Putting on the Rixo! How fashion’s hottest new label began in the living room of a young woman from Northern Ireland who’d joined forces with her best friend
Orlagh McCloskey talks about her teenage style faux pas when growing up in Dungiven, the meteoric rise of her vintage-inspired brand and how its next collection will be inspired by Diana, Princess of Wales
She's the young Northern Ireland woman who teamed up with her best friend to found the fashion label Rixo, whose beautifully made, vintage-inspired dresses have been worn by celebrity fans including Kylie Minogue, Margot Robbie, Holly Willoughby, Christine Lampard and Laura Whitmore.
In a success story that has made headlines in style magazines in the UK and US, Orlagh McCloskey (29), from Dungiven, joined artistic forces with Cheshire-born university friend Henrietta Rix. The pair combined their names to come up with 'Rixo' and just three years later it is one of the leading UK-based fashion brands.
The young women have seen their business - embracing everything cool about vintage Seventies fashion in silk - grow from a laptop in Orlagh's living room in West Kensington to being stocked by the likes of Harrods, Brown Thomas and Saks, Fifth Avenue.
Fifth Avenue is, of course, a long way from Main Street in Dungiven, where as a teenager Orlagh says she made more than one fashion faux pas - and her mother has the photographs to prove it.
"I grew up in the countryside outside Dungiven," she says. "As a child my entire life revolved around the GAA pitch at Banagher. Every summer we'd be playing camogie from dusk until dawn. It's all we ever did.
"I was always interested in fashion too. But if you look back at old photographs, it was definitely not good fashion. When I was younger I was always interested in all things vintage and I would have tried to find unique items. Now, though, when I flick through those photos I think 'what the hell was I doing?' I definitely wasn't setting any trends. There were many fashion disasters. For example, we had these scrunchy sock things that I wore with court shoes and I thought these were amazing. They were absolutely awful. And as mum has all the pictures, I can't even deny it!"
While today she is at the centre of one of the big fashion stories of the past few years, Orlagh says that when she left St Patrick's College in Maghera it was by no means clear what her future career plans would be. While she was still keen on a career in fashion, she also considered becoming an architect - and the latter choice would probably have followed a more straightforward path.
"Coming from Dungiven, there weren't any firm career paths laid out in terms of going into fashion," she recalls. "It wasn't an ambition that was easy to develop as the schools in the area tended to push the set subjects like maths and English. It wasn't until I went away that I realised I could actually do it."
Thankfully help, however, did come from one teacher. "I had a substitute teacher at school who had lived in London for 15 years and it was he who encouraged me to go to London and basically just go for it," she says.
"If I hadn't met him I probably wouldn't even had applied for the course I ended up doing. Initially, I'd planned to do architecture at university, like my twin sister Gemma. But I applied for the London College of Fashion on a whim. When I got my place I just went for it. I did my Foundation Art and Design with progression to go on to Fashion Design."
Orlagh admits though that at first she found it hard to settle in London.
"When I first moved there I hated it for the first year," she says. "I was really, really homesick. All my friends were in Belfast and Gemma was there too. And I was doing a foundation course, which was more the artistic side of the course. I thought it was quite artsy-fartsy. Everyone wanted to be cool and I just wanted to have good craic and have a uni experience and London isn't really like that.
"I was actually going to go back to Belfast and do an architecture course instead. And Gemma talked me out of it. She told me that I had the opportunity to do something that I love, and told me to just change my course.
"Thank goodness I did. If I had switched to architecture, things could have been a whole lot different today.
"After my foundation course I took a year out and changed and did fashion management, which is more about the business management side of things. So I didn't train as a designer - though I had that design flair in me. And it was there that I met Henrietta."
Orlagh did her placement year at TK Maxx. "That was really good because the company gave me a lot of responsibility," she explains. "I was developing ranges and buying brands and understanding the whole business side of things. When I went back to do my final year of university I always knew in the back of my head that I was going to set something up."
Orlagh and Henrietta were both working as buyers at online fashion retailer ASOS when they decided to quit their jobs and take the nervous leap into self-employment. They had recruited a friend to design all the prints for their collections but a last-minute schedule clash occurred and the friends, with no formal design training, were left to do it them themselves.
"Henrietta and I were kind of like the blind leading the blind," says Orlagh. "We were unsure what you had to do to set up a fashion brand and then get the name out there. For example, my dad is into property. He would buy some land, build a house and know he was going to make a certain amount. But in fashion it is very much an emotional thing. You aren't sure that someone is going to buy your product, as it is not something that is needed, it is something a person has to want. There were nerves at the start, but I think you just have to believe that there is a gap in the market.
"So we quit our jobs and just started helping our suppliers with their UK business on the side as a way to get low minimums on our orders. We did that for around six months. We helped them and they helped us. It was a win-win situation, and we were able to set up our business in 2015 from our living room. We were in that living room for two years and only moved out into offices in November."
As is evident now, the plan the friends hatched to create vintage-inspired one-off pieces for the modern woman was an astounding success. Made in silk with no mass production, every print was painted by the founders. The girl's first collection, Virtues of Rosemary, set the tone and introduced us to the 'Camellia' dress - their first ever design, which quickly became a firm favourite from London to New York. Orlagh and Henrietta describe Rixo as a premium brand "with a grown-up British bohemian vibe".
Orlagh adds: "It was an overnight success. In our first year we secured a Net-a-Porter account, and that was a really big account to get. Usually you'd have to be going a number of years to get something like that. It was really quick for a new brand to get so many wholesale accounts and we were nominated for a huge award - the Drapers' Premium Brand of the Year - in the first year also.
"The proudest moment of my life was seeing Rixo going live on Net-a-Porter. And it performed really, really well so that was amazing. In the first week we were in the top five contemporary brands in our first season. It did really well and is continuing to do well."
As a small business, competing with multi-million pound companies such as Diesel and Barbour is a tough call. "There is pressure," admits Orlagh. "Yet, in some ways, because we didn't have a big team it was easier to manage because we were almost doing everything at the start. We have obviously got a bigger team now. But we didn't have the overheads that a big company would have had because we were working from our living room. We basically winged it any way we could because we didn't have the budget to put against things. We didn't have to wait to sign off on things in a way a bigger company might have to, we could just react to things really quickly. We were making the decisions.
"Of course, there were pros and cons. When we took on Net-a-Porter there was a lot of logistics involved in huge orders. The production was quite a lot to take on, but at the same time we just had to make it work."
Now, Rixo is on the rails of Harrods in London, Brown Thomas in Dublin and Saks of Fifth Avenue in New York, as well as 160 different accounts worldwide - and it is also being worn by some of the world's most famous and beautiful women.
"When we first started we reached out to a lot of stylists and showed them our collections," says Orlagh. "We don't have a press agent, we do all our press in-house, so anything that gets worn by someone is usually organic. We don't push it on anyone. And we are quite lucky that people actually want to wear the stuff. It's not that we don't reach out to people, but it's more people reaching out to us and we facilitate them quickly.
"Margot Robbie has worn something of ours recently. Heidi Klum, Kylie Minogue and Erin O'Connor also wear our dresses. Millie Mackintosh and Rochelle Humes wear quite a lot of our stuff as well as a load of social media influencers."
Despite their label's popularity with stars, Orlagh and Henrietta have not done much socialising on the celebrity circuit.
"Despite celebrities wearing our clothes, we wouldn't really move in celebrity circles at all," she says. "We are invited to loads of parties and events all the time, but we only moved into our new offices last November and we are working 24/7. There isn't really time to be partying.
"It is, however, part of our job to attend Press dinners and events, so we need to get better at that. It's just that we are so busy with all the boring stuff around the business that you kind of put that to the side.
"Perhaps, though, that is also why we have been so successful. I've seen so many people in this business who are in it because they want to go to the fancy parties, but not really to do the work."
Although Orlagh is clearly settled in London for the foreseeable future, her heart remains in Dungiven, from where he mum and dad and sisters follow her career with enormous pride.
"My mum visited a few weeks ago and was over the moon to see the brand in Liberty," she says.
"My dad knows nothing about fashion, but he saw a documentary on Liberty and rang me up and told me about it, so when I told him we were in there it was really the first time that he understood what I was doing.
"I have three sisters - my twin Gemma, Sheena (30) and Kathleen (32) - and they would all wear Rixo. My mum does too. And it's funny, they all have completely different styles, but they find what they like to match their style in the collections.
"They are like walking advertisements for Rixo. I think it's really nice that they wear it 24/7. They are the type of girls that if they didn't like it, they wouldn't wear it. It shows that there is something for everyone with Rixo. You don't have to be really fashion forward to pull off the designs. They all love it.
"My twin sister now lives here in London also. We are so close. She was away in Australia for a while and I missed her a lot. I'm so glad she is here. It makes life a lot easier. She is so supportive - before we had a product to show she was telling everyone that we were going to be the biggest success ever.
"I haven't been home to Dungiven since Christmas because we have been so busy and have had so much going on with the move to the new office.
"All my friends are still at home, though, and I really love getting home and will definitely be making an effort to get back to Northern Ireland more often this year."
And Orlagh says that she has some very special designs in the pipeline for Spring 2019.
"We just showed our 'Resort 19 collection in Paris," she adds.
"And that was really Eighties-inspired. And the next Spring/Summer 19, which we are showing in September at London Fashion Week, will be inspired by Princess Diana's style.
"There was an exhibition at Kensington Palace which showcased her fashion. It was so interesting.
"Back then she was so fashion forward in and didn't really go with the grain. She was daring and had an attitude and a great Eighties style. There was so much about her in the media in the last year because of the royal wedding and so on, that her style became relevant again.
"I think you can take elements of it and make it more modern.
"There might be a pump, or a composition of a print or a waistline or one detail that inspires something else. I love her style."
See the Rixo brand at www.rixo.co.uk.