Brendan Courtney and Sonya Lennon: ‘We are chalk and cheese’
The design pair on building their partnership, and their new collection for Dunnes
Brendan Courtney and Sonya Lennon: megawatt smiles, formidable firepower
Get between Sonya Lennon and Brendan Courtney, with their megawatt smiles and cheery demeanour, and their formidable firepower is immediately evident. Lennon, with her tousled blond hair and oversized glasses, and Courtney, in head-to-toe black, are polished performers, on or off camera.
“We are chalk and cheese,” Sonya says, to which Brendan’s quick riposte, with a grin, is that “she is more contemplative whereas I am very reactive”.
Although we are meeting to discuss their current collection and their fourth year with Dunnes Stores – where, according to Lennon, their sales have doubled year on year – they describe themselves as primarily “portfolio entrepreneurs”, with their Lennon Courtney line for Dunnes taking up only half of their time, usually three days a week in the HQ on Stephen Street in central Dublin. Then there are the other commitments and many speaking engagements around the country undertaken by the pair.
The pair admit it took them five years to get sizing right for their customers, who are professional women between 30 and 50, facing obstacles and challenges they didn’t expect
Courtney, who made waves in 2017 with his powerful RTÉ documentary We Need to Talk about Dad, on his family’s experience of the government’s Fair Deal elderly-care funding scheme, is now on the Sláintecare implementation advisory council, and continues to maintain his stance against Fair Deal “because it excludes so many people. We have a healthcare system that doesn’t legislate on behalf of the patient, whereas in Germany it does,” he says wryly.
Lennon, the founder of Dress for Success Dublin, presenter of Strictly Business and mother of teenage twins, is now on the cross-party committee for gender equality in the workplace .
Both are now working on a new book, The Loving Wolf, a process which Lennon says is how the pair “found the tools to maximise our confidence and minimize fear of releasing potential. We are 11 years together and have been through quite a journey.”
Do they always agree and how does the partnership work? “If we had fallen apart, that would have happened some time ago, but we have the same values and the same motivations”, she says admitting that there were “heated discussions over business” when things were tough.
“We had to get to know each other and learn the right way to communicate so you are not misunderstood, but we would never do anything to hurt the other.”
To help with the writing of the book they are recording themselves in conversation – challenging each other. They are also planning a series of podcasts in May (to go live in September) with one experienced person in each episode, a parenting specialist, a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist or an executive coach. “It’s to add value to the women who buy our clothes” says Courtney.
So, who are their customers? And how do they distinguish themselves from the other Dunnes Stores brands?
“We would be considered the ‘dress brand’,” responds Courtney. “Customers shopping online are looking for something specific from us – customers in the shops are just browsing”, to which Lennon immediately chips in that they now ship to the “diaspora” all over the world and are stocked in 13 Dunnes stores and online.
The pair admit it took them five years to get sizing right for their customers, who are professional women, aged between 30 and 50, “facing obstacles and challenges they didn’t expect.
“We started with black and white foundation pieces and those customers have grown with us and embraced high colour, print and now denim for the first time,” Lennon says, dressed in the cropped turn-up jeans that sold out in two days when launched online in February.
Her Instagram feed – particularly when shot in her bedroom – has an instantaneous effect on sales, she says. She knows the power of accessories and the big chain earrings she is wearing “bought online somewhere” were, she says, a great focal point on screen.
Courtney adds, however, that what they design still has to sell to Dunnes Stores buyers. “For instance, they told us the blue/black stripe coat would never work – but it did. But what you think is going to be big isn’t always the case.” A big trapeze orange coat before Christmas was a surprise best seller.
The first part of the spring-summer collection includes a cobalt-blue batwing dress, a jersey top (“very flattering on the tummy”, according to Lennon), a new take on Breton stripes and a red sleeveless jumpsuit (“we are well known for jumpsuits ever since Amy Huberman wore one of ours to the Oscar party”) at prices from €49 to €119.
They are currently at work on their Christmas collections, and their plans include an affordable maternity range. Courtney says his preference would be for a homewares line rather than menswear.
“We design and market for Dunnes, and that is what we love,” Lennon says before we part, revealing that she is off to India on a three-week family trip to celebrate her 50th birthday.