Rachel McConville is the owner of Woven, an independent home & lifestyle store based in Banbridge. We paid her a visit to discuss the challenges and opportunities of independent retail in Ireland.
Rachel McConville is the owner of Woven, an independent home & lifestyle store based in Banbridge. Full of beautifully crafted homeware, clothing and accessories, Woven cuts a different figure to the hustle and bustle of the town’s neighbouring high street in more ways than one.
As the shops of our streets continue to become increasingly more homogenous, Woven offers a respite from the everlasting sales mentality of the chain franchises that dominate our town centres. As consumers, we are becoming used to stores having an increased level of sales and discounts, driven by economies of scale that independent retailers simply can’t hope to match. More importantly, we have become digitally entitled, safe in the knowledge that online we can buy any item we like at any time, and have it delivered directly to our front door. This has created a landscape of consumerism where we have become largely disconnected from the people who make the products we buy, and the reality that adhering to this pattern of consumption is boxing in independent retailers on all sides.
At Woven, Rachel bucks this trend, and maintains a carefully curated selection of locally manufactured goods. It’s refreshing to visit a store where the owner knows exactly how and where each item is created, and by whom. As opposed to simply hitting the lowest price points to bring in customers, Rachel has made Woven into a project to support Irish makers, establishing strong connections with local talent and making room for them in her store alongside beautiful goods sourced from the UK & Europe.
We paid her a visit to discuss her journey into self-employment, and to discover the challenges and opportunities that come with being an independent retailer in Ireland.
Before you set up Woven you worked as a solicitor - was it an easy journey into self-employment?
“It was quite a slow transition. I continued to work as a solicitor for a year or so after I qualified but quite quickly I realised that it wasn’t what I had been looking for. I had always thought practising law would be a bit more exciting, and glamorous – I wasn’t naïve enough to think it would be like Suits but I had hoped it would occasionally be a bit exciting. Ultimately I felt stifled and knew that I couldn’t do it for years to come.
I began working for Rachael and Ed Lindsay who run Blue Moon Event Design and Magnakata, specialising in corporate parties and weddings. It was bizarre, as one week I was conveyancing, then hanging up fairy lights the next. As a solicitor I felt I was always dealing with people’s problems and enjoyed moving to the event industry where my role was so much more positive.
I had so much freedom to be creative, and working with those guys gave me a view of a life beyond the nine to five. I realised that there isn’t only one way to make a living, and that people can have creative working lives that really enrich them. Plus it was fun work - you wouldn’t go to bed on Sunday night feeling sick at the thought of another week.
When did you realise that you wanted to work for yourself and how did Woven come to be?
Woven was the result of a lot of thinking I did while I was on maternity leave. I had left Blue Moon as my family had moved to the North Coast and I had to decide what step to take next. The idea came to bear when we visited Morocco on holiday one year. For some reason it has a bad reputation but I fell in love with everything about the country – its landscapes and people.
We took trips into the mountains, where we saw women making rugs of such unbelievable quality. So many high street stores try and copy the style, but only when you actually see the women in the mountains crafting these rugs do you begin to appreciate the craftsmanship. We took some rugs back to Ireland with us, and realised that nobody was selling anything remotely like them here. Over the course of several trips I brought more home began selling them online through Etsy and Instagram, where I first used the name Woven.
I was always taken by shops - whenever we would visit new places on holiday I was always drawn to the local shops and markets, and would find it amazing what they could reflect culturally about a city. I loved the idea of one day owning my own, and when my dad said I could take over some of the space in the building of his legal practice I had a clear idea in my head of what my dream shop would look like.
Who are your customers, and what do they value about your store?
I think that slowly but surely I have developed a core customer base that fully value the shop and what it’s about. They are what keeps me going. They love the idea that I can actually tell them about the people behind the products and they want to know where and how the products they are buying are made.
It’s funny as people assume that because the products in my shop aren’t incredibly cheap that all my customers are wealthy. The reality is that majority of my customers aren’t people with lots of disposable income, but people that love the stories behind the products, looking for genuine quality and a more authentic product. People travel quite often from around the country to visit too, which shows that distance isn’t an issue for people looking for quality.
Sadly those types of customers seem to be quite thin on the ground but there are so many people out there that value this kind of store. Hopefully when I go online I will be able to reach more people and grow the business that way.
Who are your suppliers- why is it important to you to support local independent makers?
When I started Woven, I started looking at the big European trade shows and I realised that I didn’t always need to look abroad when Ireland is full of quality independent makers, who, given the right platform will totally thrive. I do also like to stock goods produced in the UK and Europe, and love that the locally made work can sit beautifully beside products from Denmark, the Netherlands and South Africa.
I think people in Northern Ireland love to support local people, and being a small independent means that I can support makers of all sizes, be it an established business or people that are simply making products as a creative outlet and might be nervous to approach bigger stores.I think that I get most enjoyment from sourcing the goods in my shop. A lot of people don’t have time to sit on the internet and find all the beautifully crafted things made on this Island and beyond, so I like that I can provide them with that connection to these makers and where their beautiful products originate from.
What do you get out of running Woven on a personal level?
Although there are challenges and financial pressures like there are in any businesses, Woven has completely exceeded my expectations. The connections I’ve made with like-minded people through the shop have been amazing.
As I’ve mentioned, I really enjoy giving makers a platform in my shop, and hope that it would encourage them to make a new collection or to develop in some way. It feels great to be giving them a space, and I like displaying their products so that people can notice them.
Take Rebecca Killen for example. Growing up with Rebecca, I have watched her start her ceramics business from scratch and develop it into a great business. Having watched her work relentlessly on her craft for so many years, I’m so glad to be able to stock and showcase her work. I can see the personal impact of my support on her which is great.
What are the pressures on independent retailers, and is opening up worth the challenge?
Unfortunately it has to be margin. People sometimes don’t realise how high street shops can offer 75% off sales on their goods- it’s because they are selling mass produced goods at a huge mark-up. On a small scale it isn’t possible for makers or smaller retailers to offer these mad price reductions.
I think that at times I get quite caught up in all of that, and my biggest personal issue is that at times I’m feeding a consumer culture that I don’t agree with, using terms like “Reduced” and “New In” on social media, a language I’m not sure I’m comfortable with. I’m not a materialistic person, and I don’t want to encourage people to just want more stuff. I want people to buy one beautifully crafted item and use it over and over again.
The reality is, conducting business this way is financially very difficult. Margins are so tight as you aren’t working with large established brands that operate with huge economies of scale - you are working with small independent businesses, makers who can take a long time to craft their products. Whereas you could maybe make deals on a wholesale price with a more recognised supplier, you can’t push local makers to lower their margins. It just isn’t right!
Things can be challenging and frustrating. When there is a bad week I do question myself a lot, and it can sometimes feel like a fine line between Woven being a great big hobby and a business model that can work. That being said, opening up has ultimately been worth it. I think that although many days are difficult, you really need to back yourself and remember that you are providing an incredible platform for people creating great products. I hope that I can continue to do that over the coming years.
Derek Wilson is a ceramicist from Belfast. A hybrid of studio potter and conceptual artist, his practice centres on the creation of a diverse range of contemporary objects, both functional and sculptural