independent.ie- Starting a new business is always tricky but when there’s a friendship involved, not to mention years of family hikes, holidays and Christmas celebrations together, are you taking an even bigger risk in joining forces?
Sonia Reynolds and Francie Duff have managed it well. The pair are co-founders of Stable of Ireland, a lifestyle brand which presents the very best of Irish style and traditions to people who value good craftsmanship. And 2021 marks five years since they opened their store in Dublin city centre.
The pair’s ethos is to celebrate what we, as a nation, have to offer by designing and making scarves, clothing and home accessories using Irish linen, handwoven wool, cashmere and alpaca. Sonia and Francie continue to scale the company into a global brand while nurturing and supporting extraordinary local craftspeople.
The Stable journey is all the more interesting because it doesn’t meet the usual business start-up model, having grown organically out of a single product: a giant, oversized herringbone tweed scarf from Ardara, Co Donegal.
“This was a one-day pop-up that became a three-week pop-up six months later in the Westbury Mall and, years later, we are still here and growing,” says Sonia.
Blue-sky thinking seems to come naturally to these two mums, who each have three children, aged from 18 to 24, and between them have a diverse background in design and media.
Sonia, originally from Lurgan, Co Armagh, ran her own PR and marketing agency in Dublin. In 2004, she started the Dublin Fashion Week event, Ireland’s response to the international fashion week schedule. It ran for eight seasons until the recession crushed the fashion industry.
Francie hails from Dublin and has worked in design and marketing. She ran a natural health business with her husband, Carlo, and comes from a family bursting with business endeavours, including her twin, Philippa, who co-owns the Sea Hare café in Connemara.
Sonia laughs as she recalls how the future business partners met on a fashion shoot in Powerscourt, Co Wicklow, back in 1988.
“It was a moody day,” she says with faux-dramatic broadcaster voice. “There were dogs, there was Mike Bunn (photographer), and there were capes with big hoods, and Francie, with those bright blue eyes.”
Back in the 1980s, the pair of titian-haired models were poster girls for the traditional Irish knitwear and tweed fashion scene. “There wasn’t an Aran jumper style in the country that I hadn’t modelled in campaigns,” Sonia tells me with a grin.
At the heart of the Stable business is the undeniable fact that Sonia and Francie, who worked for years with a defined look driven by a tourist image of Ireland, had the vision and verve to take traditional Irish linen and tweeds and give them a modern twist.
“We just thought, if this has been worn like this for ‘X’ amount of years, hold on a second, is this how we are perceived? Surely we can present them in a different way, and bring this into another environment, another look, and present these wonderful items that would make us all proud as Irish people as well,’” says Sonia.
“We are consciously designing it, not restyling it, and presenting it in another light, with another eye on it; our eye,” she says.
Even Bono has wrapped himself on stage in London’s Trafalgar Square in their giant, digitally printed tricolour cashmere scarf — the first they knew about this publicity coup was when they saw the images.
Visitors to the shop are intrigued by the Montbretia and tweeds in the window, and there’s a constant stream of local shoppers popping in for their linen products, from scarves and napkins to Stable’s lockdown hit, the swim towel, woven with Huck linen, which also works as a beach wrap and sarong.
If the duo needed confirmation that linen woven in Wexford was perfect for their colourful neck scarves, along came Covid-19, and with it a focus on the antibacterial, antimicrobial qualities of Irish linen for face masks.
Lockdown was tough, with their Westbury Mall shop closed for months on end, but online sales flourished and the pair reckon that aside from the high quality, the fact that they share as much information as possible about their products means they get “virtually no returns”.
Francie acknowledges that developing an online business was no easy feat. “To transition from retail and pivot to online during lockdown was definitely a big challenge, but it was the face masks that led us to a different audience, and they have been loyal ever since.”
How the pair managed to stay such good friends as their business develops (they now include an interiors service for both corporate and residential) is, Francie says, down to the fact they “both have a really forward, positive-thinking attitude to everything. We are like-minded in that regard, we are not egotistical, and when you are both like that, it works.”
Sonia says that having the right team around you is another big factor in making it work. “We also have the same vision for the brand. We work side-by-side, have a very similar eye on design, and we never really clash.”
Still, when it came to starting their self-funded business, Francie admits they were apprehensive. “We were nervous, but we also felt we had a really interesting offering, and we always knew we were going to be independent and boutique style.
“We knew ourselves when we went abroad, we sought out those type of stores that were not high street, so we knew there was a customer for that, and that has been absolutely borne out. The independent store now is really the attraction in terms of retail, and you want to find those local stores with something that you can’t find anywhere else that’s unique.”
Francie acknowledges that the retail landscape has changed hugely over the past few years. “The store experience is key, and whether you’re that big department store, or whether you’re a small bricks-and-mortar store like ourselves, that experience is important and is then supported by your online business.”
The business partners are passionate about believing in what you sell. “After what we’ve gone through [during the pandemic], people are much more considered about what they buy. They don’t need lots of things. However, how people are living today, anything that they have, they want it to be either very beautiful, very considered and to work,” says Sonia.
“We’ve got to believe in what we sell. It’s important that it performs well and that we get it, because then we can sell it. I had the swim towel on holidays in Schull with me for the last few years to see how it performed — and we launched it this year.”
In terms of some of the more positive shifts in retail over the last 18 months, and especially in the food scene, Francie says the refocus on all things local is a welcome development.
“It’s been lovely, and there has been this conscious celebration of what we have on the island. I think that’s lifting all local industries, whether it’s food, retail, fashion, crafts or hospitality; it’s all becoming local and interesting and small.
“There is a whole new generation of people coming up who are ignited and are creating opportunities. They are opening businesses but it’s more thoughtful. They are not necessarily profit-driven, they are more, ‘What makes me happy; what do I want?’”
To mark their five-year anniversary in the Stable store, the pair are introducing their first ever tweed coat next month. Designed by Ireland’s premier couturier, Peter O’Brien, this commission also marks his very welcome return to the Irish retail scene.
A long-time friend, Peter designed Sonia’s lilac wedding dress in 1998, and his new oversized coat is a classic shape, with three-button closure and a belt. The coat will be available in three tweed colourways: a speckled red, black and white, and also a green, all priced €795.
Reflecting on the last five years, Francie says: “It’s all been a learning curve for us, but we couldn’t have hoped for more. I think the way we’re presenting these products and how we were informing customers, people just really embraced it. That is an amazingly nice way to go to sleep at night, to think we are doing something that Irish people are embracing, because, ultimately, that’s what we set out to do; that was our dream.”
When it comes to sustainability, the two are acutely aware of the greenwashing that goes on in retail. When it comes to sustainability, Stable of Ireland is in a strong position because their products are all 100pc natural, made from linen, wool, merino, and silk, with woven baskets from the midlands. It couldn’t be more local, with fabrics sourced from knitters, weavers, spinners and craftspeople located all over Ireland, north and south.
They use linen bags to wrap their products, which are posted out in biodegradable and recyclable envelopes.
On the topic of fast fashion, Francie says: “I think, just by the nature of how many people that live on this planet, there’s always going to be a need for production on scale in terms of fashion, but it’s people’s mindset of how they buy which is changing, and I think that’s wonderful.
Sonia says the greening of the fashion industry is an ever-changing landscape. “The fashion industry still has a long way to go and it’s adjusting to move into the next level. It will take a while, because you can’t just turn that corner, but I think if the demand is there, the industry will feed it. I think if the customer is changing their mindset, the fashion industry has to change with it.”