Knitting its niches together
FUTURE PROOF: Beacon Designs:An Irish knitwear firm has survived in a tough market by diversifying, investing in modern plant and consistently producing striking designs
IN TWO YEAR’S time, Bebhinn Marten’s knitwear company, Beacon Designs, will be 40 years old. In that time, it has survived the Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq, four local recessions and the collapse of the Celtic Tiger – all of which had an impact on its international and domestic sales.
Add to that, competition from cheaper imports, fluctuating domestic tourism numbers and the demise of many small craft shops and it is surprising that Beacon Designs is still standing. What has ensured its survival is a combination of rationalisation; investment in modern plant and processes; timely diversification; and Marten’s consistency in producing striking designs that people want to buy.
Marten came up the hard way, which possibly helps explain her tenacity in business. At the age of just 15, she was apprenticed to Cork courtier, Elizabeth James, who made gowns for the leading fashionistas of the day including Princess Grace of Monaco. This was a perfectionist environment where Marten honed her skills as a seamstress and mistakes were docked from her £2 pay packet at the end of the week.
From there she moved into the knitwear industry and subsequently set up Beacon Designs on her kitchen table in Baltimore, west Cork, in the mid 1970s.
Her first garment was a woollen sailing sweater and, almost four decades later, it remains a mainstay product.
“It is still popular with sailors but also with those who earn their living outdoors, like ESB linesmen and forestry workers, as it holds its warmth but is not bulky to wear,” Marten says. “Over the years, we made this jumper for groups such as sailing clubs and for corporate clients (and one along similar lines for the ski industry) but when outsourcing became the norm in the clothing business in Ireland, that put paid to that.”
As bigger producers turned to outsourcing to contain costs, Marten continued to produce in west Cork. “We had no choice as we were too small to outsource and, anyway, I like making things. But outsourcing made things very difficult, as our prices were high by comparison. Retailers could buy finished garments for less than I was paying for the raw materials.”
To compensate for the fall-off in its contract business, Marten began looking outside traditional knitwear for a new product range. What she came up were fashion knits with a high level of design content that sell at the upper end of the market. To ensure she got the transition right, Marten worked with leading high street fashion designer, Helen McAlinden, to produce a box jacket made from 100 per cent wool. Boiled wool coats and elaborate cardigans followed.