Ireland is world-renowned for its fabulous fabrics and fashions. Recently we spoke with Paul Byrne of Dublin-based The Sweater Shop about what his company has in store.
What is your own background?
I was born in the small town of Ballyhaunis, County Mayo, Ireland, in 1954 – one of 10 siblings. In my mid-teens I was employed by an Aran sweater manufacturer in Mayo and I travelled across the U.S. twice a year selling our sweaters to both department stores and individual stores. This was a huge eye opener for me – seeing how much North Americans loved our Irish sweaters. From there I upped sticks and moved to Dublin and was a buyer for a larger woollen store where I began my relationships with suppliers that we still use to this day.
What is the company’s history and mandate?
The Sweater Shop was founded in 1986, and we celebrated our 35th birthday in May of this year. It was founded by myself and my sister Breege with our 1st store on Wicklow Street in the heart of Dublin. The mandate centers around 3 core principles – providing quality Irish knits, with a great selection, at unrivaled value. The store became a huge favourite for Irish customers and tourists alike thanks to our mix of timeless, classic Aran sweaters and new, vibrant colours and styles. Soon, we expanded to all parts of Ireland, including Kilkenny, Galway, Donegal, Kerry, and Limerick. Luckily, my son Paul, my daughter Laura and my daughters-in-law, Kate & Eileen-Louise, are all part of the business and help with the day-to-day details. We now operate both physical and online stores as the demand for quality Irish knits is bigger than ever.
How has it evolved over time?
In some ways we have not evolved at all. The classic Aran sweater was a customer favourite in 1986 and remains our signature and most sought-after sweater. We absolutely love to see customers from overseas come into the store, and instantly pick up the Aran Sweater and comment on how their mother, aunt or grandmother used to make these sweaters for them when they were kids. We love to see the instant affinity our clients have with our products, and to hear their own history with the Aran sweater and their connection to Ireland. The Aran sweater is a timeless classic and has now been adopted by Hollywood in recent years with Taylor Swift, Chris Evans and Paul Mescal introducing a new generation to the simple beauty of the fabric and design.
What are your core products?
We specialize in authentic Irish knits, and our core products are classic to contemporary Aran sweaters. The new colors have brought a new life to the classic Aran. We also stock a new fabric called Super Soft Merino wool sweaters and accessories. This is ideal for people who love the look of the Irish Sweaters but who many have an irritation to the wool – the range is incredibly delicate on the skin and still has that durable look keeping it as close to the original concept as possible.
What are the challenges of the job?
The current challenge is an obvious one, but one that we cannot wait to put behind us. COVID-19 has impacted all businesses in one way or another. We never thought we would be able to survive closing our doors for the best part of 18 months, however thanks to the development of our website we have been able to focus solely on selling online which has gone from strength to strength. We would never have been able to commit this level of time and effort to developing our website in normal times where we would be very much focused on the physical store.
What are the rewards?
Customer interaction and feedback are a huge motivating factor for us. We are lucky to sell a product that people genuinely have an instant affinity for. I definitely think we took these interactions for granted in a pre-COVID-19 world, but we absolutely cannot wait to welcome customers back into the stores. We are lucky in that our online customers are constantly getting in touch to say how much they love their Irish knit.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the Celtic marketplace?
The Celtic marketplace is stronger that it has ever been. There are so many amazing independent retailers and designers across the Celtic Isles at the moment. We have seen a huge increase in the quality of Irish handknit products, from woollen accessories to jewelry – all steeped in Irish culture. The same goes for every part of Ireland. We are always so impressed with the Celtic design talent we see in all the towns of Ireland. Each town has their own unique offering showcasing the best of both classic and contemporary Celtic designs.
What are your future plans for the business?
Our plan is to continue to grow and drive our business both here in Ireland and online – the fact that our stores were closed during COVID-19 has given us a unique opportunity to focus and grow our online business. Tourists were unable to travel and visit our country, but our website allowed us to share our Irish knitwear with them. We learned a huge amount during lockdown here in Ireland and focused all our energy on growing our online presence and reaching out to customers worldwide.