Inside Track: Claire Garvey, couture designer

Dublin-based fashion designer wants to work with as many musicians as possible

Eighteen years ago, fashion designer Claire Garvey set up her first business in Cows Lane in Temple Bar. Last December, she finally purchased her shop – Chic co-founder Nile Rodgers flew in to help celebrate the occasion.

Over the years Garvey has seen her designs traverse the globe, featuring in the Oscars and a Bette Midler gala event in Dubai, among other occasions. Her Irish customers include Mary Coughlan, Jack L and singer Julie Feeney. For the past two years she has been commissioned to design and make clothes for Dancing with the Stars judge Julian Benson.

What sets your business apart from the competition?

Everything I create is a one-off piece and made in my shop in Dublin. The fact that I create men’s, women’s and children’s apparel is unusual for a couture designer, as is the way that I work on every piece. A lot of designers send to China and other countries for manufacture.

What was the best piece of business advice you've received?

Don’t worry about what other people are doing, your business is not in a race and you are not in competition with anyone. Follow your heart and do what you love, and it will show in the work you do.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?

When I started out I supplied boutiques with off-the-rail garments and had great difficulty chasing up money from them. Mass production isn’t where my heart is and things turned for me when I started the shop to retail more bespoke items.

My customers were looking for unusual garments and one of the first garments I created was a wedding dress made out of chili peppers for girl a who had met her husband in Chile. That was 18 years ago. I’ve had unusual requests over the years, such a ballerina who wanted a dress with a key in the back for her 21st birthday party.

Your major success to date?

Working with Nile Rodgers for the Oscars has been a career highlight. Also recently designing for the Berlin Show Orchestra and being flown over to dress them. Staying in business through the recession and finding new products such as wedding dresses and bespoke gowns has been a big achievement as it was very tough.

Who do you most admire in business and why?

Vivienne Westwood, couture designer and businesswoman. She's a quirky individual who has never compromised what she does while building a fashion empire. I also admire anyone who is passionate about their business.

Based on your experience in the downturn, are the banks in Ireland open for business to SMEs?

Yes, I believe they are, once you have a sustainable business plan and good working capital. However, when you are starting off, they can’t see any track record, making it difficult get that initial capital. That is why it is vital to get sales, instead of investing too much capital in research and development.

Create publicity through the pieces you make rather than employing somebody to do it. Companies use my designs for hair shows and video shoots. But you need to make money at end of the day and publicity doesn’t pay the bills.

What one piece of advice would you give the Government to help stimulate the economy?

Increase the VAT threshold exemption for self-employed people. One of the most difficult aspects of starting a business is the paperwork. It takes not just the enjoyment out of what you do but also reduces the amount of time you can put into sales and product research. Better IT systems would enable SMEs and self-employed people who run them to do the necessary paper work quicker.

Employing staff is also a huge overhead in terms of paperwork and regulation, so anything they can do to reduce paperwork would help grow the economy.

What’s been the biggest challenge you have had to face?

Combining creativity with the mundane nature of paperwork and accounts has been a challenge. To be able to employ three people while doing what I love has also been a challenge especially during the recession. Mary Daly, my pattern cutter, has been with me 20 years and is a big part of the business.

How do you see the short-term future for your business?

I want to expand working with as many bands and musicians as possible, as this is where I feel my work is best suited. I need to continue producing weddings gowns, as these are my bread and butter and I’ve been lucky to have interesting ones to do. I realise the importance of selling online and use Etsy to do this. My designs have been shipped worldwide to events, such as the Burning Man festival in Nevada.

What’s your business worth and would you sell it?

I could never sell it as it gives me so much joy and is one of the reasons I get up every day!

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