Anne Behan, MD and head designer at Áine Knitwear, Co. Clare.
Anne Behan, designer and MD of Áine Knitwear was awarded both Best Product Award Overall Winner and Design Ireland Winner at Showcase 2018 for her beautiful a-line knitted dress. Here we speak to Anne about being a female head of a successful Irish knitwear brand and the design process behind her award-winning creations.
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.
Aged 28, Anne left her job at one of Ireland’s leading knitwear companies to establish her own business — Áine Knitwear — and now produces Áine alongside the McConnell menswear and McConnell Living brands.
“When I left my job to establish my own business, I wanted to be creative but I also wanted to be a woman in the business of the knitwear industry. I wanted to be the boss and stand on my own two feet,” she says. She cites some of those she worked for in the industry as mentors and as inspirational figures in business and says that she has great admiration for Paul O’Sullivan, MD of Irelands Eye Knitwear.
While Anne says that she has tweaked her product range over the years to make it more commercial or wearable, she says that it is vital for a designer 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 and getting out there — meeting your customers and seeing what they are selling and where your brand fits,” she says.
One of the key moments in the development of Anne’s business was when she won the contract to make 11,000 scarves for the Irish government. Investing in new machinery at the time, Anne was able to increase her output and she now creates 40 styles in six different colours per season. This offers retailers variety and a chance to create a unique look for the customers in their shops.
Showcase is a very important event in Anne’s calendar because, as designer and head of the business, it’s impossible for her to meet every retailer individually. While she travels extensively to to meet her customers, she says that Showcase is a “one-stop” shop for meeting clients both national and international.
In Anne’s long experience, tastes among retailers vary by geography. “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 buyers 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.”
It is extremely important to Anne that her product is Irish and is made using Irish products as much as possible. She utilises Irish yarns from Donegal, tweed from John Hanly; her buttons are sourced in Ireland, her labels are woven in Ireland. “My designs look Irish but I describe them as ‘modern Irish’. While my customers’ 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 the products are not overtly traditional.”
Áine Knitwear is run from Clonlara in Co. Clare and Anne says that it is important to her to provide employment in rural Ireland. “It’s important that businesses set up in rural areas,” she says. And it’s great for people to be able to work where they want to live.” Anne now employs ten people in roles such as administration, sales, design and production.
Awards such as those received at Showcase 2018 are important to Anne — both as a designer but also as a business person. “The awards are great — they keep you current in terms of news and they validate the brand and what you are trying to do in business,” she says.
“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.”