16 Oct 2017 | 12.07 pm
Interview: Jennifer Rothwell, Designer And Entrepreneur
'Dublin city is being turned into a coffee shop'
16 Oct 2017 | 12.07 pm
In the face of government indifference to Irish fashion and textile designers, Jennifer Rothwell is hoping that a rich benefactor for the sector may emerge to help the sector
One of the reasons why there are a lot more coffee shop startups than clothes shop startups is Value Added Tax. This sales tax is levied at a rate of 9% on a cappuccino. In Jennifer Rothwell’s boutique at the top of the Powerscourt Centre in Dublin, the taxman levies 23% of every item she sells.
When the sales tax is that steep, it makes it very challenging for Rothwell to price her hand-made dresses, scarves, leggings, blouses and ties competitively against the mass market. Rothwell dresses are priced from €295 to €995 and printed shirts cost €195. Without the taxman grabbing nearly a quarter of her gross revenue, Rothwell would be able to reduce her asking price or have more resources to spend on staffing and marketing.
For Rothwell, the VAT issue typifies the official indifference to Ireland’s domestic textile, fashion, design and craft sectors. The 44-year-old entrepreneur looks at the huge state supports for food and tech firms, and the massive grant and tax incentives for film producers, and wonders why nobody is helping her sector.
Rothwell studied fashion in the National College of Art and Design and her colourful printed garments are designed on computers. “All the inspiration, colour stories and design direction come from me and I use textile designers to relay my vision technically through Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, as unfortunately I was not taught how use these when I was in college,” Rothwell explains.
“After textile digital printing, the designs are then printed onto reactive fabric, which is then cut and sewn into garments. We buy in fabrications such as silk, silk stretch and cotton stretch with a solid base of white colour and then we print my colourful designs on them. With digital textile printing you can do a lot more with colour than with traditional screen printing. I am currently the only designer printing and manufacturing in Ireland.”
Rothwell’s work is highly regarded, so much so that one of her dresses is on display in the National Museum’s display of Contemporary Design & Craft. She notes wryly that in a museum tribute to Ib Jorgensen, the Dane who was one of Ireland’s leading Haute Couture fashion designers in the 1960s to 1980s, it was recorded that Jorgensen went out of business after the VAT rate on clothes was raised from 18% to 21%.
“Now the VAT rate is two points higher. I’m not independently wealthy and it’s not a hobby for me, it has to be a business,” Rothwell adds. “I have been in business for ten years and I don’t see much light at the end of the tunnel. I work so hard and I’m just paying the VAT man all the time. So there is little incentive to be in business at all. That’s where there needs to be a bit of give and take, particularly for people who are manufacturing in Ireland.”
New York Experience
After college, Rothwell worked for many years in the fashion industry in America. She returned to Ireland from New York for family reasons, to be closer to her parents. Her workshop is attached to her home in Artane, where the digital-printed textiles are produced. The investment in the digital fabric printer brought this aspect of the business in-house, though the plan for the machine is behind schedule.
“We want to open up the facility to other people but the problem is that we need a technician,” she explains. “We have spent the last year learning about the machine and using me as a guinea pig to test the fabric and to familiarise ourselves with how it works. The machine is not at the capacity that we can do the work for other people, because we need help with employment. The machine should be running all the time and there is a market, but we are in limbo because we need proper investment.”
Rothwell attracts interns from all over the world, though some skills are hard to source. The website has a constant requirement for fresh photography of the new garments, with dresses requiring seven shots from different angles.
“If I were a jeweller, I could just take pictures of jewellery and put them on the website. It’s much more difficult when it comes to fashion – the images are of people wearing the clothes and they have to look right. When we come up with a new fabric design and decide to make a top, our challenge is getting it up there online and looking well. I’d love to get investment and increase our online sales. If someone is on their computer in London and browsing for a scarf, Jennifer Rothwell should be popping up beside Liberty and Hermes.
In Rothwell’s view, part of the problem relating to her sector is that funding agencies such as the Design and Crafts Council and Local Enterprise Offices spread their money too thinly. “I believe that they need to champion a few designers who can go global and bring them to the next level,” she says. “Only 10% of businesses survive after ten years and I believe that the agencies should be looking at that 10% and bringing them to the international trade shows, similar to what the Italians do with their Made in Italy programme.
“I sometimes do mentoring for young fashion designers and you meet these amazing talented people who are not making any money. They work for the love of their craft and if they received a little bit of help they could end up employing people.”
Despairing of official current indifference to the fashion design sector, Rothwell is hopeful that a rich benefactor will step in. “It would be great if there were someone with money who wanted to champion Irish design and believes in it,” she says. “They might want that to be their legacy. It’s like a garden that just needs some watering and it can flourish.”
Another issue dogging the indigenous fashion sector is the lack of people with sewing and cutting skills. These skills used be taught under state-funded apprentice programmes, but not anymore. “It’s a skill like hairdressing and if someone learns how to sew they can find employment all around the world or have their own little business. We need to bring the craft skills back so that the young fashion graduates can stay in Ireland rather than leave the country.”
Rothwell says she opened her own shop in Powerscourt as a “survival tactic”, the idea being that she could garner more income rather than having her goods sold by other retailers. Of course running a shop costs money, and she describes her retail business as challenging.
“I’d love to be able to bring the digital printing and the retail space under one roof. So if somebody had a beautiful image or photograph that they wanted printed for curtains or pillowcases for their children, we could do that for them. I think it would create a buzz if we had a premises where people could buy a scarf that was just off the printer.”
A few years ago, there was an aspirational plan to add more of a fashion, millinery and design focus to South William Street. Instead, there are more bars, restaurants and coffee shops. “Dublin city is being turned into a coffee shop and the City Council should do something about it. Tourists want to visit independent Irish design shops and there needs to be vision and foresight to make that happen.”