An understated style
Sunday Business Post
Sunday, July 12, 2009 – By Elaine O’Regan
there’s something of the fairy tale about Quack + Dirk, a tiny boutique on Dublin’s northside, which stocks vintage and handmade clothes and accessories. Tucked down a narrow laneway behind Marino Mart, Quack + Dirk is one of a new breed of micro businesses offering customers a thoroughly personal experience.
It is a tiny wonderland of quirky fashion that has as its ‘Alice’ Deirdre Cantwell, a 25-year-old Howth native who launched the boutique just four months ago.
Alongside carefully-selected vintage pieces, Cantwell stocks edgy styles sourced from low-key London labels and her own range of handmade clothing and accessories.
All of this colour and creativity is on a miniature scale, housed in a converted garage once used by Cantwell’s father as a rough-and-ready storage space.
“I knew that the space could be useful, and I love the area – it has a great community feel and I am friendly with a lot of the people here,” says Cantwell. “So I started using the garage to sell bags during the summer when I was 18. I was basically tired of seeing the same thing on the high street the whole time and I wanted to try something different.”
For shoppers in this country, where street markets are rare and boutiques are often expensive, Quack + Dirk offers an affordable alternative to the homogenous high street. The shop is pretty and personal, with a bright red Quack + Dirk logo adorning the back wall, behind which Cantwell sews her designs while shoppers browse.
“I could never see Quack + Dirk on the high street,” she says.
“I’d like to open more shops like this, but I wouldn’t go much bigger with any individual store. I prefer small and personal, where the person running the shop gets to know their customers and is also involved in sourcing. It is really nice to have a story behind the pieces – to know their history and origin.”
A graduate of sports science, Cantwell came to fashion in a roundabout way. Taught to sew as a child by her mother, she considered a career in art, but opted instead for a qualification that she thought might offer more long term security.
“I studied sports science in Limerick and, in some ways, I regret not going to art college,” she says. “I would bring my sewing machine to college and sew all the time. Everyone there thought I was weird -they were completely different.”
When she graduated, she applied to an Irish retailer for a job as a fashion buyer, an experience that was invaluable in enabling her to set out on her own.
“I bought accessories and I learned about everything from dealing with suppliers to getting shipments in on time and working out selling prices,” she says. “I got to travel to the Far East and all over Europe to various fashion shows.”
The emphasis in Quack + Dirk is on colour, pattern and, above all, individuality. For buyers on a budget, prices start at just €9 for a pair of pretty antique button earrings.
“I want to give the shopper a unique experience,” Cantwell says.
“They can come in here and see me sewing, tagging a garment and putting it out on the rails straight away. I am giving them something different, and at good prices, because I’m not adding on all the extras. You can pick up the dresses I make myself from €29 to €49.”
Quack + Dirk had its official launch in April, with a tiny startup budget of just €5,000. Its opening as a full-scale, bona fide fashion store is something of a personal triumph for Cantwell, who scrimped and saved to finance the venture herself.
“I put the money away, bit by bit, while I was at college and in the two years after, when I was working,” she says. “Until we started to gut the place six months ago, I was basically selling bags out of a garage with no flooring or insulation, but I knew all along that I would have to do it properly at some stage.”
Cantwell describes her own style as quirky with a vintage edge.
Her inspiration, she says, comes from everyday life: “I don’t really look to the catwalks for seasonal inspiration and I don’t have any style icons. I just love watching people, and I am always looking to see what people are wearing. I really love it when people mix old and new -modernising old clothes and making them funky and wearable.”
Cantwell travels weekly, on Mondays and Tuesdays, to source new and vintage stock for the shop, which opens from 10am to 6pm from Wednesday to Saturday.
“I wouldn’t get much in Ireland,” she says. “Usually, I go abroad to the flea markets in Italy, where my sister lived for years. Antwerp is really good as well, although it is expensive. In Berlin, you can just pay by weight. They know a lot more about vintage there and tend to have more vintage spots.”
Although Cantwell does not cite the downturn as a major driver behind her price-friendly venture, her make-and-do sensibility is the perfect antidote to the überconsumerism that has held sway in recent years.
“I try to keep it nice and budget friendly,” she says. “People can buy what they want, but without a big hole in their wallet. “I am always looking for something different and I never buy in big quantities -I would buy six pieces, max. Girls in the area know that they won’t end up buying the same thing as their neighbour, which is important because their friends shop here as well.”
Although she describes herself as a “one-man band”, Cantwell draws inspiration from her family and friends – all of whom have an integral link to the Quack + Dirk venture. Her boyfriend, an industrial designer, was heavily involved in designing the shop’s hip boutique interior, while Cantwell cites her mother and older sister, both architects, as major design influences.
Her father was roped into helping out at a recent swap-shop event, and then there is the shop’s name, which was inspired by the childhood nicknames Cantwell shared with her best friend, Caoimhe. And her great-aunt, Maureen Murphy, who ran a clothes shop on Patrick Street in Cork when she was Cantwell’s age, was the inspiration behind her newest collection.
Called Auntie Maureen, it includes bags, tailored dresses and accessories priced from €9 to €49. Cantwell is clearly relishing her new role and already has plans to host a fashion event on the laneway outside the shop sometime in September.
“I don’t have a big business strategy, but I do reckon that you have to work harder now if you have your own business,” she says. “It can be rewarding, though – I just got an e-mail from a girl who bought a vintage dress from me.
She dropped me a line to tell me that she had worn it to a wedding and got loads of compliments. It was so nice that she bothered to e-mail at all. Things like that make the whole thing really worthwhile.”
For more information, visit www.quackanddirk.com