Elks: children’s clothes to be treasured, not thrown away
The young Dublin clothing company, the brainchild of Lucy Clarke, is kicking against disposable clothing with designs in traditional Irish textiles such as tweed, wool and linen
Childrenswear brands, like their target market, have a habit of growing. Tiny garments strengthen the brand power of luxury giants, and sales internationally are growing faster than womenswear. Burberry, for instance, sold more than €80 million worth in 2011.
“We are noticing a marked increase of 5-10 per cent [in the sector],” says Lucy Clarke, founder of Elks, an award-winning Irish children’s clothingcompany based in Rathmines, Dublin. Elks’ high-end clothing is crafted from native Irish fabrics such as linen, tweed and wool and is designed to be treasured rather than throwaway. Prices are high (€38-€238) because of the quality, “but people are cottoning on to the fact that there is more to childrenswear than disposable clothing,” says Clarke.
In her bright little studio near Grosvenor Square, Clarke is surrounded by racks of clothes and shelves full of colourful knitting yarn. There are herringbone tweed coats trimmed with corduroy and interesting buttons, stylish merino knits in shades of plum, linen dresses with Peter Pan collars, creamy linen and lace flowergirl dresses, and cute accessories such as dickie bows and hats. It’s a playful heritage look that highlights the rich textures of the Irish tweeds. “And we try everything on our own kids, JoJo  and Hart ,” she says. The name Elks was chosen “because it’s an old image of something big, magic, fairytale and from the hidden history of Ireland,” she says.
Interesting career turns
Clarke’s career has taken interesting turns. She was a drummer in a punk band as a teenager, before studying philosophy in Milltown after finishing school. She then took a course in graphic design and later became a staff photographer in the Journal of Music. She met her husband, musician and composer Simon O’Connor, in Eamonn Doran’s pub in Temple Bar when he was playing with the Jimmy Cake in 2003.
“When I was playing music I was always altering clothes [she took a dressmaking course in the Grafton Academy and using clothes as a form of self-expression, because it was fun. I love vintage materials, and, when you perform, you are very aware of how you present yourself. I was always interested in making things by hand, not so much because of the actual making but the freedom it gives you to do what you want, rather than shop purchases.”
The business began in a small way when Clarke was pregnant with her first child and started to knit, a skill she picked up at a Stitch & Bitch class. She sold her first pieces – little knitted legwarmers with monograms – in Peas and Pods in Newmarket Square, Dublin. Pregnancy changed her. “It was like I was going through a transformation. I was a different person. I just loved making things and got pleasure and joy from that.”
As demand increased, she found local knitters in the Liberties and started to visit Irish textile mills to source fabrics. “We went to Wexford to Emblem Weavers, who have supplied Hermès, Paul Smith and Margaret Howell; we went to [Northern Ireland], to John England; to Baird McNutt [in Ballymena]; and Gill Mudie in Magee was really helpful. Big contractors don’t like to babysit small accounts, and those we met have enabled me to do small product testing with a small cash flow,” she says.
She and O’Connor, who is the curator of the Little Museum of Dublin, set up their website in 2012 and showed their first collection at Showcase a year later. “The market is completely different now, and there has been a radically different reaction, as people know there is an established market worldwide for luxury childrenswear.”
Two shops, in Cork and Clare, have bought the whole range, and both buyers said they had been looking for high-end childrenswear made in Ireland.
Elks now has an army of seamstresses, knitters and machinists who work from home, and Clarke is excited about showing at Bubble, the childrenswear trade fair in London, for the first time this month.
“People spend on winter wear, and we want to stick to Irish fabrics. I want kids to have pride in them, to be able to say, ‘I am going to wear my nice coat or my nice dress’ – the kind of attitude our grandparents would have had.”
Elks is stocked by Granny’s Bottom Drawer, Kinsale, Co Cork; Lahinch Classics, Lahinch, Co Clare; The Great English Outdoors, Herefordshire. elks.ie
CHILDRENSWEAR: OTHER IRISH BRANDS
_ WILLOW Set up by Irish fashion designer Leigh Tucker and introduced by Dunnes Stores last year. The collection comprises washable dresses, jeans, leggings, T-shirts and jackets. Prices rise to €45 for coats.
_ THE OLD RECTORY Wicklow sisters Stephanie and Joanne Sloan set up their print-focused ethical children’s clothing line after establishing a print studio in 2010. They produce everything from newborn gowns and blankets to tops and pyjamas in organic cotton and certified dyes. Sold at selected outlets in Ireland, and online at theoldrectory.com
_ JULIE DILLON Children’s knitwear, a range of sweaters, cardigans and waistcoats in 100 per cent wool, made in Ireland, each with an animal, nautical or floral motif. firstname.lastname@example.org
_ HAPPI CLOSE So-called because of its easy-fastening cotton babywear – no poppers, zips or buttons. Founded by Carol Fitzpatrick after the frustrating experiences of trying to dress and undress small wriggling babies. Stocked by Jane Carroll in her boutique in Blackrock Shopping Centre, Co Dublin; House of Ireland; and Design House, Dawson Street, Dublin. happiclose.com
_ GAGABABY Mairéad O’Sullivan, a true GAA fan, started her label with a range of inspired babywear in county colours. The personalised GAA clothing range has now expanded to include hurls, chopping boards and other items. gagababy.ie
_ BA-GOOSE CLOTHING A handmade fleece clothing range for children, which is designed and made in Cork. Includes hats, scarves, jackets and booties for babies. bagoose.com
_ MOOBLES & TOOBLES Launched last year by Dublin-based Nadia Cruikshank. A playful range of screen-printed bodysuits, blankets, babygros and dresses, all made from 100 per cent organic cotton.
_ McCUL CLOTHING Founded by rag trade veteran Derek Young, with graphics and prints featuring seven symbols drawn from Irish myths and legends. The clothes are fun, inexpensive and hard-wearing. mccul.ie