Irish clothing entrepreneurs: sustainable, affordable and ethical
New breed of indigenous fashion makers Due South, Minti and Grown have new priorities
Damien Bligh, Neill McCabe and Stephen O’Reilly of Grown Clothing: “Our aim with Grown was to create a high-quality, low-impact brand producing beautifully designed, Irish, affordable clothing.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
From the early 1970s, Ireland’s indigenous clothing industry began to falter. Locally made, everyday wear went into a steep decline and most of the companies that survived catered mainly for the more formal end of the market or for tourists.
Since then, few have braved the challenges of starting a clothing business in Ireland. However, the past five years has seen the emergence of a new breed of entrepreneur with a very a different mindset to clothing manufacturers of the past. What matters to this group is not making cheap clothes to sell by the barrow load, but producing garments that attract “followers” who care about the provenance of what they wear.
“Ethical, sustainable and distinctively Irish,” is how Paul Harrington, who co-founded Due South with his fiancée Mel Mondini in mid-2016, describes his company’s range of clothing. “The idea came from a love of design and the Irish landscape and I wanted to marry the two in a way I felt wasn’t represented in the marketplace,” Harrington says. “The main driving force was to create clothing that was as sustainable as possible but high in comfort and quality and adhered to a minimalist design principle.”
Harrington has a background in ICT and worked in sales and marketing before setting up Due South. He used to design T-shirts as a hobby and positive feedback encouraged him to see if it could be turned into a business. Each of the company’s designs is hand-drawn and screen-printed onto either 100 per cent organic cotton or 100 per cent recycled materials. The clothes are made in India but Due South uses a Belgian-based certified Fairwear manufacturer to handle the production on its behalf.
Due South’s customers are aged 25 to 60-plus and the main buyers are women shopping for men. However, having liked what they saw, women are now a growing customer group in their own right. The couple invested everything in their start-up, which cost about €22,000 in hard cash to establish. “It was a big decision to use organic cotton as it’s about three times as expensive, but we felt that the quality and reduced environmental impact meant we had to do it,” Harrington says.
When coronavirus hit, the couple feared for their business, which is almost exclusively online. However, sales actually grew with people buying the T-shirts, with their distinctive outlines of Irish landmarks such as the Pigeon House and the Skelligs, for family and friends who couldn’t get home during the lockdown.
“Due South has grown way beyond our expectations,” Harrington says. “We are selling all over the world with the UK, the US and Australia our biggest markets. Sales are also growing in Germany and we’ve had orders from all over Europe at this stage.”
Three months ago, Laura Egan set up Minti, an online clothing company with a different twist on sustainable fashion. “Minti’s focus is on a quality upcycling and redesign service based around handpicked, preloved clothes and it was my personal experience of waste and damage in the fashion industry that heavily influenced my decision to start my business,” says Egan, who studied fashion at NCAD before heading for Paris to intern with designer Isabel Marant. She then moved to London and was still there when Covid-19 hit and she lost her job.
“Early on in my career as a designer something started to niggle and over time it became more and more obvious that it was seeing the excessive damage the fashion industry was causing to our planet, some of which I was producing, that was making me feel increasingly responsible and guilty,” Egan says. “When I lost my job I used that period to take stock and re-evaluate my career. I was always passionate about vintage and secondhand and, paired with my design and sewing background and my determination to make a change in the fashion industry, I realised that I could create real excitement around sustainable fashion.”
Egan had no start-up costs to speak of as she was able to use her accumulated treasure trove of vintage and designer clothes to start Minti. She is now making money and planning to raise awareness of her brand by opening pop-up shops when the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions allow. “It’s taken off much faster than I had ever imagined,” says Egan who is also planning on starting Minti Makes sewing and upcycling classes.
For now, however, she is continuing to source pieces online and in charity shops and says her goal is to “make the fashion industry a friendlier, greener and more supportive place”.
Grown is an eco-clothing company officially launched by Damian Bligh, Stephen O’Reilly and Neil McCabe in 2018 following a number of years in gestation. The company produces T-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies in 100 per cent organic cotton, hemp and recycled fibres.
“The idea came from a desire to reduce the volume of micro beads and plastic waste in our oceans associated with the clothing industry,” McCabe says. “The three of us are year-round swimmers and surfers and we were fed up looking at all types of plastic waste strewn on our beaches and in the water.
“We all share a passion for premium, well-designed, comfortable clothing that doesn’t cost the Earth physically or financially and our aim with Grown was to create a high-quality, low-impact brand producing beautifully designed, Irish, affordable clothing,” McCabe adds.
“We plant a native Irish tree in Irish soil for every garment created and we reinvest our profits in eco education workshops. Our products are subjected to rigorous environmental best practices such as using Earth-positive inks, low water/energy and end-of-life-cycle analysis. We’ve been offered investment but we want to grow holistically and develop our business through people who buy into what we’re about. You never throw something away, you only throw it somewhere is one of our core messages.”
The company sources its fabrics from ethically verified suppliers in Bangladesh and everything else, including sewing and printing, is done in Ireland. “We’re putting our money into helping to build a sustainable overseas supply base and into the Irish economy to finish our products,” says McCabe who is also the founder of the environmental protection organisation, The Green Plan.
Grown sells online and its biggest markets after Ireland are the UK and the US. McCabe estimates start-up costs at about €20,000 which was self-funded by the founders who had experience in design, sustainability and retail clothing before they met while doing their day jobs as firemen with the Dublin Fire Brigade.