WHEN two best friends struggled to find age-appropriate clothes to fit their children, they took matters into their own hands and have launched their first clothing collection for girls aged seven to 14.
Funky Fitz is the brainchild of Linda Condon and Jo Kiely, who are making the transition from stay-at-home mums to businesswomen, happy to have each other for support.
“We met since I’ve been coming to Cork”, says Linda, who is originally from Abbeyfeale, Co. Limerick. “We’ve been best friends for over 25 years.”
She has now been living in Cork for 18 years and is mum to Katie, aged 15, and twins Abbie and Jodie, aged 13, while Jo, originally from Douglas and now living in Carrigaline, is also a mother of three: daughter Allex, aged 16, and sons Chris, aged 13, and Ben, aged 12.
Between the two women and their combined six kids, they have had their fair share of unsuccessful shopping trips, which led to their new business partnership, which aims to offer a ‘true to size’ clothing range for children who don’t conform to standard sizing.
“In my case it was my eldest daughter, Katie, who has a taller, broader shape, while the twins have a more slender build,” explains Linda.
“Jo and I found it hard when the kids were around eight, nine and ten, when they still had some puppy fat. We found the Irish sizing is very much with the European child in mind and Europeans tend to be smaller in frame. It’s down to our genetics. Scandinavians, English and Irish are similar but the French, Spanish and Italian are much smaller in frame.
“Through our own market research and focus groups with other mums, we found that they were buying one or two sizes up or adult sizes, which were not age-appropriate clothing.
“You shouldn’t have to put children in adults’ clothes,” adds Jo. “It’s embarrassing for them. Alexx, at nine years of age, was out of children’s clothes and an awful lot of alterations needed to be done on what we did buy. We had tears and tantrums on shopping trips.”
Linda continues: “We physically went and measured children — live children, real kids — to design a clothing range that will really suit them.”
They are also keen to stress that they are not in any way promoting obesity by creating clothing in larger sizes.
“People might think that’s why we’re making these clothes, but that’s not why we’re doing it. It’s because if you don’t conform to standard sizing you just have to make do,” insists Linda.
Having recognised a gap in the market and dreamed of filling that gap, the pair took their idea to the next level by enrolling in a Start Your Own Business course with the Local Enterprise Office. Following that, they also undertook the PINC programme for female entrepreneurs at the Rubicon Centre in CIT.
“That was a fantastic course,” says Linda. “We met really great people who helped us with our business idea and getting it off the ground. We were very lucky to get funding for a lot of courses through the Local Enterprise Office and Enterprise Ireland. Without those courses it would have been very hard.
“We’ve learned so much, it’s been a great focus and it put us in the right direction. We’ve met a lot of good people along the way. Cork people all want to help!”
Linda and Jo received an innovation voucher from Enterprise Ireland, which allowed them to work with a centre of learning. They enlisted the help of students from the CIT Crawford College of Art and Design and CIT Graphics department, combining a team from both to help create their colour board and graphic designs.
But, according to Jo, they also had some help closer to home: “The collection is Irish-designed by myself and Linda and the children were involved in choosing the prints and fabrics. It was a great family adventure and great fun.”
“It’s been fantastic restarting a career for myself and Jo — and also for the kids, who have been really involved,” adds Linda. “They are very proud of us and they’re getting a great kick out of the whole thing.” While the two ladies have spent recent years focusing on family life, they are now in a position to draw on their work experiences of the past as part of the foundation for their new venture.
Particularly useful is Jo’s experience in retail, as she was the floor manager when Next first opened in Douglas Court Shopping Centre, while she was also the store manager in Gymboree.
Linda, meanwhile, had a business background, working as an account manager for an electronics firm.
Even with all that experience though, setting up one’s own company is a challenge: “It’s out of our comfort zone for both of us as we’ve no design or manufacturing experience,” says Linda.
They both feel that one of the reasons taller, broader children are not widely catered for in this country is due to the VAT rate on clothes. There is a zero per cent VAT rate on children’s clothing but once the garment goes over a 33 inch chest it is deemed to be adult clothing, with 23% VAT added to the price.
“That has deterred bigger brands from doing what we’re doing but we’ve said it’s all about helping other mums,” says Linda. “Coming up to Christmas now, with panto and visiting relatives, it’s a nightmare, especially when a child has siblings and they’re saying, ‘why can’t I have anything as nice as them?’”
The ladies went to revenue to state their case in the hope the VAT issue could be resolved but unfortunately they were unsuccessful. However, they are still determined that their range won’t break the bank, despite the burden of the extra 23%.
“It’s a quality product but it’ll still be very affordable. We know people are still watching their money,” says Jo.
Linda agrees: “It’s a 19-piece collection, with lovely fabric and very well made, it’s very high quality as it needs to wear well but also it had to be affordable.”
Regretfully, they have had to go abroad to have the clothes made.
“There are no manufacturers in Ireland, not since the 1980s,” laments Linda.
Jo elaborates: “In the 1980s you had Sunbeam, there was manufacturing in Bandon; there were a lot of them around. I believe they got funding from the government and when that was withdrawn a lot of them closed down.
“The Irish Crafts Council is trying to bring back manufacturing. It’s getting better again in Britain. Quality is becoming important again rather than just quantity. If we could follow suit here it would be wonderful, if we had someone up the road doing it.”
And so, for the moment, Funky Fitz garments are made in the UK, with a ‘Made in Britain’ quality sign on the packaging.
While Funky Fitz will operate as an online business — with a measuring guide on their website – Jo and Linda are offering a private fitting service at their premises in Shanballymore, near Ringaskiddy.