In 1980, Patricia O'Flaherty (Mary's mom) opened Chic Boutique on a shoestring budget and with a dream in her heart. She was always drawn to fashion, and grabbed an unexpected opportunity to open her own shop. Mary joined the business in 1987. These women are self-taught, motivated, confident and inspired - all the right ingredients for entrepreneurship. The shop was launched just as Irish design began a sort of renaissance, and has organically grown ever since.
Irish fashion design is centered around knitwear, as woolens and yarns are plentiful and the climate demands practical clothing - warm, dry and long-lasting. The Aran sweater originated in Ireland, and is so iconic it is now on display at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Of course, Irish designs have been elevated since then, but continue to be known for timeless, classic elegance. In Chic Boutique, this timeless elegance has a contemporary twist, keeping the clothing neither too staid nor overly trendy. Irish fashion is considered an investment which will stand the test of time, both in its durability and its ability to cross over seasons and trends with the addition of key accessories.
Take this blue dress (wool crepe, silk lined) by Irish designer Sookyoung Song, for example. It goes from day to night, from fun to serious with the addition of a few key pieces - a casual belt, freshwater pearls, varying hats (designer Aoife Harrison) or an evening wrap. All the same dress, transformed by accessories.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
The starting point (and key), according to Mary, is to wear what suits your shape. "If you follow fashion slavishly," she says, "you're going to get it wrong if it doesn't suit your shape." She looks for sharp tailoring, a good cut, and good fabric. Her advice is to consider the color, shape and fabric that is right for you - "if you follow this formula, you'll make no mistakes," says Mary.
She acknowledges, however, that affordability and availability can be an issue at times. If you have to choose one of the three, she advises color be the top priority. "The colors you were drawn to as a child, in general, will suit your skin tone." Mary's advice appeals to my inner child, who loves blues, pinks, purple and teal.
Now watch this little black dress flex its fashion muscle...
And then the coat...oh, the coat! Wool and patent leather, over top of the black dress. And look at the profile on this gorgeous piece! In Ireland, the coat is the primary clothing item that "carries you through weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs."
I asked Mary for a prescription for a basic wardrobe. The following is recommended for Ireland, but a variation of this will work in most climates:
Although Irish designers are the primary feature in Chic Boutique, Italian luxury clothing has a place as well. For the more casual lads (like yours truly), a silk blouse over black pants is a smashing success with this tweed jacket. The gloves - holy mackerel - buttery leather, silk-lined.
Now of course I am salivating at the thought of an entirely new wardrobe of perfect clothing. But the reality is we often have good clothes in our closets which simply aren't working for us anymore. Sometimes these are quality, structured pieces, but we no longer go to an office each day. Mary's advice is to break up these outfits. Old suit skirts can become your "little black skirt" when separated from the jacket. The jacket can be fabulous over jeans and a crisp, white shirt. "Better broken up and worn than together and unworn," says Mary. Of course, a few updated accessories can change the whole look without breaking the bank.
There was a little "aha" moment when we began discussing cost, fast-fashion and the numbers of pieces in most women's wardrobes in the USA. Mary told me the average women spends 50-100 euros per week on clothing, rather than invest in fewer pieces of a higher quality, because budget is the primary focus. Over a year, that adds up to 2500-5200 euros (about $6,100). A high-end wardrobe of a few key pieces can be acquired for half that cost, will last longer, and will consist only of items you want and love. "If you wear what you love, what you feel good in," says Mary, "you will behave differently, walk differently." "Confidence," she says, "is the key to everything."
Many thanks to Mary O'Flaherty for the generous gift of her time, wisdom and a fabulous early morning "show and tell" demonstration in her boutique. You can follow Mary and the Irish designers she features on Facebook.