My Fashionable Life: Fashion Designer Louise Kennedy On What Drew Her To The Industry and the Secret to Success as a Fashion Entrepreneur

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For Irish fashion designer, Louise Kennedy, her work is about so much more than creating beautiful clothes. It’s about forging a connection with her customers, building a loyal and supported client base and an enduring commitment to working to the highest standards. It’s these high standards that have helped catapult Kennedy into the successes she’s enjoyed over the past 35 years of her career. During this time she’s opened a flagship store in Merrion Square, dressed the first female President of Ireland, Mary Robinson as well as winning the contract to design a new crew uniform for Aer Lingus.

Here, Louise Kennedy chats to The Style Edit about what drew her to the industry, what fashion means to her and the ‘game-changing’ moment that transformed her career in fashion.

What drew you to the fashion industry?

I have always loved fabric, texture and colour so I think that’s where it began. In fact, I studied art and design in Dublin and originally considered interior design, but halfway through my course switched to fashion and immediately knew it was where I wanted to be. I was excited and motivated and it felt right.

Tell us about your first fashion memory

My late Mum always said that from an early age, I was extremely particular about what I wore. I loved certain colours and shapes and adored when grown-ups complimented my outfit – an early introduction to the confidence that clothes can lend a woman. I was a stickler then, as now, obviously.

Describe your go-to confidence-boosting outfit

It depends on the occasion of course, but generally speaking, I love unfussy clothes, beautifully cut in very good fabric with exquisite detail. It doesn’t sound like a confidence-boosting combination but one of my favourite colours is midnight, a very dark navy, particularly when mixed with black. Gorgeous, well-made shoes do give me a boost, and I always wear a fabulous pair of Manolo heels for a special occasion.

What’s been your biggest career highlight so far?

After 35 years of designing, and shaping my business, it is difficult to choose one. Can I have more? Opening our flagship store in Merrion Square in Dublin in 1998 and the London store on West Halkin Street, a couple of years later; dressing the first female president of Ireland Mary Robinson; being acknowledged by the State for my contribution to Irish fashion with a national postage stamp; winning the contract to design a new crew uniform for Aer Lingus. We were so honoured to win this, especially since Aer Lingus crew have worn our previous design for the past 21 years.

What does fashion mean to you?

A fabulous world I have dedicated my life to over the past 35 years. A fast-moving, always evolving industry which still thrills me, even as it is demanding, capricious and pressurised. But I wouldn’t have it any other way: it’s a privilege to dress incredible women from all walks of life, all over the world. When clients begin wearing our clothes, we forge a connection. A purchase is rarely a one-off – clients return again and again, and we love their loyalty and the feedback we receive – often about how empowering our clothes are and how confident they feel when wearing them.

“It’s a privilege to dress incredible women from all walks of life.”

Tell us about the ‘game-changer’ moment for the business.

Undoubtedly, winning Designer of the Year in Ireland in 1989. They were the Oscars for the fashion industry, going out live on primetime television. We saw an immediate sales boost and brand recognition soared after the broadcast.

What attributes do you think have been key to your success as a fashion entrepreneur?

A commitment to the highest standards. My incredibly committed team are perfectionists. Our clients are paramount. Strong, honest relationships are key to the success of any business and we value our partners, our weavers and our manufacturers and of course our banks. In tough times and good, working with like-minded people who have the same values of integrity and honesty makes it all worthwhile, and a pleasure. A sense of humour doesn’t hurt either.

“Strong, honest relationships are key to the success of any business.”

What does success mean to you within your brand?

Seeing loyal clients return season after season is one of the best measurements of success. I am proud that we have a successful store in London – a competitive retail environment – and a presence in New York with our quarterly trunk shows. The fact that we are looking to other markets is a measure of our ability to pivot and develop.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in business and how did you deal with them?

One London Fashion Week, our entire collection was stolen on the evening before we showed. Our wonderful manufacturers, colleagues in the fashion industry and patient buyers all rallied in the most fantastic ways to help us get another collection made.

Our principal Irish manufacturer closing was also a huge blow. We moved operations to Italy and Portugal – we still work with the same teams abroad. And we have survived no less than three recessions and lived to tell the tale. With experience comes resilience. A setback can be an opportunity – I can honestly say it has always been so for us.

“With experience comes resilience. A setback can be an opportunity – I can honestly say it has always been so for us.” 

Who has been the biggest influence in developing your personal style?

My dear late Mum. She had the greatest love for fashion and style. Despite being unwell for most of my formative years, she never lost interest in how she dressed, and she loved beautiful things. She very sadly passed away the year I graduated from fashion college. I learnt so much from her and her resilience and I would have dearly loved her to be sharing all these moments with me now.  

Who inspires you most within the fashion industry?

The indefatigable Iris Apfel wins my award for originality, wit, verve and perseverance. Last year Bergdorf Goodman celebrated the publication of her book Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon, with a party, a pop-up store and incredible windows. Despite being a fashion phenomenon, she is utterly non-precious, which is refreshing!

What excites you about the fashion industry right now?

Innovation. Fabric technology has influenced how fabrics are woven and how they drape, fall and fold – and also how they last. This is exciting for a designer.

I also love how women in business now have the freedom to wear beautiful feminine clothes and colour in the boardroom. They don’t have to wear sombre colours or compromise on shape and fabric. I love how high-low dressing has become so acceptable. I always dressed like this – an embellished jacket or cape with skinny pants and cool trainers – and it suits the elegant but relaxed Louise Kennedy woman who is our client.

Is there anything you wish you knew before you started?

I’m still learning every day, that’s the beauty of our industry. Technology, e-commerce and social media have disrupted fashion and the landscape is constantly changing. So every week, we learn something new. It keeps us on our toes!

What’s your biggest frustration with the fashion industry?

How sales have become the new normal. If one retailer does it, others feel they must follow and it becomes a race to the bottom. The pressure to deliver six collections a year, as some brands do, only to have the items discounted weeks after they reach the shop floor, must be soul-destroying. We are so fortunate to work with incredible artisans around the world. It feels wrong, knowing the time and effort invested in these beautiful pieces, that they might go into discount within 16 weeks, in some cases. It’s not sustainable, and I’m glad there are moves afoot to address this aspect of the industry.

How do you like to unwind?

Movies and thrilling Netflix series, particularly Swedish drama; walking Paddy, the gorgeous Schnauzer; Pilates; dinner with friends. And travelling is always key to inspiration for the design.

Tell us about your design process when creating your latest collection. What was the very first step you took?

This season, I wanted to channel the easy elegance of the wardrobe of the beautiful society women of New York and Florida, who were photographed by Slim Aarons in the 1950 and 1960s. His photographs of CZ Guest, in particular, are breathtaking in their chic simplicity. And I loved the colours of the buildings in Barbados, where I visited last year. So there were two threads.

Practically, we then create colour boards, and layer on different textures and prints, in beautiful fabrics, gathered from our visits to international shows and to specialist weavers and mills. We think about a silhouette and while all pieces have a different silhouette, there is a particular line that emerges in every collection. I would say this season, it’s the line of the Yana and Tess dresses.

“We think about a silhouette and while all pieces have a different silhouette, there is an particular line that emerges in every collection.”

Which item of clothing holds the most sentiment within your wardrobe?

Our Kennedy Tote Bag has a special place in my wardrobe: it was made by an incredible Italian company to celebrate 30 years in business. The Kennedy is as popular as ever, and we now have them in several colours and two sizes.

What are the key items in your wardrobe that you couldn’t live without?

Fabulous black pants; a well-cut tailored jacket particularly in Midnight; double-face cashmere coat in black, maybe with some embellishment; my Midnight ribbed roll-neck sweater; our Aria cape from AW/18, jewelled with a feather hem; Hermes trainers and Manolo heels.

Can you tell us about your first ever designer purchase?

A pair of Manolo Blahnik kitten heels. I was smitten.

And as a designer, how did it feel to sell your first ever item/collection to a customer?

Thrilled. Humbled. I can honestly say it’s a feeling that has never left me. It’s the most wonderful endorsement when a client falls in love with your clothes.

“It’s the most wonderful endorsement when a client falls in love with your clothes.”

Do you have a style mantra you live by?

Less is more, unless … more is more. I love clean, elegant lines but I also love incredible accessories and beautiful embroidery and embellishment. The sweet spot lies in an elegant balance.

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