Making It Work: Family knitwear firm keeps the home fires burning

Irelands Eye has always moved with the times, outsourcing production to China then bringing it back home again. Now the pandemic sees it pivoting once more to embrace e-commerce

8th January, 2021
Making It Work: Family knitwear firm keeps the home fires burning
Brothers Paul and Brendan O’Sullivan took over Irelands Eye Knitwear from their parents in 2002. Picture: Fergal Phillips

When brothers Paul and Brendan O’Sullivan took over Irelands Eye Knitwear, the family business in 2002, the move coincided with the emergence of low-cost manufacturing in markets outside Ireland.

They made the difficult decision to move the bulk of their knitwear production from Dublin to China in an effort to keep the business, founded 14 years earlier by their parents Jim and Bernadette, alive.

Just a few years later, however, the brothers found themselves bringing production back home. Consumer trends had changed. Suddenly, there was renewed interest in authentic Irish knitwear with a genuine heritage.

“It wasn’t the way we’d expected things to go but you have to be ready to move with the market. That’s the only way you’ll survive,” Paul O’Sullivan explained.

“Back in the early 2000s all buyers cared about was price. They didn’t care if Irish knitwear was actually made in Ireland or not.

“That all changed in about 2010 with the backlash to fast fashion and this new focus on buying less and buying better.”

Consumers in Ireland and overseas were becoming more interested in the provenance of the products they were buying.

“They wanted to know where they were made and the story behind them,” O’Sulllivan said.

“Buyers stopped being so price-sensitive. Now they’re willing to pay a higher price for the real deal because the market is there for it.”

As a result, Irelands Eye Knitwear has gone from strength to strength. The company opened a new 30,000-square-foot factory in north east Dublin five years ago and now employs 50 people.

It has a range of about 80 products designed in-house and made from natural yarns in wool cashmere and silk blends. Prices for jumpers, cardigans, hats and scarves range from €80 to €150.

Covid-19 has prompted the O’Sullivan brothers to enter new territory yet again with the recent launch of irelandseyeonline.com, a consumer-focused retail site.

With 100 of the brand’s Irish stockists currently closed, alongside many others in its overseas network of retailers in 20 markets, the company hopes the website will tide it over while the pandemic is ongoing and open up new opportunities in the future.

“Up until Covid hit, I was dead set against getting into e-commerce,” Paul O’Sullivan said. “I was of the view that our focus should be on being the best we could be at making Irish knitwear and letting our partners get on with the retail side of thing.

“Covid completely upended that. We realised we had to get into e-commerce. We launched the website last November after a few months in development.

“We’re still adding our products to the site. We have about 80 or 90 and two new collections on the way so it’s a big project and a 180-degree turning point for the business.”

For the 59-year-old accountant, who grew up in Sutton in north Dublin, learning to adapt is nothing new.

“When our father started Irelands Eye in 1988, he wanted to create something for the family,” he said.

“There weren’t a lot of job opportunities in Ireland at the time and he just had this notion that he wanted to start a business for us.”

Paul and Brendan, who had been working as a chef, got involved in the venture early on.

Their sisters Wendy and Noeleen continue to work part-time in Irelands Eye to this day, alongside their younger brother Cian.

“Cian has Down Syndrome and I think that was a big motivator for our parents when they set up Ireland’s Eye as well,” Paul said. “They wanted to build a business where Cian could have a place to work in time.”

Now, with demand for locally-made products on the rise, consumer trends are favouring companies like Irelands Eye.

“When we started in the late ’80s, there were about 25 companies like ours making knitwear in Ireland. Now, there are just a handful,” Paul said.

“We’re in a good place. There’s a big market worldwide for authentic Irish knitwear and there are only a small number of factories left producing it.”

Irelands Eye has developed its new website with help from Enterprise Ireland and will be among the state agency’s client companies taking part in Showcase, the annual creative expo, later this month.

This year, the Dublin company will have an online profile at showroom.showcaseireland.com. The virtual showroom will operate for five days from January 25 to 29 in place of the annual trade show that usually takes place at the RDS in Dublin.

Buyers will be able to set up remote meetings with companies like Irelands Eye through the online showroom. The project is supported by Design and Crafts Council Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the Local Enterprise Offices.

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