A smart approach to business can help talented graduates make the cut in the rag trade, writes Sorcha Corcoran
Like so many of Ireland’s fashion graduates, Jill de Búrca cut her teeth in Britain. Unlike many others, however, she returned to set up shop here.
The embroidery and embellishment designer now runs her business from her base in Dublin, where she produces lavish headpieces, gowns and more. She has sold her creations to international designers such as Calvin Klein and Diane von Furstenberg as well as high-street names including J Crew and Topshop.
De Búrca took a two-year course in fibre art at Ballyfermot College of Further Education before studying textiles at the National College of Art and Design (Ncad). She then followed the well-trodden path to the UK to intern at Larch Rose, a high-end swatch studio in Brighton, and at Jenny King Embroidery in the same city, where she became “addicted” to working on an Irish Singer embroidery machine.
After a year of freelancing in the UK, during which she sold designs and ideas to fashion companies, de Búrca decided to return to Dublin in 2014.
“I thought if I was doing it from there, I could do it from Dublin,” she said.
It has not been quite so easy. “You’re trying to do so many roles yourself, and time is really tight. The first and second year were incredibly hard, but I learnt a lot. It’s a juggling act and I’m still learning as I go. I just do small orders, and when you’re competing with the high street, people expect to pay high-street prices. But you have to stay true to what you do; you can’t be everything.”
And the upside to working in fashion — as her own boss — is huge. “I get to design what I want. I love producing, sewing, experimenting, and it’s important for me to be able to do that. I like being able to step back and look at my back catalogue of work and be proud of it.”
De Búrca says her time abroad was a significant factor in her success. “I don’t think I would have got that experience here,” she said. “If you know it’s for you, keep going. But don’t give up your part-time job straight away.” For Eddie Shanahan, chairman of the Council of Irish Fashion Designers, anyone considering a career in fashion design needs to understand is that it is “a serious and difficult” business.
“The competition is fierce,” he said. “Decide what your section of the market is, and how you’re going to serve it. You can’t take on Zara and H&M; you have to have a point of difference, and either persuade retail buyers that you are worthy or establish your own shop and pay all the overheads that go with that.”
Shanahan says the perception that fashion design is fun is a problem. “It’s the same as industrial design insofar as it’s a business, and you earn an income based on what you sell,” he said. “The cost of production and materials come into play as with any other business. Being a fashion designer is no different to being the guy who designs vacuum cleaners. It’s not a pastime; you have to do your research and development.”
He says there hasn’t been enough emphasis on the business aspects of fashion in the various courses on offer around the country. “People need to understand the concepts of a business plan and cash flow; they need to be able to sustain themselves through good and bad seasons.”
There are numerous fashion-related courses in Ireland, at institutions such as Ncad, the Limerick School of Art and Design, Ulster University, St Angela’s College in Sligo, the Grafton Academy, the Portobello Institute, Sallynoggin College, and the Mallow College of Design and Tailoring. The downside to this is that we turn out far more fashion graduates than it needs.
“We produce 180-200 fashion design graduates each year,” said Shanahan. “Do we need that many, and are there jobs for them all? No. Some will go abroad and either gain work experience before coming back to set up here or stay there to work for international companies. Many of our talented and innovative designers are still going abroad, particularly to London because of the supports available there.”
There are, of course, other jobs in this industry apart from design. “Graduates could consider jobs in retail buying, styling, fashion journalism, art direction or advertising,” said Shanahan.
In terms of earning power, it depends where your path takes you. “If you end up as fashion director of a major store, you will earn serious money,” said Shanahan. “But if you are a designer struggling to sell a few pieces online, you’re more likely to be called into the bank to account for yourself.”
Blogger and personal stylist Orla Sheridan did her undergraduate degree in business and a HDip in education before spending several years working as a cabin crew member for Emirates in Dubai. It was here she discovered her twin passions of fashion and travel. She completed a master’s degree in corporate strategy at NUI Galway, worked as a buyer with Penneys for a year, got a teaching job on the business and fashion course at Galway Technical Institute, and set up as a personal stylist in 2013.
Her CV also includes courses in buying and styling from the London College of Fashion.
Sheridan is based in Galway and most of her clients are in Dublin, so she travels there a couple of times a week between her teaching duties. She also runs corporate workshops. Her clients pay anything from a few hundred euros to thousands, depending on what they want done, and whether they are private or business clients.
The stylist says her business qualifications helped her when it came to setting up on her own. “I’m busier than I ever expected to be, but I’m still glad to have my teaching job,” she said. “The sensible side of me would find it hard to give that up. I’m busy [as a stylist] but it’s not as constant as a permanent job is.”
Sheridan says anyone considering a career as a stylist should first try to shadow someone in the business.
“Be willing to put in long hours, be familiar with trends and build relationships with retailers. Above all, you have to be able to listen to the client; there’s no point in picking clothes you like — it’s about what suits them and their lifestyle. And you have to be willing to do social media; it’s all about social media and you have to keep that going constantly.”