You could say Carolyn Donnelly is a busy woman. This week she is in New York leading a team of young designers and buyers from Dunnes Stores, the biggest Irish store group, who are on a trend-spotting mission in the Big Apple.
Last week Donnelly launched her own fashion label for Dunnes Stores, Carolyn Donnelly: The Edit, which is the coolest collection in years from an Irish designer.
And in the middle of last year she launched her homewares collection for Dunnes called Carolyn Donnelly Eclectic, a funky, colorful, retro range that has been a huge hit in Ireland. Both can be seen on the Dunnes Stores website, where shopping online is available with shipping around the world, including the U.S.
But The Edit and Eclectic are just part of what Donnelly does because earlier this year she was appointed creative director of Dunnes Stores by Margaret Heffernan, the veteran boss of the chain and one of the most powerful business people in Ireland.
It’s a big job. Dunnes Stores is a huge retail group with over 150 stores, 16,000 employees and a presence in the U.K. and Spain as well as Ireland. It’s the only Irish-owned chain, unlike recent arrivals in Ireland like Marks & Spencer and Tesco.
It’s still a family business and a huge success, but in recent years it had become a less fashionable place to shop. Which is why they headhunted Donnelly, one of Ireland’s best loved designers.
Donnelly has been one of Ireland’s leading designers over the past 30 years, winning the Designer of the Year Award twice with her design partner Liz Quin for their Quin and Donnelly label. It was the best-selling Irish fashion label in Brown Thomas (the top store in Dublin) for years until the pair, who had met in design college, brought it to an end two years ago and to seek out new challenges.
Donnelly is leading a transformation of Dunnes Stores which will involve a significant shift for the retailer into a more design-led future.
Since her arrival she has reshaped the existing Dunnes fashion ranges, Savida and Gallery, and helped to introduce new designer lines, all originated within the group. And she’s leading by example, with her own new label The Edit.
As the name suggests, it’s a pared back look, even though it’s high fashion.
“It’s aimed at busy working women (like myself) who have limited time and want a simple, yet stylish way of dressing every day,” Donnelly said this week from New York.
“This collection takes the hassle out of deciding what to wear every morning. It’s a complete range, but edited down to what I believe are the essentials. It’s something I’ve wanted to do as a designer for some time. Like everyone else, I was fed up looking into my over-stuffed closet every morning and not being able to decide what to wear. The Edit solves that problem!”
So how is she getting on with her big job?
“I’m really loving my new role as creative director. A couple of years from now people won’t recognize Dunnes. Everything is changing, both the stores and what’s on offer, in fashion, homewares and food (Dunnes also is a major food seller).
“In the future Dunnes will be more sophisticated and designer led, and that’s where I come in. It’s incredibly exciting to be doing something like this.
“Our in-house designer labels Savida (for over-25s) and Gallery (for over-40s) are now as interesting as anything you will see in Brown Thomas, except at a much better price point. Myself and the team have been working on that for the past year and as a designer I’m really happy with what we’ve accomplished.
“Paul Costelloe (one of Princess Diana’s favorite designers) has also done a men’s range for us, we have our new Centered range for teenage boys, our Willow range for children and our Signature range for women in their 60s and 70s. And that’s only some of the new ranges that are planned.
“Paul also does his Living homewares collection for us and everyone loves it. His is cool and sophisticated, my Eclectic is full of color and a bit retro, so we complement each other. In fact myself and Paul are now the best selling homeware designers in Ireland.
“For me, it’s the scale of Dunnes that makes it so exciting. There’s no reason why we can’t be a global brand and that’s what I’m focused on.
“It’s brilliant for me at this stage of my career because I’m using all the knowledge that I gained over 30 years with the Quin and Donnelly label, which was a big favorite with Irish women. You can’t buy that kind of experience, you have to live it. Going to the international shows, picking fabric, designing and pattern cutting, dealing with factories, showing and selling, you do it all when you’re running your own label.
“We were the best selling Irish designer label in the country for years. We were stocked in Harrods, Bloomingdales and Macy’s among other places. We have great memories, like doing the annual London show for emerging designers in the 1980s. I remember chatting to another unknown young designer there who had the stand next to ours — his name was John Galliano.
“I’m using all of the stuff I’ve learned over the years now to transform Dunnes. We’re developing so quickly.
“In the future Dunnes Stores is going to be a destination for sophisticated shoppers, and it’s incredibly energizing to be part of the team that is leading that.
“We come to New York regularly and we love it. The buzz is great this time, as always.”
For more on Carolyn Donnelly’s designs, and to order online, visit www.dunnesstores.com.