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O’Rourke family’s passion for fashion endures for 90 years



O’Rourke family’s passion for fashion endures for 90 years

The O’Rourke family business has been trading for 90 years in the notoriously fickle clothing industry. Chief executive Colm O’Rourke tells Kathleen O’Callaghan how the company has managed to stay ahead of the fashion pack.

It was all happening in Ireland in 1933. Fianna Fáil won its first overall majority in Dáil Éireann, and the republican party voted to remove the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown.

Taoiseach Éamon de Valera hosted the first state reception in Dublin Castle, and sugar beet processing was nationalised. Fine Gael was established, and the Blueshirts were banned.

In the business world, in October 1933 fabric agent Frank O’Rourke and clothing manufacturer Joe Taaffe incorporated company number 8543, which still operates today as Graine O’Rourke Models Ltd.

Frank O’Rourke bought out his business partner in 1955 and today his descendants Colm and Marc O’Rourke are still at the helm, with some of their children involved in the business too. One reason for this family business reaching 90 not out is that it has developed a strong export business under the Peruzzi brand.

FashionHSE, the trading name, is a mainstay of Fashion City, the cluster of fashion firms that relocated from Dublin city centre to Ballymount at the turn of the century. Fashion House, the company’s west Dublin premises, consists of 12,000 square feet of showrooms and offices, complemented by a 37,000 sq. ft warehouse. 

Chief executive Colm O’Rourke (66) owns the business with his cousin Marc O’Rourke (55), the company sales director. Colm’s daughter Ailbhe and his son Collie have also joined the team. So how has the O’Rourke enterprise survived through the generations?

“Fashion is very volatile and it is important to recognise opportunities when they come along and to grab them, as standing still is not an option,” Colm explains. “Although our clothing manufacturing business commenced in the 1930s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that we started to expand and looked outwards beyond our shores.

“Ireland under de Valera was very introspective, and things only began to change under Sean Lemass. The IDA and Córas Tráchtala were established and exporters began to explore new markets and find fresh opportunities.”

A key alliance was formed in 1968 with German coat manufacturer Steilmann, with the O’Rourkes securing sole agency rights for Ireland. So close was the relationship that Klaus Steilmann was a director of the O’Rourkes’ company for four decades.

“This luxury label excelled in creating elegant coats and formal suits, and the association inspired our firm to make a strategic move to gain a foothold in the Canadian and US markets,” Colm O’Rourke recalls.

“In the late 1990s, Marc and I noticed that the Steilmann market was beginning to wane. We began to represent other brands and launched our own fashion brand. We named it Peruzzi after a street we came across on one of our many trips to Italy.”

Peruzzi is one of Ireland’s main export fashion brands, with the garments sold in over 500 retailers in 24 markets. The women’s clothes are designed in Ireland and manufactured in Italy.

“We don’t believe in competing on price,” says Colm. “We put of lot of time and thought into the pre-production process, ensuring that the tailoring and quality are paramount. Irish people are generally bigger than our Spanish and Italian counterparts, so we cater for different sizing across Europe.”

Peruzzi’s popularity derives from its stylish image that emphasises classic quality, sustainable fabrics and collections that transcend seasonal fads. Core items in the range include warm coats, sharp trouser suits, comfortable wool dresses and fine wool knitwear.

The garments are easily co-ordinated and provide swift solutions for busy executives who don’t have time to work out tricky origami style blouses with mad straps and intricate fasteners.

FashionHSE also has a retail arm through the chain of five Choice boutiques in Dublin as well as shops in Kilkenny, Clonmel, Ballina and Sligo. “We have no plans to open more stores, as we are mainly wholesalers and the shops serve us well,” says Colm.

Covid trading lockdowns impacted the business, and warehoused tax debt at the end of 2022 amounted to €350,000. Graine O’Rourke Models Ltd had total liabilities of €1.5m in December 2022, and net worth of €1.6m.

Year-end stocks were valued at €1.3m, up from €850,000 a year earlier, and trade debtors were €680,000. Net cash at period-end was €110,000 compared with €770,000 a year earlier.

The O’Rourke clothing business had made it through multiple periods of economic turmoil during its 90-year existence.

Colm O’Rourke

“We are fortunate not to have any interfamilial acrimony,” Colm O’Rourke observes. “As a chartered accountant I have seen many business fall-outs and personality clashes in family firms.

“That’s why we have always had an outside party on our board. And we wouldn’t be here without our incredibly loyal employees, so we are lucky in that regard too.”

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