CORK woman Sue Carter was so fed up at feeling ‘written off’ by the fashion industry while pregnant and breastfeeding that she took matters into her own hands and launched her own maternity wear business.
Called CARI she says it’s not just about dressing for pregnancy and breastfeeding ‘but also for when mums are betwixt and between and life is turned upside down for a few years as their style evolves.’
The idea came to Sue when she was pregnant with her second child and already mum to a toddler, and she couldn’t find clothes that appealed to her sense of style.
“I love dressing up, love the thrill of shopping and the power of clothes to uplift us. When we wear a beautiful dress, or even an outfit we know works, we feel a little more special or invincible.
“The frustration stayed with me through the new-mum / breastfeeding months when again the lack of choice limited my life.
"I was a little self-conscious about feeding in public, at the time I was using an apron cover-up, which my toddler found amusing to play hide and seek with.
“I found myself avoiding going out, or going back to the car, so that I wouldn’t have to feed in public because I couldn’t figure out the clothes that gave me coverage or were just right for it. It’s already quite an overwhelming time with a newborn and a toddler, and so not recognising or liking what you see in the mirror can have such an effect.
“When we feel that we don’t look good, it impacts on how we carry ourselves in the world. Fashion isn’t just about clothes, it’s about expressing the best version of ourselves.”
Growing up in Carrigaline, London based Sue says her mum Mary was a wonderful dress-maker, and can still whizz anything up on her sewing machine.
“So when I needed a dress for a big event at eight months pregnant the first time round, and couldn’t find anything, I decided to get one made because I just couldn’t bring myself to do frumpy. The designs weren’t the issue for me, it was the cheap polyester fabrics.
“I bought beautiful Missioni fabric, and got a great dressmaker to copy a dress. That’s the first time I seriously considered ‘Why is there no-one doing this? Why are there so few options for pregnant women?’”
Her background is journalism, starting in newspapers and moving into the world of fashion, women and celebrity magazines and then into PR/communications, working with brands and businesses to help them grow and reach new audiences. But while on maternity leave with her second child, she started to give her idea some serious thought.
“I attended a workshop on how to set up an online fashion business, which encouraged me, and then a fabric fair, and then it was a case of timing, because for the first time, social media platforms had made it possible to get small start-up fashion brands to audiences, if you could get the branding and marketing right.”
When the pandemic hit and the business landscape for her communications work changed, it was the opportunity she’d been waiting for.
“I made the decision to give it my best shot. I found a designer to work with on bringing the vision to life, and so began the journey,” she said.
That journey, she admits, has been more challenging than she could have ever imagined.
“While the lockdowns gave me time, my timing couldn’t actually have been worse. The double whammy of Brexit and lockdowns impacted on so many levels - the fabric trade shows and networking events I’d been relying on to learn the new industry were cancelled, then there were massive import delays, and also the shock of huge retail like TopShop, etc, closing had a massive impact on the supply chains.
“So here I was knocking on the doors of factories trying to discuss doing small limited runs when their futures hung in the balance.
“It’s meant I’ve had to learn a new industry and how to operate in it pretty quickly - I found myself fighting the good cause for small online businesses, persuading factory owners this was the future as people switched off fast fashion and supported more local and small businesses that produced responsibly.”
Sue’s Swedish partner Johan is also involved in CARI – which she very honestly admits has its pros and cons.
“It’s amazing that he’s rolled up his sleeves and gotten involved, ready to take on anything that isn’t fashion-related. His background is finance, and that has been hugely helpful as I underestimated the operations side of running an e-commerce business. It’s wonderful to have someone so closely involved to bounce ideas off and who’ll help you come up with solutions - and a lot of the time we are tag teaming with the kids. But when we don’t agree, well, things escalate far quicker than if you were maintaining your polite cool with a colleague!” she jokes.
“I admit to finding working from home challenging as I’m the type of person who needs to switch my brain into work or home mode - and avoid distractions. That’s impossible when I’m working in the office and there’s howling and screeching coming from downstairs from my two- and four-year-old!”
Sue said she’s got invaluable support from other small business owners, especially women.
“The start-up journey involves a lot of picking yourself back up off the ground, and pressing on - knocking on more doors, starting the process again and again until you get what you need.
“My advice to anyone starting out is to get a network of mentors who can guide you, some in the same industry and others in complimentary ones - and build relationships with them. Get recommendations, introductions, their contacts - they will have gone through all the problems before you and will have the answers that could take you weeks to figure out by yourself.
“I’ve found other small business owners, especially women, have been beyond generous with sharing their experiences and time. There’s an amazing support from other women - a lot of whom are strangers. For me, this is something I hope to carry forward and in the future, if there’s anyone looking for advice, well, my door is open.”
Sue says she’s still at the stage where she gets excited every time she gets a sales notification alert: “It’s a great feeling to know that someone has liked your vision and will hopefully enjoy wearing it.
“So far, Ireland and Cork has been a huge part of our market - my younger sister and cousins have been great at plugging me, and for me that means so much as I really want to be able to grow the brand here and offer the style options women want.
“It’s the thrill of building and growing the business that is really exciting, and makes all the challenges worth it.”