Future Proof: Ashling Kilduff, the Design Centre
Reacting quickly helped fashion business to ride out recession
Ashling Kilduff: "[During the Celtic Tiger] people were looking for something no one else had and price wasn’t really an issue.”
In the business of knowing the latest trends, it’s no surprise that Ashling Kilduff twigged the downturn. Owner of the Design Centre in Dublin’s Powerscourt Centre, she got the heads up from the shop floor.
“Clients were talking about pay cuts, about their husband’s jobs not going as well and about redundancies,” says Kilduff. “We listened to what they were saying and we changed quickly.”
Founded more than 20 years ago, the Design Centre was at first a place for up-and-coming Irish designers to showcase their wares. It was here that global names such as Louise Kennedy and Philip Treacy got their first break.
Kilduff began working there as a sales assistant at the age of 20. “I went on to manage the store and become a buyer for it. The store began to have my stamp,” she says.
“I was working closely with the owner and he said, ‘Look Ashling, would you be interested in becoming the owner because it’s really becoming your store now’.”
When Kilduff took over the reins in 2005, it was boom time. The store had by then broadened its range to include international labels. “Disposable income was just unbelievable . . . It became that every single person could afford a €500 dress.”
“There were a huge number of events going on in Dublin. There were events at lunchtime; there were events in the evening. Everybody was going somewhere,” she recalls.
And black-tie weddings were also all the rage. “People were looking for something no one else had and price wasn’t really an issue.”
As the number of customers crossing the Design Centre’s threshold increased, their approach to shopping had changed too. “Obviously you are there to provide a really good service, but it was just a completely different process then to what it is now.
“People were coming in, they were buying, they knew what they wanted, they were having it and that was the end of it.”
Between dresses, shoes and bags, the average sale could be up to €1,000, says Kilduff. But, by 2007, things started to change.
“Instead of buying the dress, the bag, the shoes, the necklace, the dress was bought or the bag was bought and we were asked to put things on hold. During the Celtic Tiger, a deposit system didn’t exist,” says Kilduff.
She credits being on the shop floor with helping her to understand the situation and react quickly.
“As an owner, you can get a feel for things and predict a few things. Otherwise, you don’t really know what’s going on. We could see what was happening and we were very lucky that we addressed it quickly.”
In addition to negotiating on rent and changed credit terms with suppliers, Kilduff changed her buying approach too.
“We really had to look at each rail and ask how was it going to be filled in a way that would give us back the revenue. At one point we were doing six buys in a year and we cut that back to two.”
The Design Centre continues to carry high-end stock but now has a broader mix of price points.
“People come to us to find something special. If they have a big occasion coming up, they will save and they will buy a piece. That hasn’t gone away.
“You need to have a certain amount of high-end produce on your floor. People who love design appreciate it.”
A revelation was the upsurge in buying Irish, she says. “We found that the customer was starting to become very loyal to the Irish brand again. There was a clear message out there about buying Irish. People were asking, ‘Is this made in Ireland? Can I have a bit of background on the designer?’”
Going back to its roots, the Design Centre started to mentor new Irish talent again. “Irish designers really came up trumps. We became heavily involved in mentoring. The recession has been good for home-grown talent.
“And the main Irish designers have always been with us like John [Rocha] and Philip [Treacy] and Claire [O’Connor]. They’ve been with us since the beginning and still are today.”
The Design Centre Fashion School has provided a new revenue stream. Running courses on millinery and fashion drawing, the centre is sharing its knowledge with those wanting to try their hand at design.
Maintaining her sponsorship of the “best dressed lady” competition at racing’s Hennessy Gold Cup, this week Kilduff is busy with Dublin Fashion Festival, which runs from this Thursday to Sunday.
“There’s nothing like shopping in Dublin and that’s what the festival is all about,” says Kilduff. “Dublin has some great shops and it’s about saying, ‘Look at what’s in this city’.”
She’s a judge in the festival’s Young Designer competition taking place in Bank of Ireland on College Green on Thursday night, and the top four designers chosen will see their clothes on the rails in her store.
She’s grateful the Design Centre has weathered recent storms. “We’ve maintained our clients and we’ve maintained our position in the industry and we are lucky that our customers stood by us,” says Kilduff.
“Things will change. It may never come back to what it was, but we’ve all learned valuable lessons.”
Dublin Fashion Festival runs from Sept 5th-8th. See dff.ie