How To Thrive In The Fashion Industry According to Top Fashion Retail Consultant, Eddie Shanahan

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Esteemed Fashion Retail Consultant, Eddie Shanahan has built himself a niche role in the fashion industry, one that offers him an enviable amount of variety while also honing in on his expert skills in business and product development.

Ironically, the decision to pursue a career in the fashion industry emerged following an otherwise uninspiring fashion show. With his eyes opened to just how compelling fashion presentations could and should be and with a disregard for the ‘one size fits all’ career approach Eddie set out on his mission, carving his own role and taking on the industry, one successful project at a time.  

Read on for insight into what a day in the life of a fashion retail consultant looks like, lessons learnt in self-employment and an understanding of how emerging designers can ensure they stand out.

Portrait by Phil Doyle

What drew you to the fashion industry?

At first an accidental attendance at a fashion show where the music was dreary, the models stilted and there was little connection between the catwalk and the audience. I knew instantly that fashion could be presented in a much more engaging and interesting way.

Later when I went to work at the International Wool Secretariat I discovered how broad the fashion industry is from design colleges to fibre production, weaving, design and collection development to branding, photography, media, retail and consumer lifestyle trends. There was the possibility of discovery, excitement and inspiration at every turn.

What does your job entail?

I work on business and product development across the fashion, craft and retail industries. This can mean working with a designer or maker to develop a new brand, new products or collections or working with a retailer to develop an inviting customer experience including merchandise, atmospherics and events.

Often my work takes me to some very special factories where the level of skill is simply awesome – especially in Italy. 

In recent years my retail work has also involved rescuing or resuscitating stores impacted by the recession.

In addition to my consultancy work I am Chairperson of the Council of Irish Fashion Designers and  a Board Member of the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland and of The Leitrim Design House.

I also produce fashion shows and photography for selected clients. I am particularly proud of how I developed the ARC Fashion Show into a premium event, using only Irish designers.

What’s been your favourite project to work on so far?

I try to only work on projects I will enjoy so there are many that stand out.

Working on the development of the Nina Divito luxury brand and footwear collection was thrilling until, after almost three years, Nina had to retire due to illness.

The CREATE project at Brown Thomas, Fabiani Design Week in Longford and my work with CIFD, DCCOI and ARC are sources of great satisfaction.

I always enjoyed working with designer Sharon Wauchob when she held her shows in Paris.

Photo Credit: Agata Stoinska. Art direction: Eddie Shanahan

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Discovering and seeing new talent emerge and advocating for the value of real craftsmanship is always rewarding. So too is collaborating with my small production team to draw rapturous applause from an audience at a well produced fashion show – especially when it features Irish designers.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career path to get to where you are today? 

When I started out on my career path, one was expected to embark on a ‘job for life’. That was such a restrictive way to think about career development. My work now benefits from the rich and wide experience I enjoyed working in retail, fashion, beauty, personal management and craft.

Also, if you work in fashion, you need to work even harder for outsiders to accept your commitment and capability.

Photo Credit: Agata Stoinska. Art direction: Eddie Shanahan

“Also, if you work in fashion, you need to work even harder for outsiders to accept your commitment and capability.”

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about being self-employed?

The same rules apply to small enterprises as apply to large corporations. Professionalism matters, there are no excuses, no allowances, only competition. I also learned that cash flow is the life blood of a business.

Tell us about your involvement in the ‘Irish Designers Create’ project with Brown Thomas. What inspired the development of this project?

Brown Thomas wanted to find and support great Irish design. Just after we formed the Council of Irish Fashion Designers Stephen Seally (Managing Director) suggested that I contact Shelly Corkery about working with the store on a project. Nine years on the CREATE, generously supported by Brown Thomas, has become a true retail success story. I research emerging talent, Shelly curates a selection she feels fits with the store ethos and the BT team creates a special environment and program with which to promote it each year. 

What advice would you give to someone hoping to pursue a career in the fashion industry?

Be prepared to work hard. Fashion is a business, not a world of fantasy frocks or unrestrained creativity for creativity’s sake. Always respect your craft – don’t start your proposition with price but offer it for its true value. Reality bites when you leave college and you must quickly understand that the customer is the focus, innovation is the driver and profit is the reward

“Be prepared to work hard. Fashion is a business, not a world of fantasy frocks or unrestrained creativity for creativity’s sake.”

Mentoring seems to play a big role in what you do. Have you had many mentors yourself throughout the course of your career?

I have not really had mentors, with the possible exception of John Doody (former Retail Director of Arnotts). He opened my eyes to the necessity of ‘retail theatre’ to engage customers and the importance of courtesy in doing business. 

I have learned much from collaborators though – people like the late Rupert Murray and Kevin Saunders (both brilliant lighting designers) and Agata Stoinska and Patrick McHugh (both brilliant photographers) taught me to explore, experiment and find magic without the necessity for too much drama. My recently departed friend, Larry Lynch taught me the importance of laughter and common sense. A host of designers and makers, especially Rudolf Heltzel, showed me the value of true craftsmanship, on various project over the years. 

What lessons have you learned from these mentors that you now pass down to your juniors? 

Common sense beats theory every time, professionalism is not up for debate, price and value are not the same, enjoy the process as well as the achievement, time to think is important.

“Common sense beats theory every time.”

Photo Credit: Patrick McHugh. Art direction: Eddie Shanahan

Who or what motivates you?

I am motivated by myself, by my desire never to be bored, by my collaborators, by enjoyment of my work, by meeting new talent, by exploration and discovery on a host of levels. 

Which brands should we look out for this year?

The ones that make you smile, make you feel good and help you enjoy life!

What do you look for when scouting emerging designers?

An understanding of design and its role in innovatively responding to consumers as part of the marketing process. A distinctive ‘handwriting’, a story behind their work and a tenacity to overcome the challenges of setting up a new business.

In the age of sustainability, how can retailers ensure they continue to thrive in their sector?

By educating their customers that quality is a key component in sustainability while simultaneously rekindling a sense of personal style over a constant need to copy so called ‘celebrity’ and ‘fashion’ trends.

This will deliver better margins that all the flash sales of cheap merchandise that feed continuous consumption.

Who would be your dream client to work with? 

Karl Lagerfeld – but I  don’t think he needs my advice!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? 

Never stop learning.

Niamh Crawford-Walker

Niamh is a full time fashion and features writer at The Style Edit. Her work has previously appeared in IMAGE magazine, image.ie and Emirates Woman.

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