From Dublin to Galway to Cork, Paul McLauchlan meets the women at the heart of Ireland’s luxury independent boutiques.
The 2010s witnessed a seismic shift in the retail landscape. Following the financial crash, businesses fell like dominos, lives crumbled, and retail received a deafening wake-up call.
For others, however, it was a call to arms. In Ireland, independent luxury fashion retail, while few and far between, flew under the radar — and maybe even close to the sun — in the aftermath of the recession.
Nestled in different corners across the country, brick-and-mortar stores such as Havana in Co Dublin, Les Jumelles in Co Galway, and Samui in Co Cork emerged as premier style destinations in a nation with an underdeveloped fashion scene.
While big department stores, mid-market outlets, and ladylike boutiques were common, these retailers distinguished themselves in the pre-digital age, sustaining a business through the woes of the 21st century.
Havana, founded by Nikki Creedon, opened its doors in 1994.
Creedon spent time at Paul Costelloe and the Design Centre in St Stephen’s Green, respectively, for years before creating what has become a beacon of good taste in Irish fashion.
“We have a definite train of thought running through the store, we don’t try to be all things to all people,” said Creedon.
Browsing the shopfloor reveals a passion for heavyweight Japanese and Belgian designers, alongside a slew of homegrown and other international names.
Samui is the brainchild of Clodagh Shorten, previously of high-end boutique Monica John. One of Cork’s only independent luxury boutiques, the business ethos is to deliver a spectrum of high-fashion for the adventurous to the more demure.
The frequently-updated window front layers the textures of the store’s brand portfolio which includes Dries van Noten, Sacai, No. 21 and more.
Serving the West of Ireland a deserved fashion fix, Les Jumelles errs on the more perfunctory side of things, a less extravagant display of high fashion, yet a curation of some of fashion’s finest labels, among them Acne Studios, Rick Owens, and Paskal.
The women at the forefront of independent luxury retail speak with distinctive directness.
Havana’s Creedon spares no words in correspondence. The women of Les Jumelles’ honesty is tinged with optimism but they’re straightforward nonetheless.
Shorten speaks with refreshing candour and cool clarity.
Perhaps therein lies a recipe for success. Though, it’s so much more.
Creedon travels to Paris Fashion Week to buy with a team of three. Samui is a force of nature fronted by Shorten, Mary-Claire O’Sullivan and their sales advisors. At Les Jumelles, the team is twins.
“As the saying goes, ‘two heads are better than one’,” say Margaret Gallagher and Mary McSweeney.
Moreover, with each season comes an opportunity for newness.
“We are driven to bring the most fashion-forward labels to our customers. We are always looking out for new designers, both Irish and international,” said McSweeney, listing Branch Jewellery’s ethical collection as the latest addition.
“We put a lot of effort into the pre-buying period, planning and assessing the look of the store for the next season,” said Creedon.
(Havana is the sole Irish retailer of industry movers and shakers such as Comme des Garcons, Haider Ackermann, and Simone Rocha and, recently, she introduced Danish designer Cecilie Bahnsen to the Irish market.) “With our most expensive brands, we would almost allocate a name to each item. It doesn’t always work out but it keeps the buying process personal and focused,” said Creedon.
“We need to research brands before we place any orders,” said Shorten.
“Then we’d organise a walk-through the showroom to see the collections and we can gather a fairly good idea if it’ll work or not.” In recent seasons, Samui added Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester to the brand portfolio. However, it will take three seasons, or 18 months in layman’s terms, to measure success.
Newness is central to Shorten’s practice.
“Bringing new designers to Cork made your catchment sit up. You had people who transferred from Monica John but you needed to create a whole new customer base and you did that,” adds O’Sullivan, who joined Samui in 2008.
The biggest bump in the road for luxury retail in recent memory was 2008.
Every shop scrambled to save themselves from suffering at the hands of the financial crash which threatened consumer’s spending power.
“Everything changed in retail in 2008,” said Creedon. “The recession wiped out a lot of our biggest customers.”
“Like most cities in Ireland, retail has contracted massively, there are less small retail outlets around,” said McSweeney.
Samui, Havana, and Les Jumelles speak with a grateful tone when they recall the dark days of retail in the aftermath of the recession.
The word ‘thankfully’ is a commonality between them. Also linking them is a fearless ambition to innovate in the face of adversity.
When Shorten reflects on the recession, she ponders whether expanding the business in 2007 to encompass the upstairs space at her Drawbridge Street store was premature. “I’ve made mistakes but if we didn’t expand to our upstairs space when we did, it wouldn’t be the shop it is today,” said Shorten.
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“Everybody was going for the mid-market brands with a cheaper price-point because they thought it was what the customer wanted but it took elevating the portfolio to get through it,” said Shorten.
It comes across as paradoxical but presenting the surviving customer base with Rick Owens, Etro, Moncler amidst a sea of lower-priced contemporary labels does sound like a worthy proposition to the uber-rich.
“It’s determination, strong belief and passion that have got us through any challenges that have come our way,” said McSweeney.
Along with the financial crash came the advent of online shopping.
Websites like Net-a-Porter and Farfetch were blossoming as ‘stealth wealth’ became the trend of the day amongst those who remained unaffected throughout the recessionary period.
Online shopping provided an invisibility cloak under which the affluent could still operate, business as normal.
“The widespread use of shopping apps came at the same time as the financial crash. It forced our standards to be very high in all aspects of our business, buying, and customer service especially,” said Creedon. (Havana offers a sell-by inquiry service on their website and Instagram.)
“We find our clients prefer the personalised shopping experience we give in-store. We have a very experienced strong team working alongside us and our mission has always been to inspire and nurture our customers,” said McSweeney, though recently the store opened an online shop with their current stock available.
For Shorten, it’s a resounding “no. It would take from what we’re doing in-store.”
“We have proven that having a human exchange is as valuable as a click and that bricks-and-mortar works,” added O’Sullivan.
It’s the intangibility of a personable service that has been the keystone to supporting business as brick-and-mortar stores are increasingly targeted by economic whims, the digital world, and the capitalist machine, namely Black Friday which has increasingly imprinted upon Irish retail.
At Samui, an Instagram post in 2018 denouncing the Americanised shopping event was appreciated by customers who value authenticity and honesty in a sea of sale racks.
“Customers came into the store to support us because of that post,” said Shorten.
This year, instead of a Black Friday sale, Samui organised an event with jeweller Maria Black, offering an in-store piercing service. The ladies behind Les Jumelles proudly stated, “our customers don’t engage”.
Creedon and Havana have a different viewpoint.
“While originally we considered it a negative it is now part of every winter season,” she said.
As the new decade approaches, bricks-and-mortar retailers in Ireland have come to realise service and experience are intrinsic to their growth.
Galway has been named the European Capital of Culture for 2020 making it a prime opportunity for Les Jumelles to blossom as it enters the new decade.
Creedon remains coy about online retail but said, “we are heading in that direction.” Perhaps 2020 will see the launch.
Samui will celebrate its 20th anniversary in March. Shorten muses on a special event to commemorate the milestone in autumn 2020.
If anything, the survival of independent luxury retail rests with the belief in fashion, a medium that in exceptional cases, like those illustrated across Ireland in the past 10 years, can withhold itself and stand the test of time well into the next decade and beyond.