The Interview: Anna Guerin, founder and Creative Director, The Landskein

Anna Guerin The Landskein
Anna Guerin. Picture by Fergal Phillips.

With recent press coverage including a double-page spread in The Irish Times pre-Christmas, and HELLO! Magazine in recent weeks – shot on actress Sophie Anderton, who now lives in a stately home in Wicklow, Ireland, The Landskein is a new contemporary women’s tailoring brand.

It was launched just prior to the coronavirus pandemic taking hold in the UK and Ireland in March 2019 – reimagining heritage Irish textiles, such as Donegal Tweed, in a thoroughly modern manner.

Founded by designer Anna Guerin, who has a long background in designing and sourcing clothes for some of the biggest names on the high street, this could not be further removed from her fast fashion roots. This is purist, with an emphasis on quality, chic luxury and sustainability. The pandemic has proven to be a tough time to kickstart a brand, but Guerin’s determination, core values and clear talent is winning a raft of admirers. This is her story so far

Where does The Landskein name derive from?

I came across the word landskein years ago and I fell in love with its meaning. It’s actually a lost Gaelic word which describes the weaving and braiding of horizon lines – as with distant hills on hazy days. I have always been captivated by horizon lines, looking to the edge of the land or sea where it begins to curve out of sight. The name evokes the brand’s conscious interweaving of heritage fabrics and traditional tailoring techniques with modern design and sustainability. I decided not to put my name on the brand as I feel, as a designer and as an individual, that we are multifaceted and always evolving. I wanted this brand to be built on uncompromising values with an unwavering dedication to doing the right thing. Naming the brand something else freed me as a designer and allowed the brand to remain pure and adhere to its core values and philosophy.

How would you best describe the product?

The AW20 ‘Journey’ collection, which includes the ‘Horizon’ deconstructed in 100% Irish linen twill as worn by Sophie Anderton in HELLO! Magazine this month, features limited edition statement coats for women in modern silhouettes, with relaxed oversized cuts and drop shoulders. Tweeds are exclusive to The Landskein and are made by fifth-generation Donegal weavers of provenance. The pieces have a considered lightness achieved through weaving the fabric at a lighter density than traditional tweed. It gives the wearer more freedom to layer garments underneath, allowing for a more contemporary drape. A well-tailored coat is not constructed like any other garment, it must be built in carefully considered layers. Retail prices start at £580 for the ‘Grace’ blazer in auburn herringbone tweed, going up to £1170 for the ‘Horizon’ trench coat. Another key piece is the ‘Swift’ unstructured longline coat in olive tone 100% lambswool Donegal Tweed which retails at £810.

THE LANDSKEIN

When did you show the first collection and what were the first stores to take it?

I had the opportunity to present the collection to Nikki Creedon of Havana Boutique Dublin, and I was thrilled with her response as she talked about tweed as though it was a living thing. We were on the same page straight away. I feel so honoured to have The Landskein now hanging alongside designers such as Ann Demeulemeester, Comme des Garçons and Simone Rocha. Havana Boutique is recognised as the most progressive and design-led store in Ireland. We also had success this season in Brown Thomas, which is the largest luxury department store in Ireland, and part of the Selfridges group. We actually presented the collection at TRANOI in Paris last March and, while the collection was well received, we were not able to deliver international orders due to the pandemic, so we therefore decided to focus on collections for Brown Thomas and Havana Boutique, along with setting up our direct sales market online, which has been an incredible success. On another note, actress Minnie Driver is wearing two pieces from our collection in the upcoming second series of Modern Love, the American romantic comedy television show on Amazon – based on the weekly column published by the New York Times. That’s exciting news for us.

What’s your design background?

I graduated from Limerick School of Art and Design (LSAD) in 2003. I was awarded a distinction for my fashion degree collection, and the student of the year award. The following year, I won the Designer of the Year competition on The Late Late Show in Ireland. It opened many doors for me. After college, I completed a post graduate course in tailoring and recently I completed an MA in business.  It was always my intention to establish a brand, but I felt gaining some industry experience first might be the right road to take. I ended up spending 16 years working in the industry before finally taking the plunge. I have absolutely loved working in the industry, it is an incredibly dynamic industry, and every day a new and interesting dilemma presents itself. I have worked in with so many varied products, and with so many different types of buyers. I’ve worked on occasion wear with Oasis and Coast, swimwear with Topshop, also with golf wear and knitwear brands, outerwear brands and even on performance equestrian clothing. My tailoring experience for the equestrian market was truly the most interesting client work I have had the opportunity to work on. Performance tailoring, especially equestrian tailoring, required incredible precision in fit, appearance and performance. There really is few other design challenges that require beauty and performance to equal measure. This experience was of course invaluable when establishing a tailoring brand.

THE LANDSKEIN

What else did you learn from such a varied design background, especially for such big high street retailers?

I enjoyed designing and producing every product, as each product presented a new design challenge which I adored researching and resolving.  With every job, I had the opportunity to travel and work to meet the producers, in Europe and the Far East, and meet with customers all over the world. In my experience, design in its simplest form is researching to discover what the market desires, then putting in place a low- risk production plan that allows contingency. The fashion industry is notoriously difficult to streamline, as everyone needs their production at the same time each season, so pre-empting issues and finding solutions as quickly as possible is key. Sometimes, that requires finding compromise.

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned is to see your suppliers and your producers as partners and treat them with the highest level of respect. Meeting your suppliers face to face and developing human connections is key to building a harmonious relationship. Communicating in a respectful manner, and paying everyone on time, and thanking everyone for their hard work, results in harmony. The fashion Industry is often portrayed as quite hard-nosed, but for me personally anyone involved in our production is seen as a partner, and everyone must be treated with kindness and respect.

How has that influenced what you do now?

I feel I have brought that learning to The Landskein. One of the core values of the brand is kindness – to treat everyone and everything with kindness and respect. Another fashionable word for this is obviously sustainability – uniting people, planet and profit. In terms of production, The Landskein only works with European companies whose staff are protected under EU work directives, and receive a fair wage. I have worked very closely with all the workers in the process, from the pattern makers to the cutters and the machinists. I know them all by name and I know they are treated with great respect and that they enjoy and take pride in their work on The Landskein. My coats and blazers are hand-cut, one at a time, ensuring less waste, by some of the best tailors in Europe. The small family-run company are experts in dressage tailoring, also making for luxury brands like Burberry and Acne.

How else has your past defined your business approach?

Having worked in the industry for so long, and having seen how desperate conditions can be with my own eyes, it was imperative for me that when I did establish my first brand that kindness would be one of the main pillars of the brand. Of course, this comes at a financial cost, and we understand that the cost places us in a very niche luxury market, but we feel this niche market is worldwide, so we hope that we can build a sustainable business model while maintaining our core values. I’ve also learnt that the market is huge. I’ve worked with some very interesting clients who have taken the decision to leapfrog over the domestic market, and even the European market, and decided to put full focus on the American market. Most brands focus on building a domestic market then building towards an export market, when in fact with the developments in logistics and, of course, online sales and marketing, the global market is accessible to even the smallest and geographically remote of brands.

What’s your knowledge of Donegal Tweed?

I recently undertook an MA research study into the intangible value of authenticity and sustainability in the case of Donegal Tweed. The reason I undertook this study was to research if consumers valued the intangible value of this heritage cloth. There is no legal protection on the production of Donegal Tweed, which can be produced in China at a fraction of the cost, and bear the Donegal name. It is astonishing that a product that is synonymous with Irish national cultural identity is not protected, as there is evidence to show that this textile has been produced in Donegal for at least the past 800 years. However, my findings did show that there is market for authentic Donegal Tweed. Even though it is more expensive than its Chinese counterpart, customers value its intangible value of authenticity and heritage. While the market is niche, it is growing as consumers now want to feel connected with their products in reaction to high volume fast fashion. As part of that study, I looked at geographical indicators, which protect many heritage products from imitation. Unfortunately, Donegal tweed does not enjoy such protection, unlike its counterpart Harris Tweed in Scotland.

What are the sustainability credentials of your brand?

Sustainability is becoming an overused and exploited term. As part of my research, I studied John Elkington’s ‘Triple Bottom Line’ of sustainability, which unites people, planet and profit in business. I like to think that we remain true to this theory in every business decision we take. We do our very best to not cause harm to anyone or anything in the process. Our philosophy for the brand is to adhere to the true art of our craft and we celebrate and respect everyone who helps us shape our story.

Having worked in the industry for 16 years, I’ve seen first-hand how damaging this industry can be to people and the environment. My aim was to always make considered decisions, and never to cause harm. This has come at a financial cost, which was challenging at times. Having worked with many clients, maximum profit margin is the holy grail, but this is driven by the market and consumer demands. I decided not to consider profit margin first, I decided to prioritise the values of the brand and deliver on luxury, quality, design and heritage and the price would be the price. The price point is not low, and it has positioned us in a luxury niche market, and we feel that there is growing number of consumers that place great value on this type of product.

How has launching a brand in a pandemic been?

While the pandemic has had its challenges, it has been incredibly creative and interesting for us as the rulebook has been abandoned and new and interesting avenues to consumers are emerging. Being a new brand has its advantages in the current environment. We are small but malleable and we are enjoying emerging in this new world of design and retail. We don’t have a clear strategy for 2021, as the horizons still seem unclear, so we are going to take it a step at a time. If we can build on the success of 2020 we will be very well positioned for the future.

What’s your take on Brexit now it’s finally happened?

All our components and manufacturing for our collections are EU based, therefore our brand is not subject to duties as it enters the UK for both wholesale and retail, however if it exits the UK again it will incur duties for the end use customer. While duties might be at 0%, there is an arduous amount of paperwork, and logistically we have already noticed increased transport times. Since we are a new brand, we can adapt quickly and sales this season exceeded our expectations despite all the challenges of retail closures. We hope that being new to the market and adaptable will also be a benefit in this new Brexit landscape.

What are your future plans?

We plan to keep the business model simple, with a focus on tailored coats and Irish textiles. In five years, we would hope to be an established niche player but on an international stage. We will also maintain integrity by only aligning with retailers that share our values, and we hope that this will be build brand value for The Landskein. Our collections will always be limited and made with great care in Europe. We would like steady sustainable growth for the brand – maintaining the brand’s core values is our priority.

What’s new for SS21?

For SS21 we are producing beautiful wool and silk blend relaxed tailoring in cream and oatmeal tones. These will be available online and instore from 1 March, 2021. This is a limited edition capsule collection, and our intent is to always keep our focus on the autumn/winter collection. In my experience, delivering large collections throughout the year compromises design and quality, and is very demanding on cashflow. That pressure can take a lot of the joy out of the process. As this is my first brand it is essential that the joy in the process endures, otherwise it is futile exercise and against everything the brand stands for.

What’s your outlook for the AW21 season?

Our industry is an incredible state of flux, and buyers are in a very precarious position ordering for AW21. For an emerging brand, it is challenging to secure these pre-orders without tangible showrooms. We are producing our AW21 collection based simply on this season’s sell-through, and an expectation that demand will be at least double. The events of the last year has increased consumer demand for  slow fashion which offers quality, sustainability, kindness and authenticity. We believe our values and mission align perfectly with this growing consumer trend. We feel that buyers are unlikely to be able to spend their typical autumn/winter budget, but we hope that closer to the season we will be able to offer our collection for immediate delivery, and hopefully this will be an attractive proposition to buyers.

We will put our resources into to driving sales online, direct to our website and by using curated online platforms. This way we feel we can increase our margin and more importantly offer a more personal service so we can build a relationship with our customers. The rule book for developing, designing, producing, and selling fashion has been torn up in the past 12 months, and this is an advantage to an emerging brand as we can adapt quickly and offer a more flexible service to buyers and customers. I am finding this an incredibly creative and interesting time for our industry.