Q&A With Irish Designer Margaret O’Leary
The founder of the eponymous clothing company shares her thoughts on success and giving back.
What inspired you to launch a fashion brand?
I am a simple girl who grew up on a poor working farm in rural Ireland, one of 12 children in a house with no indoor plumbing. I know it sounds kind of romantic, but it was very hard and there were few store-bought items in our humble cottage. My siblings and I learned to knit and sew when we were little so we could make clothing for the family. When I emigrated to the U.S., I found that I could apply my knitting skills in unique ways and make sweaters that people would actually buy. I can’t explain the success other than to say I design what I would like to wear — it seems others enjoy the same things.
What lessons have you learned along the way?
The people who work with me are so important for the execution of the entire process, from design and production to the retail store stylists where the client interface happens. I would be nothing without this loyal team. The world of fashion is ever changing and of course I adapt. My three sons, who are in their 20s, shop almost exclusively on their phones — they don’t even go to stores to shop for clothes. I see that our web sales are growing at an extraordinary rate, so I continue to move us toward the Instagram/ Facebook influencer world.
What do you like about life in Marin? How has where you live influenced your brand?
My greatest inspiration as a designer comes from the world right outside my door. Marvelous Marin: there really is no place on earth quite like it. I especially love hiking in the redwoods and walking our fog-shrouded beaches.
Please describe your core customers. What are their values and how does your brand align with these?
I’m proud to serve clients of all ages and from all walks of life. The value that binds us together is sustainability. If you buy fast-fashion clothing that lasts a season or less, you are contributing to so much waste. And not only the product but the people who labor to make that cheap clothing — their lives must also be considered. Here, your purchase will last a lifetime. In fact, we offer a repair and maintenance service for your knitwear to make sure it does.
Where do you find your design inspiration?
All successful fashion designers follow the work of other great designers. I am no different, so I love to travel to Paris and watch the great new crop of designs at Chanel, Saint Laurent, Dior, Valentino and other houses. I guess you could say my design inspiration includes the trickle-down effect from Paris runway to Marin County living.
What are other favorite forms of inspiration?
My husband and I love Monet; we have visited his studio outside Paris and seek out his work when we travel. I have also viewed all but one of the existing da Vinci paintings, and I think that he was helped by aliens. And (secret-reveal time for those who don’t follow me on Instagram), I am a Deadhead, thanks to my husband. Bob Weir has done an awesome job steering Dead & Company to new heights. I cherish our local Marin writer Anne Lamott and right now I’m reading Irish-based novelist Tana French. I live in the town of Mill Valley, which has the Sweetwater, so I have access to all kinds of great local musicians. And you can find me at Monday night meditation at Spirit Rock.
What causes or organizations do you care most deeply about? My passion revolves around women’s and children’s issues, notably sustainable work that honors women and sustains the places in which we live. We pay a great deal of attention to our supply chain and we think about sustainability in all we do and how it impacts not only our customers but those who work with and for us, in all parts of the world. Women from the Andes in Peru knit for me under the Fair Trade system, which ensures fair wages and safe, healthy, participatory workplaces. It is rooted in a respect for cultural identity and a commitment to both the environment and women’s empowerment. Giving back to the local community is so important to me. Over the last few years Margaret O’Leary has donated tens of thousands of dollars in cash and clothing to flood and fire victims across the United States.
Susan B. Noyes is the founder and chief visionary officer of Make It Better Media Group, as well as the founder of Make It Better Foundation’s Philanthropy Awards. A mother of six, former Sidley Austin labor lawyer and U.S. Congressional aide and passionate philanthropist, she has also served on many boards.