Product Development Manager Niamh O’Laoighre ditched the city and freezing northeast surf for Cornwall’s warmer waters six years ago. She talks perfectionism, proud moments and why nothing beats a blustery walk to the pub.
“Before I worked here I was at Bench in Manchester for nearly ten years. Finisterre was a good opportunity for me to move on and create a department from nothing. I was in charge of a department at Bench, doing a similar job to what I do now. But because it was bigger you were more pigeon-holed, so there were areas that you didn’t really get involved with. One of the things that attracted me to a smaller company was that you had input – and maybe a bit of influence over other areas. And your opinion is valid and wanted.
I grew up by the sea in Ireland, but living in Manchester you are pretty landlocked. Which wasn’t ever really a problem until I got into surfing, and then it was a massive problem because you’d drive all the way to Scarborough and you’d get there and it’d be flat (even though you’d checked Magic Seaweed). The sea was four degrees in winter… Unbelievably cold! This made me realise I really did miss living by the sea. So I thought, ‘Well if I was going to live by the sea anywhere in the UK, where would it be? It would be Cornwall.’
I came across Finisterre on Google. I was looking for a job in Cornwall and struggling because obviously it’s not a clothing hotspot. I’m really passionate about my career and I didn’t want to just move and fall off the radar. I came across an interview with Tom… When you work for brands and you’re surrounded by fashion, you think you know up-and-coming brands; you think you’re in touch and aware. I was like, ‘Who are they? I’ve never heard of them.’ So I Googled them and found the website. I liked the ethos behind everything and I liked the clothes. So I began obsessively checking their job page for a long time.
When I first moved down here I thought, ‘Jesus, I’m never going to know anything ever again!’ It felt like I’d moved to the end of the earth. But I actually feel more connected to the planet and I think that’s a direct effect of being outdoors more.
"I actually feel more connected to the planet and I think that’s a direct effect of being outdoors more."
I love going for a nice walk, especially if there’s a pub at the end of it. Taking the dog out and having a good old stomp around. People think it’s only nice to go out if it’s not raining. But I think if you’re dressed right, it doesn’t matter. I love it. A blustery walk, you get to the pub, the fire’s lit and you have a drink… Heaven.
My job is the transition from 2D to 3D, interpreting that design from paper and communicating that to the factory – via a size spec, comments and drawings – for them to then make a proto-sample. It’s not just to do with the materials, but also the manufacturing capacities, what’s achievable and what isn’t, what machinery would work best. It’s quite a lot to think about: what components need to be there, what components work, what components don’t, all that kind of thing. So you’re bringing the product to life. And for me, that’s the most exciting bit of my job.
Often we’re in a fit meeting and we’re saying, ‘Why is it there? If it’s not doing anything, do we actually need it? No, we don’t. Right, get rid of it.’ We don’t design for design’s sake. There’s nothing worse than putting on a pair of trousers and there’s a fake pocket. What’s that all about? I don’t get it… just don’t have it.
As Product Development Manager, I’m responsible for all categories of all clothing. When I first started I was doing all the development, all the sealing (making sure everything’s right for production), I was doing the shipping, I was doing the ordering, I was doing the components. Pretty much everything. But obviously as the company’s grown I’ve been able to get rid of some categories that don’t necessarily come under my remit and concentrate on my strengths.
Now we’ve got three people in the department, full-time, so we can sub-category out. So Jess, she looks after the Merino, knits, jerseys and soft accessories. And we’ve just had Laura start and she’s going to look after wovens. The range has grown massively. We’ve gone from having maybe 15 styles to having 500 styles. There’s a massive jump there, so we needed desperately to resource the department.
Technology is advancing so quickly, and consumer expectations are advancing pretty much in line with it. So there’s always something new. It can be frustrating because from my side it usually takes nine months to a year to get a design into the store. And by the time it gets in store there’s something new. I’m like, ‘God damn, now this is out and it’s better!’ It keeps you on your toes, it keeps things interesting.
At the moment we’re heavily researching the best biodegradable bag. That’s thrown up a load of interesting topics for me – things that I never really thought about before. Options that seem like solutions often aren’t because when you investigate further it doesn’t work with the recycling process. Like OK, something might be biodegradable but only in certain conditions and you can’t recycle it because it doesn’t work in our recycling systems as it’s a plastic alternative. I often wonder why bag factories aren’t on top of that because it’s so difficult for us to source these things. If I had a bag factory, making them biodegradable is exactly what I’d be working on right now. I don’t know if we’ll ever get away from plastic completely, but we have to make steps towards it and not just be ignorant and say, ‘Ah fuck it, no-one else is doing it, forget about it.’ There are all these different areas and topics that have opened up to me since I’ve worked at Finisterre.
I recently watched the Vivienne Westwood documentary ‘Punk, Icon, Activist’, it’s absolutely amazing. I’ve always loved her. It was a total insight into her life and personality. She doesn’t want to have world domination and it was never to build a fashion empire. Never ever. For her it was about getting an opinion into the limelight and the mainstream, you know, and having an influence politically over things. She is true to herself, always has been, always will be, and I love and respect that.
Work has provided me with a great social circle since moving down here. Everybody who’s joined, obviously they have their own personalities, but everyone’s just on the same wavelength and it’s just easy. People are inclusive, which is really nice. And if something’s going on it’s like, ‘Come!’ Everyone’s very open with their time and their lives. I think in cities it’s harder, because people have their group of friends and they don’t venture outside of it as much.
Working on the Christopher Raeburn collaboration was insane. There was no time, and samples had to be ready for Men’s Fashion Week. I was off for Christmas and every single day I’d be woken up by my WhatsApp at six in the morning with questions from the factory. The reward was going to see the show, and everything looking insanely good. It’s just nice to know that even though you’re working for this brand, and you’re massively proud of what it’s doing, other people have eyes on you and you’re recognised by people from different areas within the fashion world, you still have that connection. There was so much hype about it and we were featured in a load of magazines and blogs. It was so good.
Our connection with our suppliers is something I really love here. I’ve always had good relationships with suppliers but here it’s so important that we work with the right people. I really, really like that. And we’re lucky that we don’t work with arseholes. I’ve come across loads of them in this industry – suppliers and factories that don’t give a shit about anything. At Finisterre, you visit a factory in Asia and everyone’s happy. The working conditions are amazing and it’s a privilege to be part of that, and to demand that from your suppliers. To say, ‘No, we’re not going to put up with this. We want everybody here to be paid a fair wage, we want their working conditions to be right, we want them to be trained fully.’ It’s just nice to be able to say honestly and really proudly, ‘No, we don’t do child labour and we don’t do shit wages and we look after the people that we work with.’
“It’s just nice to be able to say honestly and really proudly, ‘No, we don’t do child labour and we don’t do shit wages and we look after the people that we work with.’”
The thing that gets me up in the morning… The team. Knowing that you’ve got support and hard workers there every day. And the laughs! We talk a load of shite and we laugh so much in our department. And from a work point of view… Just trying to deliver the best possible product. I’m really anal which is a good and bad thing. It’s essential for my role but goes against me sometimes because I want perfection all the time. You can’t. And when we’re really busy and I think, ‘We’ve got to seal it.’ I hate that. That’s what makes me stressed. I like getting shit right. And nothing makes me happier than somebody putting on a garment that we’ve made, and feeling amazing.
I don’t think there’s one proudest moment; there have been a few. There’s been some times when we’ve just nailed a collection. The guys shoot it. And you never know what they’re going to do with it, how it’s going to be styled and how it’s going to look when it’s on. You have your own nervous ‘I hope it looks alright’ and ‘I hope it’s going to fit’ and all that kind of thing. And then the imagery comes back and you’re like, ‘Fuck yeah, it looks amazing.’ They’ve taken the product, which is already great, and they’ve just elevated it, through their imagery. That's when I feel really proud.
I’m also proud of the department, how it’s grown and how the team are progressing within it, developing ownership over their specialist areas. That’s really rewarding for me. I’ve worked days in the shops before, to get customer interaction and feedback. And I enjoy that, because it’s the front line. That’s when you get real feedback: unintentional feedback from people. When people come in and they’re like, ‘I just love this brand’, you do feel proud. You can’t not feel proud, because you’re part of it.
“There’s a spotlight turning this way and Finisterre is in the middle of it. And that does feel exciting. As long as we’re prepared for it and we can cope with it, it’s going to be really good.”
The future feels quite exciting. I feel like we’re on a little bit of a cusp here. We’re starting to get a bit of traction. It takes so long. But I feel like – not just with the clothing side of things, but with the whole environment side of things too – there’s a spotlight turning this way and Finisterre is in the middle of it. And that does feel quite exciting. As long as we’re prepared for it and we can cope with it, I think it’s going to be really good.
View the Fifteen Years Collection Here | Images by Abbi Hughes