Out of the West with Áine Knitwear

Anne Behan, designer and MD of Áine Knitwear was recently awarded both Best Product Award Overall Winner and Design Ireland Winner for her a-line knitted dress at Showcase 2018. We speak to Anne about being a female head of a successful Irish knitwear brand and the design process behind her award-winning creations.

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A graduate of fashion design at the renowned Limerick School of Art and Design (LSAD), Anne specialised in knitwear - winning the Student Knitwear Designer award - and later going on to study for a postgraduate qualification in knitwear and CAD at LSAD. Upon graduation, Anne worked at various fashion and knitwear companies including Carraig Donn and Ireland’s Eye Knitwear.

Aged 28, Anne left Ireland’s Eye to establish her own business Áine Knitwear and now produces three different labels: Áine Knitwear, McConnell Menswear and McConnell Living.

“I wanted to be my own boss,” says Anne. “At the time I left Ireland’s Eye to establish my own business there were only two other women in very senior positions in the Irish knitwear industry. There were women involved in other aspects of the business but not in very senior management/ director roles."

Photo of Out of the West with Áine Knitwear

“I wanted to be creative but I also wanted to be a woman in the business of the knitwear industry. I wanted to be in the business in my own capacity, to be the boss and stand on my own two feet.”

Anne says that she is very business-oriented as well as being a creative designer. She cites some of those she worked for in the industry as mentors and as inspirational figures, including Paul O’Sullivan, MD of Ireland’s Eye Knitwear.

Although she had worked in the business for ten years, establishing her own business was, she says, a steep learning curve. 

“When you’re running your own business you’re all-singing, all-dancing - you have to be master of everything. I had to learn to sell my product and also to step back from my product. To learn that if people didn’t like it it wasn’t because it wasn’t a good product but rather that it didn’t suit their shop. You have to know your end customer very well - not everyone is going to like what you make.”

Photo of Out of the West with Áine Knitwear

While Anne says that she has tweaked her product range over the years to make it more commercial or wearable, she also says that it is vital for designers not to change their designs to suit individual retailers. “You want your product to be different to that of other brands - it’s a matter of research, getting out there and meeting your customer - seeing what they are selling and where your brand would fit,” she says.

At the inception of the business Anne rented her knitting machines from a supplier in Dublin and from LSAD. “The biggest step in terms of investment in machinery was when I won the contract to make 11,000 scarves for the Irish Government when Ireland held the presidency of the EU in 2013. I designed and manufactured a scarf that was given to visiting dignitaries. I had the knowledge that I had a large contract so I was then able to buy my first two machines," she says. 

Anne had chosen to rent machinery in the early days of the business rather than outsourcing her production in order to keep her designs as close to the source as possible. 

“The more you outsource your production the greater the chance of copying and dilution of your designs. I have a small label, which has grown, but in the beginning I wouldn’t have had the power to do anything about people copying my designs.”

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Overnight Anne was able to increase her output and she now creates 40 styles in six different colours per season. This offers people variety and a chance for retailers to create a unique look in their shops.

Shows such as Showcaseare important to Anne because, as designer and head of the business, it’s impossible to meet every retailer individually. Having said that, she travels extensively to Germany, France, the UK and the US where her products have a steady following. ”I can show people my product at a one-stop-shop by exhibiting at Showcase,” she says. Awards such as those at Showcase 2018 are important to the designer: "They keep you current in terms of news. They validate the brand and what you are trying to do," she says. 

Tastes among retailers vary by geography in Anne’s experience. “In Japan retailers take a mix of colours - maybe blue, pink and brown. In Ireland they tend to go for greys, taupes and putty colours with a pop of colour. In Scotland they love greens, purples and dark reds and in Italy it’s greys and pale blue. Over time you get to realise what works in different regions through analysing your sales.”

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Each year Anne visits the Pitti Immagine Filati yarn show in Florence. “That kicks off the design process as they have all the new yarns on show and you can see what is new in design and technology. I then take lots of photos at home to inspire me and then I bring it all together in my designs.”

It is extremely important to Anne that her product is Irish and incorporates Irish elements as much as possible. She utilises Irish yarns from Donegal, tweed from John Hanly & Co. in Tipperary; her buttons are sourced in Ireland and her labels are woven in Ireland. 

“My designs look Irish but I describe them as 'modern Irish'. While my customer’s parents may have worn Aran jumpers, they are buying my brand when they want an 'Irish' sweater. We use the tradition of Irish knitwear but it’s not overtly traditional.”

Photo of Out of the West with Áine Knitwear

“Becoming an employer was a steep learning curve - there is a lot of red tape you need to learn about and a lot of information you need to take on board all at once but my Local Enterprise Office was very supportive in terms of providing advice and courses for me.”

"It’s important that businesses set up in rural areas. And it’s great for people to be able to work where they want to live," says Anne who employs ten staff members in roles such as administration, sales, design and production.

Photo of Out of the West with Áine Knitwear

Recently Anne has added more easy to wear garments to her range including four new jackets that are comfortable and wearable. “I love texture in knitwear and that’s what makes the product different. I try to manipulate the yarns to look like textures I find in the countryside but to put them into easy to wear, subtle shapes so that it’s more like wearing a piece of art, that’s not going to date, than a piece of knitwear.”

Photo of Out of the West with Áine Knitwear

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