Red alert: entrepreneur has designs on the world of fashion
The woman behind Co Down retailer Red Ruby Rouge studied law before a clothes encounter in US boutique changed her life...
Fiona Kennedy retains her Scottish accent, despite having spent years in New York and now living in Co Down. She has had a long journey to Holywood's High Street.
At university Fiona studied law and after graduating worked in Belgium, before running the international operations of New York University's School of Law. She moved to Northern Ireland with her husband, who is from Holywood. But, she explains, "the type of work I did there [in New York] was just not available here. So I made the big decision to do something completely different".
One of things Fiona missed most about Manhattan was its fashion industry – the shops and the markets. "I spent a lot of time in boutiques," she recalls. A big difference between New York and Northern Ireland – and the rest of the UK and Ireland – is the lack of market presence of smaller and often innovative design houses. This, it seemed to Fiona, created a market opportunity.
She set up Red Ruby Rouge in 2007 as both a high street retailer and an online store. The approach quickly proved attractive to customers – and emerging designers. "We were getting some designers from the US, who were less well-known here," says Fiona. And because this was the only outlet for these exciting designs in the UK or Ireland, there was prominent coverage of Red Ruby Rouge in well-known fashion magazines, including Grazia and Vogue. This, in turn, generated substantial trade, especially online.
"We have a really great customer base in Holywood, but a lot of our business is online," Fiona explains.
At the outset, about 95% of business was conducted through the store. Now it varies between about half and half between the store and online and sometimes, in particular seasons and especially after positive media coverage, the majority is through the website.
One of the design houses that Red Ruby Rouge initially worked closely with was Tucker by Gaby Basora. "We were the first people in the UK to have her," says Fiona. "Now her label has grown. So then we made a decision last year not to carry her products because we cannot compete with much, much bigger companies."
Part of the purpose of Fiona's business is to work with small design houses. "I felt I had to keep changing to maintain our unique selling status," she continues. "We want to stay true to the smaller designers. I am working directly with designers myself."
Rachel Rose is one of those smaller design houses that Fiona works with, producing t-shirts and dresses that Fiona describes as "very creative". "Last year they sold like mad," she adds. "We have a new range coming in from her in a couple of weeks' time."
Another emerging brand sold by Red Ruby Rouge is Sabrina Tach, a Uruguay-based design house that produces leather bags. "They feel so much more expensive than they are. And she doesn't sell through anyone else outside the States."
The shops also sells handbags by DNTX, a design studio based in Brooklyn, New York.
For Fiona, the future will be more of the same. "Working directly with people [designers] gives us much more flexibility," she says. The recently adopted approach of being less focused on fashion seasonality and taking smaller deliveries "works really well", adds Fiona. "And we will continue to work with emerging designers."
Fiona is also content with the marketing approach. The website has just been revamped and looks very smart. But social media has become increasingly important, including a major focus on fashion bloggers who can influence trends.
"We put a huge amount into social media, including working with bloggers," explains Fiona.
And it is an attitude that is producing very positive results for Red Ruby Rouge.