IrelandsEye Knitwear is a sustainable, family owned knitwear business based in Dublin with a focus on creating contemporary Irish-made, hand-finished pieces. Twenty pairs of hands are involved in the making of each piece and their garments are sold globally in over 60 countries. We chatted with directors Paul O'Sullivan and Brendan O'Sullivan about the label's evolution.
Tell us about you and your brand/business
Paul: “IrelandsEye Knitwear was established by our father in 1988. He started out small, producing knitwear for other Irish labels such as John Rocha, but we all soon realised we had the vision and the skills to produce beautiful knitwear for our own label and hence the IrelandsEye Knitwear brand was born. Thirty-four years later, we’re a team of about 70, and one of the last textile manufacturers on the east coast of Ireland. I run the business with my brother Brendan, and our whole family has been involved – in one way or another – along the way. We create knitwear that sells in over 60 countries worldwide, as well as online, which is growing at a huge pace thankfully.”
What is your mission?
Paul: “To become the world’s most sought-after Irish Knitwear brand.”
Brendan: “To constantly evolve and strive for excellence in everything we create.”
Did you always want to work in fashion?
Brendan: “When dad started IrelandsEye, we were all working in careers we didn’t really want to stay in. I was a chef, and was first to join; working with my dad at night to build up the business. Paul was an accountant, and next in. Our mother was a seamstress, so she actually had a skill we could use! We were all still living and working from home, so it really was a family business and we slowly grew, spending more time on IrelandsEye and less time on ‘the day jobs’.”
Paul: “This was all back in the 1980s when Dublin, and Ireland was very different. There were very few opportunities out there, and while people thought we were mad giving up ‘proper’ jobs, it was really exciting. I can remember in the very early days, feeling cold on the way to college one day. I saw a friend wearing a pair of leg warmers and thought they’d be a winner. I asked Dad to show me how to use the machine and I started making them. Mum would then sew them up the side and I’d bring a bag full of them into the UCD Friday market. I sold out on the first day.”
What kind of items do you stock?
Paul: “At the moment, our main collections are sweaters for men and women, inspired by our Irish heritage. Traditionally, Aran sweaters were for tourists, but through the evolution of our collections, we feel we’ve given Irish people the permission to wear Irish Knitwear, to wear it with pride, not just because it’s Irish, but because it’s a beautiful contemporary take on a wonderful Irish tradition.
This spring, we launched The Blossoms Collection which included a cropped Aran women’s sweater and cardigan, with an oversize sleeve in some great contemporary shades (the ‘Honeysuckle’ and the ‘Clover’) which really took off and was picked up by many fashionable Irish women, including Amy Huberman, Miriam O’Callaghan, Chupi, Naomi Clarke and Laura Jordan. This collection has also really taken off in key fashion-focused markets like Italy and France.
Brendan: “We design for men and women, and we also create an assortment of fashion accessories, warm wraps, and pieces for the home. In fact, one of our throws featured in the opening credits of the last James Bond movie, which we were over the moon about.”
What brands or items are on your radar?
Paul: “It’s not as much about other fashion brands, but brand leaders: businesses whose names become generic for their categories, like Barbour, Dyson, Clonakilty Black Pudding, Ballygowan water… If you can make something as everyday as pudding your own, and become recognised globally for it, you’re winning! So, we’d love people to look at IrelandsEye as the pseudonym for great Irish knitwear.
Brendan: “I’m also a huge admirer of the late Fearghal Quinn. He was so innovative and ahead of his time with Superquinn; always upping the customer experience and never resting on his laurels.”
Was money/funding a concern when starting out?
Brendan: “Yes and no… Bluntly put, we didn’t really have any money, but I suppose the advantage of doing things the way we did means that we were able to grow organically. We were still living at home, working for free, so we just got on with it.”
Paul: “We started with old machinery but I remember the point came where we had to buy a ‘state of the art’ knitting machine and it was going to cost £50,000 (about €63,000). The reason that sticks in my brain so clearly, and to put things in perspective, is because I got married that same year, and the house we wanted to buy – a three-bedroom semi – was £34,000. It was a huge gamble and it took a lot of work to get that first bank loan over the line, but we managed to do it. We still have that machine in our factory, it’s like our mascot!”
Best business advice you’ve gotten
Paul: “Never give up. Sometimes you feel like it but you never know how close you might be to cracking it.”
Brendan: “We overestimate what we can achieve in the short term, but then we underestimate what we achieve in the long term.”
Favourite sustainable style accounts to follow online
The Useless Project, Reuzi, 50 Shades Greener, Change by Degrees.
Best recent fashion purchase
Paul: “A pair of Birkenstocks.”
Other sustainable Irish brands you like to follow
Paul: “We were part of Create with Brown Thomas earlier this year and through that, we met so many superb Irish brands with a sustainable focus.”
Proudest moment so far
Brendan: “Moving into our current premises in 2016 was a significant milestone for us. We used to drive by it every day on the way to our old factory. The building is huge, and was one big, blank canvas for us to create exactly what we wanted – a sustainable space where we could plan the production flow from beginning to end.”
Paul: “I get such a kick when I see our knitwear being worn. Or when I’m travelling in some foreign city and there’s someone in an IrelandsEye piece. I’ll spot it from 100 metres away, and the more remote or obtuse the better! And of course, a key highlight was walking down Grafton Street this summer and seeing our collection for Create in the window of Brown Thomas – this really was a game changer for the brand, we weren’t just in the knitwear business, we were in the fashion business.”
We want IrelandsEye to be remembered for…
Brendan: “In addition to the quality and design of our garments, it’s important for the business to be sustainable and circular, so we’ve put a lot of investment and energy into our production and processes. The IrelandsEye factory is plastic-free and our product is zero waste; faulty garments are ripped-back and the wool is given to schools or organisations who can use it.
Paul: “Our factory space is a passive room, which means we keep the temperature around 22-23 degrees without using heat or air conditioning – doors are strategically placed to open/close and work off the heat generated from the machines, and we recycle the steam in our garment pressing machines from our own treated water plant. In terms of our staff, we believe there’s room for everyone in IrelandsEye and like to be as inclusive as possible in our recruitment policies.”
If I could dress anyone it would be…
Paul: “We’d love to see Brendan Gleeson, and his sons Domhnall and Brian in our Arans. And we’d love to dress Mary Black, Danny O’Reilly and Roisin O, and the O’Donovan brothers in Cork. We always seem to think in families, probably because we’re a family business. We also employ a lot of families within the teams here at IrelandsEye.”
Shop their full range of knitwear (including hats, scarves, sweaters, vests and accessories) over on the IrelandsEye Knitwear website now.