected stockists nationwide.
See, www.mageeireland.com or tel: 353-(0)74-972-1100.
Sunday Indo Living