When Australian Melissa Dwyer came on holidays to Ireland in 2016, she didn’t expect to meet her future husband; or set up her own eco-activewear label.
But a new start on a sheep and beef farm in Caherdaniel, Co Kerry, was just the catalyst she required to follow a long-held dream to set up Meld Apparel.
Melissa, who is from Queensland, explains that she was sewing commercial patterns from the age of eight, but was encouraged to take the more “sensible” career path as a home economics teacher. But that didn’t stop her studying for a diploma in fashion design by night and also taking time out of teaching to work for two labels in Melbourne.
She later returned to teaching; but a trip to Ireland in 2016 on a Paddywagon tour changed everything.
“I booked the tickets for the Easter during the school holidays and the second night I met my husband in Killarney!” smiles Melissa of how she met Michael McAllen – a builder and sheep and beef farmer – in a pub.
When Michael heard that she was going to be doing the Ring of Kerry the next day, he offered to drive her around instead. Except there was an unexpected detour.
“We were just out in the National Park when he got a call from his dad and the cows were calving and he had to rush home, so we both went back to the farm then,” laughs Melissa. “I just thought I was getting such an authentic Irish experience!”
While Melissa continued on her tour, Michael came to Dublin to spend the last few days of her holiday with her, before it was time to return to Australia.
“We did six months of long distance and it was really lovely because it was almost like a traditional way of starting a relationship,” says Melissa, who returned to Ireland that September, with Michael then making the trip to Australia to meet her family at Christmas.
“And then I went back with him,” she says of her move to Kerry in 2017.
And that new start was the opportunity for Melissa to establish her own fashion label; in her case, specialising in active wear that fused style with performance.
“It was always a massive trend in Australia and I just didn’t see a lot of independent labels in the market over here,” says Melissa. “There was your big Nike, Adidas, but there wasn’t any that specifically spoke to women, which is where we started and still are.”
Investing her savings of €25,000, Melissa drew her first seven designs at the kitchen table and made up her pattern samples, before travelling to a trade fair in China to find a smaller factory that was willing to manufacture in quantities suitable for a start-up i.e. a minimum order of 200-300 as opposed to 3,000.
“But it was then a matter of how am I going to retail it?” continues Melissa, who opened a small shop in Waterville, which has a “sporty” cliental due to having two international golf courses in the village.
But then, COVID-19 hit. This meant that Melissa had to pivot to online sales, with the help of supports such as the online training voucher from the local enterprise office.
At the same time, however, she began to overhaul her supply chain towards becoming a more sustainable brand, switching to either certified organic or recycled fabrics, working with certified ethical manufacturers in India and Hong Kong, sourcing biodegradable packaging and also teaming up with Irish charity Vita Ireland to calculate and then offset the carbon created in their chain supply by investing it in communities in Africa most exposed to climate change.
“We look at all the impacts across our supply chain,” says Melissa, who is currently working with a manufacturer in Portugal to bring production even closer to home.
Melissa explains that as they were never a “fast fashion” brand to begin with, she has been able to make these changes without raising her prices. And while Meld products are not cheap, she believes they offer value for money given the quality and sustainability of the brand.
“I know that for some people, €65 for a pair of leggings is not affordable and I get that,” she acknowledges. “But when you look at the lifetime value of those products and if you are anticipating wearing those leggings for three, four, five plus years, then the value is definitely in them because we offer that level of quality.”
To date, Melissa has taken part in the DCU High Flier programme for female entrepreneurs, as well as phases two and three of the Enterprise Ireland New Frontiers programme, which came with a stipend package. She has also invested further in the business – for instance, getting a small stocking loan through Microfinance Ireland – but is actively seeking further investment. While most of her sales are now online, she has two stockists in Dublin and one in Cork.
She says the biggest challenge is competing with the bigger players in the market with vast advertising budgets; but she hopes that Meld Apparel’s commitment to sustainability will help it stand apart.
“A lot of people don’t realise how closely it [the fashion industry] is linked to climate change so I hope that we are offering an alternative,” Melissa says.
And since the arrival of her daughter, Meighan, last year, Melissa is even more committed to building a brand that makes a difference.
Find out more at www.meldapparel.com