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Image / Style / Irish Design

Sustainable Style Spotlight: LilyMais


By Sarah Finnan
21st May 2023
Sustainable Style Spotlight: LilyMais

After 25 years working in the food business, Fran Fogarty decided to take the plunge and change careers, enrolling in a Fashion & Textile Design course at Limerick's College of Further Education. Fast forward to present day and she now runs her own sustainable fashion business, specialising in swim robes from repurposed towels.

Tell us about you and your business
I am privileged to incorporate the three things I am most passionate about – fashion, the environment, and the West Kerry Gaeltacht – into my business, LilyMais. At school (Kilfeackle, Co. Tipperary), I wanted to study Fashion Design, but at the time, it wasn’t considered a sensible choice for a young lady from rural Tipperary! So, instead, I trained as a chef and then studied hotel management. I spent the next 25 years working 80-hour weeks on my second passion – food, which culminated in me owning and running a fine dining restaurant and two 200-seat cafés.

In early 2019, when the opportunity to quit the food business was presented to me, I jumped at the chance and enrolled in Fashion & Textile Design at Limerick’s College of Further Education. This was followed by a year at the Mallow College of Design & Tailoring, during which I upped sticks and moved permanently from Tipperary to my second home, Baile na nGall, on the Dingle Peninsula.

While I always intended to set up some sort of fashion business when I finished college, my enthusiasm and passion for fashion were seriously dented during this time by my realisation of just how toxic the fashion business has become. According to the United Nations, fashion currently accounts for 10% of all global emissions (it’s ranked second after oil and gas); the World Bank forecast that the fashion industry will grow by a massive 65% by 2030, despite all efforts being made to reduce fast fashion. I really did have a crisis of conscience at this point, and the last thing I wanted to do was to add to the growing problem of fast fashion.

It was after one of my daily sea swims with my local swimming group and now firm friends – the Baile Bathers – that the idea formed in my mind to make swim robes from repurposed towels. Having been gifted bags of old towels from friends’ hot presses, I created prototypes that sold immediately to local swimmers. As demand started to outstrip supply and as the kitchen table was proving too small for my efforts, I converted my shed into a studio and haven’t looked back since! I sell online but I’m hoping to open a dedicated store in Dingle this year. I have since expanded my range to include beach dresses, hoodies, changing mats, and bucket hats.

Each of my creations is unique and handmade by me, no two will ever be the same! I use repurposed old towels that are now sourced primarily from five-star hotels (though I still get the odd black bag from someone’s attic!) and that would otherwise have ended up in landfill, together with some end-of-line fabrics.

What is your mission?
I absolutely love what I am now doing – creating colourful, funky and fun products,  all unique but without harming the environment. My mission? To continue doing that! As each piece is unique, no two days are ever the same for me – no two hours are ever the same! I dream, I sketch, I make, and without doubt, my studio is my happy place. While I love exploring places for inspiration, it is the conversion of that inspiration into actual garments that brings out the smiles. I have a very clear set of values that I run the business with – everything I do must have a net reduction in environmental damage, everything must be handmade, and every piece must be unique.

Did you always want to work in fashion?
Yes – but life conspired against me taking the plunge! It wasn’t until I felt burned out from running a large café business that I felt able to return to college and study fashion. It was always something I wanted to do, probably something I always knew I would do at some point, but I just never got around to it because life was busy.

Was money/funding a concern when starting out?
Yes and no. It is only natural, and actually quite healthy, to have some level of anxiety regarding money when starting or running a business. But I had done it before – I had started a number of previous businesses, so lying awake at night wondering how the bills would get paid was something I had done before and something I was somewhat comfortable with. Setting up a new business isn’t easy but being in the Gaeltacht meant that I could reach out to Údarás na Gaeltachta for both moral and financial support.

Best business advice you’ve gotten
Without doubt, the best business advice I was ever given was by the owner of the first hotel I managed – to compartmentalise the money as it comes into the business and not treat it all as your own money. For example, put the VAT element of all turnover into a separate VAT account in the bank as you receive the money – because that money is not mine, it belongs to Revenue!

Favourite sustainable style accounts to follow online
Urban Aran, Clare O’Connor Luxury Irish Design, the Upcycle Movement, Miss She’s Got Knits, Liadain Aiken.

Best fashion purchase
My wedding dress. Bought from a vintage store in Amsterdam and since repurposed three times into other dresses for family weddings (and still features the Guinness stain from my wedding!). I always wear it with my late mother’s wedding shoes from 1965.

Other sustainable Irish brands you love
Dan Gardner Original, Ceadogán Rugmakers, Linen Shirt Company.

Most useful learning since setting up a business
Wow! Where to start? All my previous businesses have been bricks and mortar businesses (cafés, hotels) – this is my first foray into e-commerce and it is so, so incredibly different to what I was used to. The biggest difference is that with a bricks and mortar business, customers find you. With an e-commerce business, you need to find the customer! And finding the customer is both technical and complex. First up, you need a good website – it is the cornerstone of everything you do. Then you need to figure out how to drive traffic to your website, I use social media for this. I suppose the key learning is that the “back-end” of the business is quite complex and also requires time and effort. Luckily for me, my husband has both the skills and the motivation to manage this area for me (or so he keeps telling me!). Were it not for him, I would have to spend up to 50% of my time on the back-end. We make a good team! I also did something that every small business should do – I engaged the services of a mentor at the start of my journey. I signed up with Dubai-based Morris Global Consulting – run by Kerry woman Mo Morris – and the lessons I learned and the advice I received around branding, marketing, product placement etc. was invaluable.

Proudest moment so far
My proudest moment so far was without a doubt my first professional photo shoot! Standing on the pier in Baile na nGall – only a few minutes from my studio – watching Orla Diffily from Upfront Model Managment directing her models and photographers on the beach below in MY SWIMROBES If I could have lodged that pride into my bank account, I would be one wealthy lady!

I want my brand to be remembered for… its originality, its funkiness, its versatility and that it was made with love and without harming the environment.

If I could dress anyone it would be… now, that got me thinking! It would have to be someone that has a genuine passion for the environment and someone who does funky and colourful well. So, Roz Purcell!