The Richard and Alan Shop

 

The name Richard Alan really ought to require no introduction to any Irish woman professing even the remotest interest in clothes. After Weir's, this is the oldest family-owned retailer on Grafton Street in Dublin, also maintaining a presence in Cork for the past 24 years. The original shop was opened in 1935 by 26-year-old Jack Clarke, who had earlier established a manufacturing business on South William Street; the outlet's name came from his two sons, Richard and Alan. Clarke, who learnt his trade in Manchester - apprenticed by day to a coat and suit production company and studying each night at the city's School of Commerce - seems to have been exceptionally industrious and ambitious. On returning to Dublin from England, he first acted as a manufacturer's agent and then, in the face of severe import tariffs imposed by the government in 1932, decided to go into production. At one stage, the manufacturing company employed more than 300 staff and was the country's biggest clothing exporter. Rising wage costs eventually led to its closure in 1972.

According to the company's chairman, Richard Clarke, his father "couldn't sketch, sew or press a garment. But he had a wonderful eye for what was right and wrong and he had a thing about quality". From the start, the shop was stocked not only Clarke's own label but other lines as well. "My dad always had a policy of purchasing something different," says Richard Clarke. "From the beginning, we've tried to have as much merchandise exclusive to us as possible. That's the only hope in Irish retailing; there's no future otherwise."

During the Emergency, when trading restrictions were particularly tough, Clarke started his own dress workroom in Richard Alan, specifically catering for the shop's clientele. This was so successful that it continued until 1962; the late Sybil Connolly, who had originally been hired as the shop's manager, here received her first opportunity as a designer, creating clothes for Richard Alan until her move to Merrion Square in 1958.

During this period Richard and Alan Clarke started to work in the family business, having been sent to learn their trade in British and Swiss factories. Jack Clarke died in a car accident in 1974 and his two sons still run the firm - but whether a member of the next generation will take on Richard Alan remains uncertain.

"At this stage, there's no one working here," Richard Clarke says: "But I've got seven grandchildren. We're working on it." As he points out, family businesses often go into decline when handed on to people who quite clearly have no interest or aptitude for the undertaking. While Richard Clarke is now semi-retired, managing director Alan still works full-time and, with merchandise director Maire Facey, is responsible for buying all stock. "Like all buyers, they have to be financially controlled," Richard Clarke insists. "They must be allowed to have a bit of flair, but we have always been disciplined and had tight financial control. We learnt that from our factory days."

Their emphasis for many years has been on introducing new lines to Ireland. During the 1970s, for example, Richard Alan was the first retailer to offer Irish customers Italian labels such as Genny, Callaghan and Krizia. Names particularly associated with the shop now include Escada and Laurel, Betty Barclay and Mani, a division of Armani.

The Clarkes are keenly aware that Irish consumers today have a much wider choice than used to be the case. During the present decade, the amount of retail space both in Dublin and throughout the country has expanded by millions of square feet, much of it taken by overseas multiples coming into the country. "Life has become more difficult," Richard Clarke accepts. "Since 1969, when we did the whole shop up, we've been continually changing to keep it up to date, which is quite a big expense."

The latest area to receive attention is a section of the first floor in Dublin which was overhauled last month. This holds debs dresses, a field into which the shop only moved in recent years - "that's how we've been able to stay in business; there has always been an opening for niche businesses".

By stocking such clothing, the shop is attracting new and, more importantly, younger customers. A risk all long-established companies face is that they and their clients will grow old together. In this instance, the core of repeat business comes not from teenagers or women in their 20s, but those over the age of 35, who may not wish to shop at multiples and enjoy sufficient disposable income to buy good quality garments. Richard Clarke suggests that while the company "cannot compete with the internationals", not all consumers necessarily want to buy the same goods as everyone else. By offering a more personalised service and clothes not available elsewhere in Ireland, Richard Alan has ensured its continuity for more than six decades.

As Richard Clarke points out, "We're still in business, so whatever we're doing must be reasonably all right."