In person: “I don’t think there will ever be a perfect time to launch your business,” says handbag designer Julie Peelo
“You know, there are always things going on. None of us could predict a global pandemic, but I don’t think there will ever be a perfect time to start your business.
Meet Julie Peelo on a Teams call where she joins me from her home – and design studio – in Malahide. Dressed in a bright pink and orange sweater, the fashion designer is no stranger to conducting business via video call.
Peelo, her booming handbag brand, was born during the pandemic. “I had September 2020 in my head as a launch date and just stuck to it,” she says simply.
She points out what could have happened if she had waited for the perfect moment to promote her line of bags and accessories: “Oh my god, is there a recession? There is war, the cost of living, there is always something.
In the first year of the pandemic, Peelo’s only contact with the factory that brought her handbag designs to life in Porto was by phone call or voice notes as she stayed home with her family.
She had initially scouted her leather supplier at the end of 2019, working with a small family factory in the Portuguese town.
By selling primarily online, I’m also able to better maintain the price.
“When I finally got back there, I went out to lunch with [the owner] and one of his daughters. I said [to her] ‘oh yeah, I have three kids’ or whatever and he starts laughing and he goes ‘no, no, she knows, everyone hears your kids in the background,’” she laughs.
The ‘support local’ movement that fueled Irish shopping habits at the onset of restrictions and social distancing also played a central role in the evolution of the brand, especially as Peelo’s launch was purely online.
“I think in a way I kind of had an advantage because I settled in online really well from the start instead of trying to backtrack like other companies have. , trying to put things in line,” she recalled.
Social media has been key to raising awareness during the days of endless online scrolling, with Peelo choosing to donate items to certain influencers or giveaways.
While the glory days of endless pandemic deliveries have come to a halt, Peelo is now considering a mix of online and physical retail.
For her, B2B sales is the channel that offers the brand the most potential in the future, as more and more customers now want to see the products before committing to a purchase.
“The business has grown, and it’s become much more wholesale-oriented,” she says. “I want to explore Ireland more. I’ve sold all over the world.
“By selling primarily online, I’m also able to maintain a better price.”
“There is a lot of potential. It’s just trying to manage my cash flow and trying to grow sustainably. I have never gone into debt for my business. It’s just about trying to be smart about how I grow it,” she adds.
Peelo’s bags are stocked in five of Avoca’s stores here, as well as select stores and boutiques in Foxford Woolen Mills in Ireland. She’s also teaming up with other Irish brands for a pop-up store in Dublin this month.
“I feel like in Ireland there really isn’t a good brand of contemporary handbags. That’s what I really want to create,” she says.
Peelo’s design career began in Dublin after her studies at NCAD when she got a job with Irish designer John Rocha. But she didn’t stay here long.
“I just had Italy in my head,” says Peelo. “I rented a sofa from someone for a month and said I was going to get a job in Milan for a year and leave John Rocha. They asked, ‘are you crazy?’
Peelo then spent the following years working with top designers in several fashion capitals around the world.
This included Marni in Milan, John Galliano in Paris, as well as Diane Von Furstenberg and Juicy Couture in New York. Bags designed by Peelo have now been worn by celebrities such as Jessica Biel, Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez.
“I’ve done everything in accessories, from sunglasses to shoes to jewelry to wallets and belts,” she tells me.
She then returned to Dublin for a five-year stay with Dunnes. In her role as Design Director, she engaged with a number of Irish designers creating for the retailer, working alongside Creative Director Carolyn Donnelly.
“At the time, Dunnes was hiring designers massively and nobody really had experience managing designers,” she recalls.
These very different experiences cemented his approach to creating his own brand after years of figuring out who each designer’s client really was.
I have done all prices from €3000 all the way to Dunnes stores for €10
“When I launched my own brand, I thought to myself, what do I like? What am I trying to stand for? she says.
“At first it was really difficult because I did all the pricing, from €3,000 to Dunnes Stores for €10.”
She decided she didn’t want to have prohibitive prices, aiming for accessible prices for people to wear that are “useful, well-made and not a rip-off”, on par with Michael Kors or Marc by Marc Jacobs.
The line goes from €160 to €450.
Another area Peelo also hopes to champion is providing more design jobs in Ireland. His ultimate goal is that designers here don’t feel the need to take to the skies or the seas to find a place to build a career.
“ID [like to] employ people like me who have left the country. There are a lot of designers leaving and I would like to be able to grow this business and employ designers who would like to stay here and have a good job,” she recalls.
Peelo has also noted that aspiring designers ask her how she managed to break into big-name designers. “I don’t think there is a magic formula. I think it’s all about working hard and being kind,” she says.
“Be nice to people on the way up because you never know who you’ll meet on the way down.”