When you’re young, boutiques are scary spaces. Places where you and your marauding hands send your mother and shop assistants into a frenzy for fear you’ll touch something and send a display toppling, at the very least. When you’re six, the thought of well-made coats and cashmere just doesn’t appeal. However, when you’re 26, the boutique becomes a sacred space. You’ve matured beyond the overpriced and thin body con dresses the high street keeps spewing forth. 100% acrylic wool isn’t so much a steal, as something to remind you you’re faltering when it comes to building a lasting capsule wardrobe, the ultimate adulthood goal. One of the hallmarks of growing old is less time, and that applies to shopping too. You don’t have the time to spend six hours wandering Grafton Street. Which is why you end up relying on certain labels, and realising boutiques don’t just make sense, they make you happy and confident.
Om Diva on Dublin’s Drury Street is epitome of what a boutique should be. The staff aren’t just approachable and polite. They want you to feel good about yourself and what you leave with. The clothes are Heroine Of Your Own Life worthy. There’s loud personality on offer if you want it. Or subdued classic dresses and skirts if you’d rather. Retro-inspired cuts which complement all figures. Laidback vintage downstairs amid atmospheric lighting. And upstairs in the curated Atelier 27, there are rails of emerging Irish design for those of you feeling patriotic. It’s an eclectic and comforting three-storey building, with glasses of prosecco on offer for Saturday afternoon customers. Paradise, no?
Ruth Ní Loinsigh is Om Diva’s owner and set aside some time a few months ago to chat to us about her journey from a backpacking adventurer in the early nineties to one of Irish fashion’s most fervent and fun champions.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in, not quite on, what used to be, the narrow, quiet streets of Drumcondra. The kids ruled the roads back in the seventies and we would play outside for hours on end. The Johnstown Mooney and O’Brien bread factory and Croke Park were our playgrounds and many a Sunday afternoon was wasted ambushing unsuspecting strangers with armfuls of fallen leaves from the high walls of the Bishop’s Palace and robbing gooseberries from the gatekeepers garden.
Was there anyone who influenced your love of fashion growing up?
My earliest feeling of pure joy and happiness is playing with a giant bag of buttons which belonged to my mum. I would sit mesmerised by their prettiness and colours for hours. My mother is an incredible seamstress and made all our clothes when we were kids. My dad’s side of the family were all old school tailors and the original Singer which belonged to my grandfather was always in use in the house.
I was always fascinated by how clothes could make you feel somehow transformed.
Because of this, the idea of making my own clothes was pretty much second nature. I was always fascinated by how clothes could make you feel somehow transformed. Like most girls, I would play dress up in my Mums dresses and jewellery and I was allowed to use the sewing machine from when I was about eight or nine-years-old. That said, I’m a shockingly bad sewer and my pattern cutting is laughable. I am however pretty good at sketching my ideas and that’s what allowed me to create my first collections.
You went travelling in the 1990’s. Any standout memories? How is it different from today’s Facebook round the world trips?
When I left school in the late 1980’s I really wanted to go to Art College however I was advised by the career guidance teacher to focus on getting a good Leaving rather than spending time on a portfolio as there really were no jobs to be had at the time. I took that advice and ended up studying languages and economics in UCD. In the early 90’s armed with a rucksack of clothes from the Eager Beaver, a large can of Elnett, a degree in German and Italian and a boyfriend from Liverpool I commenced a six year long period of travel. The hairspray was the first thing to go.
We spent summers in Europe doing hairwraps and selling jewellery at festivals, long summers in Crete selling jewellery to holiday makers, six months in Isreal on a Moshav and in Jerusalem and then onwards to Dahab, by taxi across the desert to Cairo with a group of Bedouins. We tried to sail from there to India but didn’t have a merchant seamans licence. Eventually we made it to Goa and that was when I first started experimenting with my sketches and turning ideas into real, mostly wearable items of clothing.
I always returned to Europe when the money ran out and spent time working in Paris, Cologne and Berlin mostly. When we saved up enough off we would go again via plane, train and ships in the night! Europe, Eygpt, Israel, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Austraila and all the way back again! There was no internet back then, you couldn’t even call home very often from Asia. I remember we would have our post sent to the Post Restante of the bigger cities. I would tell my parents that I would be in Calcutta in Feb for example and when I arrived there I would head straight to the main post office with a bunch of friends met on the way and we would search alphabetically to see if we had any mail. There would be letters from my parents, sister, friends with real jobs and usually an out of date newspaper from my Dad just to keep me up to date with world events, can you imagine?
Now we literally have everything at the touch of a button. There is no such thing as isolation, we are constantly bombarded with information and with this incredible gain comes an almost equal loss, a loss of freedom, of mystery, of allowing the experience we are having to be enough in itself.
When I arrived in Budapest in the early 1990s the city and the parks were full of young people celebrating wildly as the last Russian troops left.
When I arrived in Budapest in the early 1990s the city and the parks were full of young people celebrating wildly as the last Russian troops left. While travelling through Yugoslavia that same year we were pulled off the train by soldiers telling us that war had broken out and that our tickets weren’t valid anymore – this was the beginning of the Bosnian war. We didn’t have a clue what was going on, but the experiences were so real and incredible and we didn’t need to do a status update to make them feel valid. I guess this is the main difference for young people growing up today, the constant endorsement of an invisible community to somehow you feel visible.
Why did you set up Om Diva and what does the name mean?
I got a call from my brother sometime in 1998 telling me there were jobs again in Ireland, especially if you spoke a couple of international languages. I was in Berlin at the time contemplating moving to Alaska so I could work on the fishing trawlers and save a pile of money. Home suddenly seemed a much more reasonable option. I threw my Love Parade glad-rags into my rucksack and jumped on a plane and began working on my CV. That was an interesting one! I dyed my baby blue raver’s platforms black and began climbing the corporate ladder. First EON then Gateway 2000 and eventually United Airlines.
I was in Berlin at the time contemplating moving to Alaska so I could work on the fishing trawlers and save a pile of money.
Fun as it was finally figuring out what it meant to work in an office, I missed travelling and the buying and selling. Luckily. I worked for an airline so I was able to travel very cheaply to India and back sending small shipments of silk wrap skirts, wall hangings and boxes of Nag Champa. I was able to go part-time at United and I set up a stall first at Blackrock market and then later Mother Red Caps. I came up with the name Om Diva one day at work with my old buddy Shelley, who sat beside me in the office. I liked the idea of using Om in the name because although I was wearing black suede platforms, I was still a massive hippy. The Diva part came from the love of just being a girl who was recently single after almost a decade and was just enjoying all the benefits of her single status. The other option we toyed with was Shanti Mama – a very lucky escape you might agree.
Three words to describe your shop?
Welcoming, intriguing, everything!
You started with a stall in Blackrock Market and are now one of the many jewels on Drury Street. How difficult is it to set up business here?
Starting out, I didn’t have a long-term plan. I just wanted to be able to support myself doing something I loved. I started really small with some savings and a tiny loan of £500 from my Mum. My basic business logic was give the people what they want. I listened to my customers and tried to take on board what they liked when I was away buying and making collections.
My basic business logic was give the people what they want.
I always said yes to every opportunity that came along even if it led to absolutely nothing. Like the black pebbles, supposedly excavated from Wood Quay, that I had polished and treated in Delhi for a Dublin businessman I never saw again!
Setting up a business in Dublin is a bit of a double-edged sword. The main problem is the cost, such as rent and rates. But this is offset by the amazing sense of community within the small businesses of this city, the availability of mentorship from the Enterprise Board and, in my case, a wonderful business banking manager who genuinely cares. Dublin is also an incredibly fertile environment for small independent businesses, with a really receptive audience. This is part of the positive fallout from the years of recession.
What sort of challenges do you face now? Do you feel you have adequate support?
Cash flow is a big challenge especially given the nature of how I buy. I like to go straight to the source and that involves a huge amount of travel, time and energy, as well as needing to build up funds in advance of the buying trips. Last year I dabbled with the idea of buying at the UK and Paris shows in order to have more control over the cash flow, but I found them too limiting and far less exciting.
Also, the business has been growing slowly but steadily the last couple of years. Of course, this means bigger tax and vat bills. Understanding investing in your business is very important as a small business owner. This year we decided to refurbish the ground floor of the shop. All these costs can be offset against the profit for the year so although there was a big outlay it will ultimately pay off.
I do believe there is a lot of support for budding entrepreneurs, however, the old saying ‘Nothing is certain but Death and Taxes’ may well be heeded if you are thinking about going into business. Prepare to have to pay your taxes. I still cry when I get my bill but my husband always has a bottle of wine ready! Get some good business mentorship. Get a good accountant who will give you good advice. And talk to your business banking manager. Mine has genuinely made a huge contribution to the survival of the business.
How do you source your vintage?
When I was still in my old shop in George’s Street Arcade I had a small space upstairs dedicated to vintage. Back then sourcing the vintage was relatively simple as it was a much smaller part of the business. Now it’s incredibly important to the business and that means I have to constantly explore new ways and places to source it. I always have my ear to the ground listening for potential new suppliers.
I have worked with the same export agent for almost 15 years and a couple of years ago she told me about this intriguing place, we call it the Vintage Badlands because you have to travel overnight on a bus so you get there at the crack of dawn. (Ruth travels to India every year for buying trips.) When I get there I literally sort through thousands and thousands of pieces. I always study trends before buying and I try to incorporate certain things like colour ways, print and styles into what I select. I recently found another fab new supplier who I can mail in advance of a buying trip. I’ll give them a brief on what I’m looking for such as faux furs, suede, lace etc., and they usually have a great edit for me to choose from when I arrive. It’s very physical but incredibly rewarding.
When you are buying vintage there are a couple of things that can help you make a good purchase: I always look for interesting prints and print placement, good quality fabric and little details like original buttons. When I am buying vintage scarfs I will always look for a hand rolled hem, this usually means the silk is of a high quality. A lot of the vintage I buy is ‘dead stock’ which means it has come from the stockrooms of old department stores or factories. Most of it is from the 1950’s and in incredible condition because it’s never been worn. This cannot always be the case however so always make sure that fabrics aren’t moth-eaten and ready to fall apart at the first outing.
What are the shopping trends you’re seeing as people pass through the door?
Last summer, more than ever, a huge percentage of our customers were looking for something to wear to a wedding or some other occasion. It’s the one area where people really need a bit of advice and genuine help. Usually going to a wedding means you want to look your very best you as there will be lots of family and friends there who you haven’t seen for ages and you want to leave them all thinking, “She looks AMAZING! She must be doing hot yoga!”
Importantly, we have a core group of customers who pop in a couple of times a month to check out our wonderful Irish Design collections. (Atelier 27 on the first floor is dedicated to new Irish collections) These customers understand the importance of supporting these incredible emerging creatives and genuinely love their work. This is the one floor where we have a big male footfall as the guys all know how many brownie points they will get for thinking of such a wonderful and thoughtful gift.
How we dress is an important expression of how we feel about ourselves
What is the Om Diva ethos?
Our ethos is Be Genuine. I want our customers to be happy as they leave the shop. I want them to feel that as well as genuine service they also feel that they have never ever made such a wise and fabulous purchase. How we dress is an important expression of how we feel about ourselves and it can be quite overwhelming and intimidating to put yourself out there and experiment with new styles. We try to always have a laugh with our customers, put them at ease and let them talk as much as they want to.
Sometimes somebody might be looking for a dress for a wedding but as they try dress after dress with no luck and when they are on the verge of tears they finally tell you it’s an ex-boyfriend’s wedding they are going to. A lot of the time people need to talk and yes, we do like to talk and listen. The customer might not find the right dress that day, but they will always come back again for something else.
Tell us about your work with Irish designers and how ID2015 has affected you.
Usually designers get in touch themselves. They will mail us with some images and then we set up an appointment for them to come in with samples. It will usually be me and maybe one of the other girls who meets with them. We try to say yes to as many as possible but if we feel that somebody isn’t ready yet we will offer lots of advice and let them know that the door will always be open.
2015 is the year of Irish Design and ID2015 has been incredibly supportive of emerging and established Irish Designers, showcasing them in London and offering lots of grants. Also, Brown Thomas is doing wonderful things with CREATE and Dublin Town put on a wonderful Festival of Fashion this year. This is all incredibly positive and the challenge now is to build on these events and take it to the next level. We have some truly incredible talent on this small island and its more than ready to be received by the international community.
Om Diva is located on Drury Street, Dublin 2. omdivaboutique.com This week Om Diva opened 2nd Space, a new retail and creative space which will offer beautiful, affordable, vintage fashion and accessories as well as providing a platform for undergraduate students of fashion. There will be a curated series of talks and seminars from fashion insiders, aimed at undergraduate design students. 2nd Space is located at 19 Upper Stephen’s Street (Beside 747 Travel), Dublin 2.
Photos by Ailbhe O’Donnell. ailbheodonnell.com