Initially starting off in the music business, with the bands ‘Chick’ and ‘Tieranniesaur’, Lucy decided to enter the world of fashion with ‘Elks’ – a unique children’s clothing brand handmade with Irish fabrics, and sold across Ireland and the UK.
Lucy, your brand was initially called ‘Si and Lu’, so can you tell us how the brand evolved into ‘Elks’?
We launched the ‘Si and Lu’ website in September 2012 and it has really taken off since then. Initially we wanted to only sell directly to customers through our online shop and markets; our logic being there would be no middle man adding on their percentage.
We found that a large percentage of our sales were coming from the UK and other territories outside of Ireland, even without any marketing push. Then we realised that in order to expand, we needed more exposure within these markets than our business was developing organically.
Without a marketing budget sufficiently big enough to advertise in these territories, we decided the most cost effective way to do this was to sell via retailers. Therefore, on the advice of branding specialists, we rebranded to Elks in 2015 and have picked up approximately thirteen new stockists, seven of which are based in the UK.
What are the ranges within the Elks brand and who are your customers?
We make a range of kid’s clothes out of indigenous fabrics such as tweed, linen and wool. I design all the products, and my craftspeople based all around Ireland hand-make them to a very high standard.
Our main range is outerwear: coats, hats, scarves. But we also do beautiful linen dresses and jackets which are ideal for special occasions; we have a babywear range and are working on a small homeware range.
Our customers are about 90% women - most of these are mothers and godmothers aged 30-40, grandmothers who prefer to use the phone for orders and the other 10% are men aged 35-45 who like to dote on their child or niece/nephew!
About 40% of our orders come from the UK, 50% from Ireland and the rest from the US and France.
We got our first order from Barbados the other day, to be delivered to a friend in Ireland! We have had a few coat orders from Dubai which was unexpected considering their warm climate but they were being used for holidays in colder climates. Our white linen dresses are popular with our UK customers mainly for flower girls.
You initially started off in the music business. What inspired you to take up an interest in fashion design children’s clothing?
Having my daughter, Jo Jo, was a transformative experience for me. To begin with, pregnancy is like an outer body experience where you are not in control any more, you are like a passenger on the outside looking in.
Once my daughter came along, my whole world changed for the better. I just wanted to make her things: wrap her up in a blanket that it took me hours to knit, make her little leg warmers that went over her baby grow for cold days.
I suppose looking back on it now, it was another way that I could express this overwhelming love I felt for her.
Coming from a musical background where you are putting yourself in the limelight, I was always interested in tinkering with clothes and having fun with dressing yourself as another form of self-expression. I think kids, when given the chance to dress themselves every once in a while, can develop this too.
What makes Elks different to other children’s clothing brands on the market?
I decided that at the core of our business, Elks, was always making our products in Ireland.
We have an extremely rich manufacturing and craft history in Ireland, where not so long ago we were once considered the best linen and lace makers worldwide. I want to support the mills and craftspeople that are defying the trend of mass production as I believe that this element of our culture has been largely overlooked and forgotten.
When I tell people about a recent trip to a mill or show a customer a material that we got woven especially for a product, they can’t believe that these capabilities exist in Ireland.
Ironically, roughly 90% of materials made in Ireland are exported mainly to be used by high end companies. It’s no wonder people don’t know about this hidden gem!
What inspired you to team up with local craftspeople?
Ireland has an extremely skilled set of knitters and seamstresses that are largely out of work since the VAT hike the government imposed on manufacture in the 1990s.
As a result, many companies outsourced their manufacture to places like India and Lithuania. We have been able to find some extremely talented professional craftspeople that with industrial machinery set up at home are able to make small amounts of products quickly to a very high standard. This means we can offer a made- to- order service with fittings at our workshop if required.
What has been the company’s biggest ‘breakthrough’ so far?
I suppose the biggest breakthrough for us has been rebranding to Elks and finding that although our products are in a higher price bracket as a result of selling through retailers, our sales are already much higher than last year.
Once we targeted the right audience, the rest seems to be falling into place. Finding the right retailers is an ongoing challenge, but now we know the market we need to be in and are on the right path.
What business challenges did you have to overcome?
All the usual challenges were there with cash flow and lack of capital taking centre stage.
As a creative, I found the process of forecasts and business plan development quite trying, but very focusing. It’s lovely to get excited about an idea and believe in it, but I think you need to be prepared to sit down and crunch the data no matter how unfamiliar you are with that end of the process.
Another challenge was accepting that something that didn’t sell that I designed needed to be discontinued. Sometimes the ego can get in the way of progress!
Elks participated in the Bubble Children’s-wear Trade Business Show in London – how did that go?
It was really interesting. We had hoped to come away with about five good retailers for our A/W 2015 range, but ended up with six or seven, which is great.
To be at a trade show with hundreds of other companies gave us great insight into the brands we are competing with internationally, more importantly it showed us what makes us unique in this market.
What fashion entrepreneur do you admire most and why?
Cath Kidson released a book a few years ago called: ‘Coming-Up Roses, and I was blown away with her honesty and general lack of ego.
She built her business up herself from the first product which was an ironing board cover, with one seamstress and no prior experience. She set the prices for things at a level that she thought felt right - I just love that, being able to have the confidence to do things your own way.
She made, what she thought, was a big mistake and printed three big rolls of wax proof material which cost her most of her capital at the time. When she realised what she had done, she had to come up with twenty new products to use up all the material and that was the start of her journey to success.
How has the Local Enterprise Office Dublin City supported your business so far?
We wouldn’t have been able to stay afloat without both the mentoring, training support and grant aid that our Local Enterprise Office (LEO) has kindly given us. Within the first four months of setting up, LEO Dublin City invited us to be a part of their Showcase Enterprise Zone in the RDS (in 2013) where we won a highly commended award.
Since then, we have developed a great working relationship with Greg Swift and his team and are very lucky to be within the Local Enterprise Office Dublin City catchment area.
What advice do you have for other female entrepreneurs, who may be thinking of starting their own business?
Contact the Local Enterprise Office Dublin City and talk to them about mentoring.
If you greatly admire someone in Ireland, pick up the phone and contact them or handwrite a letter - that always gets someone’s attention.
The great thing about living on an island is that people are generally very supportive of someone who is genuinely trying to start something (not just copying their idea!).
Finally, what are your ‘top tips’ for business success?
- A mentor gave me great advice when I was starting up: they said don’t just get feedback from family and friends as they might not be objective enough to see the faults in your plans. Try and run your ideas by people who don’t know you too well and by as many people that will listen.
- Something we did later-rather-than-sooner was market research. If I was starting from scratch, I would definitely spend plenty of time on that. It’s really easy to get stuck on a great idea and neglect the market research that you will need to make the idea work.
- A great place to start, is finding a company that is close to what you want to be, and is selling where you want to sell. If you can pinpoint one or two of these, finding out everything you can about these (where they advertise, who their target market is) will be a great help to getting there yourself eventually.
Our thanks to Lucy Clarke for taking part in this interview.
For more information around Elks, please visit www.elks.ie, or find them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/elksofireland, on Twitter at http://tiwtter.com/ElksofIreland, on Instagram at http://instagram.com/elksofireland, or on http://www.pinterest.com/ElksofIreland