Fresh from a hard-working but satisfying weekend at the Crafts Fair in the RDS last week, Sophie Rieu of designer label Unicorn was full of insights as to where the nation is at in terms of shopping and spending.
"Some people didn't mind spending, while others wanted discount. Price is definitely an issue. But it didn't stop some people buying, which is good," Sophie told me, adding: "The great thing about the Crafts Fair is that I get a lot of repeat customers, people who have found my work in boutiques and love that they get to meet the designer behind the clothes."
Not only is French-born, Irish-based Sophie a designer with high standards of work, quality and creativity, but she is also something of a poster girl in the fashion industry for all things ethical, sustainable and environmentally sensitive. Hers is conscious, conscientious, fashion.
Sophie tells me quality is the most important issue for her as a designer, and yet the hardest to defend in these recessionary times.
"I am sticking to my quality," Sophie told me. "I see a lot of people, especially in boutiques, saying they are lowering their prices. But really they are lowering the quality, but seeming to be reducing their prices.
"It is short-term thinking. My customers come in to me with pieces that are years old that are still worn, still beautiful. I think it makes sense to spend wisely now. Not waste it on cheap clothing."
Unicorn's collection is no more expensive than any mid-level, designer collection. Unicorn dresses start at €285 to €335, jackets are €299 to €350, skirts, tailored trousers and knickerbockers, run from €175 to €265. They are all made of wool, or wool/cashmere/angora mixes and lined with silk. The wool crepe she uses is incredibly light, as is the lambswool and wool flannel.
These are high-quality, natural, beautiful-to-the-touch clothes that are made in Ireland where possible, or Poland (due to manufacturing inadequacies in Ireland), in fabrics that, again, as much as possible are produced here or within the EU.
Buying Unicorn is buying a beautiful garment, doing the least damage to the environment, keeping craft industries such as weaving alive, and sustaining jobs -- be they at Magee in Donegal, mills in Tipperary and Kilarney, or the wonderful Arthur Harrison of Yorkshire who has been around since the 1700s and used to supply the great Jean Muir with her sublime wool crepes.
Sophie's winter 2011/12 collection, while meeting women's need for a working wardrobe, consists of lots of very feminine dresses, as well as skirts, trousers, knickerbockers and her classic, very cute, tulip skirt.
One of the most appealing aspects of the collection is Sophie's attention to the back, and seductive framing of shoulders-waist-bottom.
Her designs focus on the sensuality of the nape of the neck, an erogenous zone making its appearance for the first time in years.
"I like to do sensual work. And I wanted to allow a bit more of that part of myself out, and so that is why the collection is a lot curvier and, in places, shorter.
"I decided to do mini dresses because some people wear them as tunics -- and it is younger. But I also did the same dress longer, below the knee, and I think it still looks sexy."
Unicorn's colours are the sort one relishs wearing on long, dark days -- rich plum, sumptuous opal, a delicious navy, warm brown, charcoal and black.
"I did just one coat -- it is a lambswool, angora and cashmere mix, lined with silk satin, so it is very rich, very beautiful. It is very fitted at the top and almost down to the ankle."
Two years ago, Sophie opened her first store, Garden of the Unicorn in Greystones, joining other great indie stores such as vintage specialist The Goddess Room, that make the town an original and interesting shopping destination.
"I offer a made-to-measure service. And now I am offering an upcycling service where customers can bring me things that their mothers used to wear and loved, and I might add to it or re-invent it. I love doing it because it is creative and it is also very interesting to work with people on it."
If you are thinking gifts, Garden of the Unicorn also stocks knitwear by UN award winning, ethical brand, Untouched World. Also Fair Trade, azo-free, wool and silk leggings, tops and camis by Living Craft at €45 a piece, and also by Swiss brand Alkena which is certified organic and Fair Trade.
On Wednesday, Garden of the Unicorn will be hosting a customer evening. Sophie is offering 20 per cent discount to all those who attend, as well as a glass of wine and a mince pie!
"I have already had quite a few husbands in buying nice tops for their wives. I offer a return service in that if people buy a gift, even if it is a sale item, I let them exchange. If the dress doesn't fit, because I am a designer and working locally, I can alter it for them."
Spending, consuming, where there is a flow, a reciprocity, a respect for and about the spend, is always a happier experience.
Unicorn by Sophie Rieu is one such experience.
Sunday Indo Living