You know, this is not Faye Anna Rochford’s first time in this newspaper.
Back in 2009, while doing her fashion thesis on the dress of men in rural Ireland in the 20th century - sparked by her fascination with black and white photos of farmers taking in the harvest dressed in three-piece suits - she wrote to the Irish Farmers Journal asking readers for their sartorial memories; in particular how clothes were cared for, re-imagined and re-purposed.
“I got so many letters from men and women - mostly women - that they would turn the collars and darn the elbows on the garment and big heavy jackets would become bedspreads,” recalls Faye Anna. “It was just all about resourcefulness.”
And resourcefulness is one quality that Faye Anna attributes to her own rural background; and that she has brought to her own “slow fashion” brand, FéRí, launched in 2020 after leaving what was a dream job in America to return to the farm and start her own family.
Farm to fashion
Faye Anna is one of four girls raised on what was previously primarily a dairy farm, followed by beef and tillage, in Cleariestown, Co Wexford, run by her father Philip. Today, he concentrates mainly on tillage, followed by beef; but what always struck Faye Anna was how “inventive” he was.
“Nothing was ever thrown out, there was a use for everything basically,” she recalls. “Even the way he was feeding the calves and the different systems he had. I’m sure most farmers are like that.”
Her mother Breda was a primary school teacher and equally creative; especially when it came to the restoration of the family’s 200-year-old farmhouse.
“Everything was re-purposed and up-cycled and salvaged,” says Faye Anna. “They’re definitely always thinking outside the box.”
Looking back, Faye Anna believes that her interest in fashion was sparked by a dress-up box that she shared with her sisters, filled mostly with her aunts’ old clothes.
“They would have been bridesmaids in the 80s; stuff that’s possibly cool now, but at the time was so elaborate, over the top,” she smiles, recalling her early realisation of “wow, anything is possible” when she played with clothes and styling.
Faye Anna went on to study fashion at the National College of Art and Design, graduating into the recession in 2009. Undeterred, she set about gaining as much experience as possible, with internships including a six-month stint at Diane Von Furstenberg in New York and working as a trend spotter in Paris.
“There was a lot of things that I needed to learn,” acknowledges Faye Anna of the need for industry experience.
“It’s fine designing something for the catwalk and that’s beautiful; but you need to design something that will sell.”
In terms of commercial experience, in 2011, Faye Anna began working with Penneys as a freelancer, which in turn led to a role as an assistant designer in women’s wear. This proved to be a stepping stone to her next job as a designer with US brand, Free People, which meant a move to Philadelphia with her now-husband, building contractor, Paul.
“This was really the dream job,” she reflects; but in 2018, she decided to return home to the farm to live in what was the former dairy while the couple were expecting their first baby.
“I didn’t really want to raise kids in America,” she explains.
“It was definitely a tough decision to make because I knew I was coming back to really nothing in terms of career, but I just believed that I would be able to do something and it would be better for the family.
“I just couldn’t imagine [having a baby in the US]. We lived in an apartment in Philly and with the maternity leave that you get there, I would have just been so lonely.”
That said, Faye Anna did know that she wanted to work for herself; and the arrival of son, Solamh, gave her the push she needed to take that leap of faith.
“It’s almost like you’re waiting for someone to say, ‘You’re now good enough, you now have enough experience, just do it,’” she explains.
“And as soon as I got pregnant, [there was] this sense of not caring as much about the bigger picture and just focusing on what was right for us and what I really wanted to do and I just was like, ‘Now is the time to do this.’”
While Faye Anna funded her start-up through her savings, she did reach out to her local enterprise board in Wexford for support, including completing a start your own business course and receiving a grant for a feasibility study and a trading online voucher to develop her own website. She estimates that it cost her between €25,000-€35,000 for the development and production of her first collection, and for cash flow.
March 2020 was picked as the launch date; which just so happened to coincide with the declaration of a global pandemic. But Faye Anna believes that this actually worked for her rather than against her.
“Everyone was [shopping] online at that point and it was definitely quite good at the beginning and it was a great starting point,” she says. “If I had started in normal circumstances, it probably would have taken me a little longer.”
Certainly, FéRí seemed to capture the imagination, with a vintage-inspired collection that has been worn by celebrities including TV presenter Laura Whitmore and actress and author Amy Huberman.
Every garment is designed in Faye Anna’s studio on the farm, which is located in a renovated grain store. Heavily influenced by folk-art and wildflowers, all of her designs are hand-painted by Faye Anna, before being transformed into digital prints, which are then transferred onto the fabrics.
For her, the biggest challenge was to find a manufacturer willing to produce her designs in a sustainable way and in small quantities to avoid waste. After exploring various options, she now splits manufacturing between Ireland, employing a seamstress in Co Wexford who uses mostly Irish linen or deadstock (surplus or remnant) material, and a SEDEX certified (ethical trade) family-run factory in India that works with orange crepe, organic cotton and silk.
While Faye Anna trades mostly through her online shop, she also supplies a selection of boutiques and is stocked by high-end retailer Anthropologie in the UK. Her prices are also on the higher-end of the scale- at the moment, for instance, dresses on her website range from €150 on sale to €439- but she feels that her customers are more likely to invest in key sustainable pieces rather than splurging on fast fashion.
“They’re not buying on a whim, they’re thinking about it,” explains Faye Anna, who hopes that her customers will follow her philosophy that she has adopted as her brand’s tagline: “Wear-Care-Mend-Lend”. “If it takes a bit of investment, you might be more likely to cherish it and really take care of it. It’s that sense of passing it on,” she says of her brand’s heirloom qualities.
Faye Anna tries to practice sustainability throughout her brand; for instance, she has developed a “Re-Made” section on her website where she sells pieces made from 100% recycled clothes, end-of-line and vintage materials.
In terms of making a sustainable living, she explains that much of the brand’s profits have been re-invested to produce enough pieces for the wholesale market, but that things are heading in the right direction.
“It’s a lot of work to not be getting a lovely salary!” she laughs. “[But] it’s definitely making money and I don’t have big debts, so I can see that it’s very positive.”
And as her brand has grown, so has her family, with daughter Delia joining the ranks in 2021. Faye Anna and her husband are now living in the original farmhouse, as they build a new home for her parents on the farm. Irish Country Living asks: would FéRí be the same brand if it was based elsewhere?
“I can’t imagine it being in any other setting,” Faye Anna replies.
“Obviously, I have so much inspiration around me in terms of land and fields and woods; but even the fluidity of being able to work, being my own boss and the kids running around the yard.
“I just find the freedom is very important to the brand and the way that I work.”
Though so far, the next generation seems more interested in farming than in fashion…
“My son just so happens to be obsessed with tractors and with my dad and, ‘I’m going to be a farmer, I’m going to be a farmer!’” laughs Faye Anna. “So, it’s definitely in us!”
To learn more visit www.feri.ie