I love ladies! I do. I love those with spirit; I love the ones with a sense of sisterhood. I particularly love those in business that graft, succeed and ultimately inspire. Kate Nowak is one such lady. We first became pen-pals of sorts when she got in touch to promote her then relatively new business FiftyFive65, a range of ‘new vintage’ ladies clothing, ‘strictly rooted in the magic ten year span from 1955 to 1965’. At that stage the love was for her ideas and her energy. Later when we had a chance meeting at the Dublin Brocante, it was clear that she embodied her own brand beautifully.
Here Kate talks influence, entrepreneurship and barszcz…
Irene: Kate, you’re a Polish lady living in Ireland with your Irish husband. Tell us a bit about growing up in Poland and how you came to find yourself here?
Kate: It was really fun. Proper four seasons in a year too! Because I was a goody-two-shoes in school (but I like to think it was through my organisational skills) I had a lot of free time on my hands… which I spent mainly in the cinema. Watched anything and everything. I was a scrawny looking tomboy that cut her own hair.
Most of my college friends married very early and had a lot of growing up to do. It wasn’t for me and I knew this could not be the only ambition a young woman could have. Since I was a teenager I wanted to live in some other country, so learnt my English quickly and eagerly. I wanted to travel and get independent as soon as I could. After second year in college (of Bulgarian literature and history studies. I know!) I saw my chance. So I took a plane to Ireland deciding to stay in Sligo. It was an actual case of closing my eyes and pointing at a map. It really was! I met my now husband four weeks later and a few months after that I was interviewing for my first ‘real’ job in Dublin.
I: I love the point at the map game! All big decisions should be made in this way… Did you have any style icons growing up? Who inspired you to be creative?
K: My grandmother Rose was always an elegant lady. She never followed trends and only made clothes for herself when she found the suitable fabric. She never forced it. Buying new clothes was rare in her family and she quickly learnt how to sew. She even worked in a men only sewing workshop after the war! She was just a teenager then.. She made something out of nothing all her life. Needless to say my mum was very lucky to have her around during her partying times back in the 70s! We still have the dresses she made for my mum. But none of us can fit into them!
I: I know that feeling! At least you can keep them as works of art, hanging around your house. Weddings seem to be a real time of inspiration for brides-to-be. I know so many women who started their businesses as a direct result of their research, frustrations, fact-finding, disappointments, discoveries etc. along their pre-wedding path. I guess the devil’s in the detail. You were one such lady. Tell us about your ‘light bulb’ moment in relation to your bridesmaids, Kate.
K: It was a bit frustrating. I knew exactly what I didn’t want but could not find any alternative in the shops. There’s a dressmaker back in Poland my mum used to go to, so I got in touch. We understood each other very well and the dresses started to take shape. Simplicity was the key. The less pieces in the pattern the better. And we ended up with a 60s style sheath dresses in this amazing rich, deep purple. Then we finished off with handmade pill box hats, gloves and jewellery… they looked like mid-century flight attendants on a night out! It worked really well for our winter wedding.
I: As with all new businesses, they can sound great in theory when the idea first arrives. What was your biggest obstacle to starting the venture?
K: When you’re starting a business money and know-how is a big issue. Without it you can’t do much. However having a little money really forces you to go further, to do extensive search for what you need – lack of money keeps you in a creative thinking mode for much longer than when you have a cushy lump sum. I knew what I wanted to do but I didn’t know how. So it was back to school for me. Literally. I enrolled for an Enterprise Ireland backed educational programme for ‘green’ entrepreneurs like me in Sligo IT – New Frontiers. This involved all the business advice I needed; a great environment in which nothing we said was stupid; it also came with a start-up grant you needed to apply for with a presentation. I got it!
I: Brilliant. So outside of the classroom, what have been the greatest learnings along the way – the highs you would like to relive and the lows you would like to avoid?
K: I happened to get involved with VSO charity and they invited me to take part in their fashion show back in 2012 at the Shelbourne Hotel. It was a great experience. We were a very young label, with a sample collection, without a shop and we still got a really good feedback from the guests. It gave me confidence and the energy to keep going. The low would have to be the long working hours. I used to spend every waking hour with my laptop, couldn’t sleep, until I realised finding some kind of balance is a must. I’m still working on it but it’s much better.
I: I think all of us self-employed and creatives can relate to that struggle. What do you wish you knew before you started?
K: That I don’t need to do everything myself. That asking for help is not a bad thing at all!
I: Hear, hear! How has Dublin, and indeed Ireland, been as a location for a new venture?
K: Dublin is a great city. Compact, old and happy. Going around my favourite spots always makes me feel better. The mix of people here is what makes FiftyFive65 a slowly growing success. Dublin people like to show their personalities and look a bit different whether it is simple, vintage or edgy, everyone has the freedom to find their own voice and outfit.
I had access to much more opportunities in Ireland than I would have in Poland. I feel very lucky I ended up here.
I: As do we! Of course your business is mainly online but you regularly trade at various markets. How important are these to your success and how important is it to meet your customers?
K: Meeting people is key. Your customers need to see you, your designs, touch the fabric, especially when you’re online only, like FiftyFive65 is. Also my best sales are happening at the markets!
I: Your designs represent mid-century fabulousness. What are the essential elements of a FiftyFive65 garment?
K: All the designs are simple but their character is on show through subtle details like an unusual collar, textile, trim or pockets. All these attract attention. When designing I always start with the fabric, I’m a very touchy-feely kind of person and if the texture is not right it won’t do. Hence a lot of soft fabrics like cotton, viscose and satin. There’s a very natural and warm, almost earthy feel to them. I’m also keeping all skirts at 70 to 72cm at length, so they fall just below the knee and the sleeves are 3/4 (it irritated me beyond belief when my shirt sleeves were getting caught in the keyboard in work!). Sometimes there are 3 darts on the elbow so the sleeve can be comfortable without losing the shape. Love them little details of the past!
I: That is such brilliant thinking with the sleeve length! What is your favourite piece from the collection and why?
K: I like to think of myself as old-fashioned in a good way! I adore Grace Kelly’s day to day style and my favourite would have to be a shirt dress. Whether with a slim or full circle skirt it looks flattering on anyone. It’s timeless, classic day wear. It would have to be the Grace dress in navy. With or without a petticoat it always makes my waist look very small!
I: If you could dress one person in the world, who would it be?
K: My grandmother Rose. She may be gone a long time but I remember her well. She would always tell the truth. I would love to hear what she thinks about my collections.
I: ‘Vintage-inspired’ can receive a bad rap from purist Vintage traders and collectors. How have you found the reaction to be?
K: I was a purist once but I realised I’m trying to be exclusive in what I wear, instead of having fun with it. I believe there’s enough space in the industry for everybody. So far I haven’t come across a customer who would be unhappy with FF65 clothes being new. I’m a big fan of original vintage and have a collection of jewellery and coats… bigger than I want to admit! But women’s bodies have changed since the 50s, we have different needs from our wardrobes (and underwear), we’re all looking for comfort. Modern fabrics have an addition of stretch, just 2% of it makes a huge difference in fit. Some don’t like the feel of ‘somebody else’s’ clothes on their skin. I’m not even going to mention the sizes available. So why not meet half way?
I: Agreed. So who is the FiftyFive65 lady?
K: She’s confident and sophisticated woman who’s not afraid to be silly sometimes… but looks amazing while doing so.
I: They say that size matters, how important was it to you that you offered not only a range of sizes but fittings that actually flattered the female form?
K: I’m convinced every woman can look stunning no matter what dress size she wears. And I’m glad to add size 18 to our range due to demand! Our clothes are made in a way that accentuate curves already in place or help to create them with cut and details. It’s not about your size, but your attitude and willingness to work with what you have.
I: Beautifully put. What does the remainder of 2014 have in store for you and FiftyFive65?
K: More markets AND some brand new dresses!
I: We shall look forward to both! Before we sign off please indulge us with a quick-fire round:
Best place in the world to Vintage shop… The Harlequin, Dublin.
Best Polish dish to try as a first timer… Hot barszcz (beetroot soup) with mushroom ravioli. It’s a Christmas dish but it’s worth waiting for.
Favourite song to work to… Anything by James Brown & The Famous Flames. Especially Live at The Apollo album from 1962.
If you could have designed one dress in history what would it be? The pink gown by William Travilla for Marlilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Most prized Vintage possession… Pink opal brooch and earrings set I wore to my wedding.
Essential weekend reading… Right now it is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. That and my To Do list for Monday (not).
Worst thing about working markets… It can get cold!
Favourite place to go out in Ireland… McDaid’s and The Long Hall in Dublin. Furey’s Pub in Sligo.
Thanks so much to Kate for sharing her musings and beautiful images with us. All non-wedding photos are look book images from the Fiftyfive65 collection, now available to shop on line.
If you would like to see more photos of Kate’s beautiful big day, read her wedding feature on One Fab Day. It’s delicious!
Fiftyfive65 will be at Smithfield Market Fair in Generator next Sunday November 23rd. Be there or be square.
x Irene x