Four leading Irish designers tell how they are meeting the growing demand for stylish, functional and ethical clothing for children.
Founder and creative director Orlagh O'Reilly pictured with her daughter Kiera (6) at her work station at her home in Sandycove.
Children aren't always known for their savvy fashion sense. Cue itchy nylon Princess Elsa dresses, ripped leggings and cereal-encrusted T-shirts. But, children's fashion is on the rise with figures in 2016 showing it has outpaced both womens and menswear in the global market. Today's kids are promising consumers and high street stores and designers are realising this, jumping on the kidswear bandwagon with ranges that cater for babies and children.
According to Elks designer Lucy Clarke, it's an exciting time, with people becoming more aware of what they buy and how they dress their children. We caught up with four of Ireland's leading childrenswear designers, who have all etched out their own sartorial nous with a carefully edited mix of traditional knits, pretty patterns and fresh modern attire with a nod to the whimsy.
The Mini Post Apparel & Goods
Meath woman Orlagh O'Reilly (40) spent much of her career in London as a brand consultant specialising in fashion, beauty and retail before moving home to Dublin where she now lives with her husband Oran and children Kiki (6) and Dillon Blu (2).
When Georgina Ahern bought her husband Nicky Byrne and his co-presenter Jenny Greene matching Northsider/Southsider sweatshirts courtesy of The Mini Post Apparel, Orlagh O'Reilly's website almost crashed.
"Customers are my biggest brand ambassadors, I owe everything to them and social media," admits Orlagh, a fashion brand consultant who splits her time between London and Dublin - consulting with high street and luxury stores and developing her own thriving online business from her home in Sandycove.
The organic lifestyle-led design brand is very much inspired by Ireland, with riffs on Irish colloquialisms that have now become popular with the Irish diaspora around the world. "It all started with the 'Deadly' T-shirt, which is still the most popular item. I designed one for my kids and took a picture of them wearing it as a way to announce we were home, and I was inundated with people asking me where I got it," says Orlagh.
Initially it was the design that struck a chord with parents; 'Rapid', 'Deadly', 'How'ya', all phrases that capture the Irish wit and personality; they were something cool, modern and fresh for both kids and adults to wear that was inherently Irish without being twee. But the clothing line further resonated with customers when they understood its organic trail.
"My daughter Kiki had terrible eczema when she was a baby and I spent a lot of time researching the chemicals that are used in clothing. I've also worked in fashion for years and have seen the conditions in factories. It's horrific, so when it came to starting my own clothing business, it had to be 100pc organic."
The cotton is sourced in India and overseen by the Fairwear Foundation, which improves working conditions for workers in garment factories.
In the instant gratification world we live in, this process can be challenging; there's no next-day delivery. One of Orlagh's biggest worries is the length of time it takes to make and deliver the products. "This isn't throwaway fast fashion. Growing up we all got my cousins' clothes and when we were finished with them, they were handed down again, they were made to last. So far, there's been no complaints, people are very understanding and excited about the product, they're willing to wait," notes Orlagh, who is pleasantly surprised by her first year in business - it has grown from clothing to stationery and accessories.
"I had no five-year plan or forecast," she laughs. "I was just passionate about creating something for my kids that impacts their world. It's about starting a conversation and inspiring each other. Good ideas can only get you so far, there has to be passion."
Frank & Nora
Limerick-born Stephanie O'Sullivan (38) works as a senior interior designer at HJL Architects while running Frank & Nora in her spare time from her home in Dublin, which she shares with her husband Graham, and children Sally (5) and Sophie (1).
I only know her as owner and designer of childrenswear label Frank & Nora, but it comes as no surprise to learn of Stephanie O'Sullivan's 'day job' as an interior designer. In fact, she had no real desire to walk the line between interiors and fashion until her first baby, Sally, was born and she was met with a sea of pink, impractical, badly-made clothing.
"I was shocked by the clothes on offer for newborns," notes Stephanie. "They were either very cleverly designed but not aesthetically pleasing, or beautiful and totally impractical - but practical can be beautiful." O'Sullivan has proven that with her stylish, modern relaxed baby-wear designs that are made from organic cotton.
"It seems to be acceptable that because the clothes you're buying are for a baby, they shouldn't have much of a lifespan. Not only is it terrible for the environment but it's encouraging a throwaway society."
She started three years ago with the iconic badger print pyjamas, which are still her favourite item and a bestseller. Although she works with an illustrator, it's very much a homegrown business; even her husband has been relegated to the couch so their bed can be used as a 'studio'.
But her priority has always been to find the perfect fabric, to ensure its specification and treatment is authentic and safe. The cotton is sourced in Peru and then knitted/woven by a sewing house in Istanbul. Choosing organic cotton is a slow fashion process - even the land on which its grown must be drained over the course of three years to rid it of toxins - but the rewards are huge.
"Not only are you creating a durable, skin-friendly, luxury product, you are also directly affecting the lives of the communities and families who work in the cotton industry and protecting the environment," notes Stephanie, whose advice to anyone starting out reflects this, "be authentic to what you're offering, do one really good product that becomes your signature brand and know that if you're going to do it properly, it takes time. And, in the words of Steve Martin… 'Be so good they can't ignore you!'"
Leigh Tucker Willow
Childrens fashion designer Leigh Tucker.
After graduating from NCAD with a degree in design, Leigh Tucker (43) went door-to-door in New York with her designs before returning home to set up her own label. She has become a household name, synonymous with stylish, affordable children's clothes available at Dunnes Stores. She lives in Dublin with her husband Oran and children Lena (10), Harper (7) and Willow (5).
"You have to be able to go down a slide, appropriately," laughs designer Leigh Tucker, whose label Leigh Tucker Willow for Dunnes Stores is fast becoming a fixture in every child's wardrobe. "I try to keep it true to how we live our lives. We don't skip around in gowns - we're in the park getting dirty every day and the clothes have to reflect that."
Her designs are the embodiment of this kind of moxie tempered with a pretty edge. You can wear them to school, to a party and to the park without looking "like an eejit", says Leigh.
But it's also about value for money. Frustrated with the extortionate price of stylish dresses for her daughters, she decided to design her own affordable range. "We aren't the cheapest or the most expensive but I don't want people to feel ripped off, it's about getting a bang for your buck. Most parents are buying for more than one child and I love that you can come to Willow and get two dresses for €40."
Practicality is essential - it has to get to the other side of the washing machine plenty of times and then be given to the next child.
Tucker is not new to the apparel business: her father, a designer and manufacturer, worked with her mother in retail and the children spent their weekends helping out before opening their family-run shop, Costume in Dublin. After a stint designing for her own womenswear label, Leigh Lee, Tucker took some time out to have a family.
She started making cakes but admits to eating them all, so moved on to creating accessories for her eldest child, Lena. A tent for her bedroom and beanbags for the playroom soon developed into clothes. "I was enjoying it so much I pitched the idea of an affordable range of clothes and accessories for kids to Dunnes and they loved it."
This Christmas will mark Willow's fourth year and a move to athleisure, inspired by her children's desire to "wear gym gear all day". "They're all so different, Harper is a tomboy and will only wear a Star Wars tracksuit and Dublin jersey, Willow likes dresses and Lena is a mix, so when I'm designing, I try to think of every type of child."
It's a long way from her beginnings in a tiny studio in Dublin with 'mouldy' walls, and one she wouldn't want to relive. "I realise how lonely it was back then. I love working with a team but you have to be prepared for the knocks," advises Tucker, whose father tried to prepare her for the ruthless nature of the industry.
"After this many years, I don't take things personally. If someone doesn't like something I do, I don't mind, I'm just interested to know why so I can improve things or understand a different perspective."
There's no room for fear on this well-oiled machine, in her words: "I'd rather try and fail than not try at all."
Former punk band member, philosopher and photographer Lucy Clarke added another creative string to her bow several years ago when she started knitting baby clothes. Elks is now a full-time operation employing several seamstresses and producing beautiful handcrafted childrenswear using the finest Irish materials. Lucy lives in Dublin with her husband Simon and children Jo Jo (9) and Hart (6).
"The adult collection is on the to-do list," laughs creative director Lucy Clarke in response to my plea to own the grown-up versions of her beautifully-tailored childrenswear pieces: herringbone tweed coats, stylish knits, linen dresses, tweed bonnets, dapper dickie bows, all handcrafted in Ireland with a playful heritage look that reflects Ireland's rich history and connection to craftsmanship.
Former punk band member Lucy travelled to the last remaining mill in the country to source native Irish fabrics such as tweed, linen and wool that would be kind to little ones' skin. "I was so overwhelmed by the beautiful materials and workmanship of the mill, it inspired me to design a range using these resources," explains Lucy, whose foray into fashion design started when she was pregnant with her daughter, Jo Jo.
Up to that point she was busy as a photographer. "I started knitting while pregnant and found it very therapeutic. I made little legwarmers and sold them at markets. I couldn't keep up with demand so I went a step further and designed coats with beautiful Irish tweed from Donegal and they captured a lot of attention."
The coat is Lucy's favourite design to date, the peak-shape of the hood a unique characteristic that blocks the rain from falling on the face. "My kids have one each and three years on they're as good as new and are now being passed down to cousins."
Even President Higgins was enraptured. He passed by the Elks stall at the RDS showcase and spent quite some time staring at one of the tweed coats before announcing he had one just like it when he was a boy.
Culture plays a huge part in the design aesthetic; a recent trip to the Japanese collection at the V&A museum inspired Lucy's latest collection of kimono-style bath accessories for babies. Occasionally people are surprised by the price tag (€24-€240), but this is what it costs to pay a local craftsman to ethically make garments. Lucy explains. "Each piece takes time, using the finest material and workmanship and is unique - that's the beauty of it."