One of the key aspects of Irish design is knitwear. Increasingly, there is a surge of knitwear designers cropping up across the country including Paula Marron’s Castanea. Now in its fourth season, Castanea's gambit is cashmere sweaters manufactured in Kathmandu, Nepal.
I met Marron at Samui, an independent luxury fashion retailer on Cork’s Drawbridge Street. She was in Cork to sell her spring 2019 collection. Marron was sporting a handmade marigold cashmere sweater from the collection replete with flamenco-influenced ruffled sleeves and fine-finishing.
Castanea’s retail presence is limited to three Irish stores: Samui in Cork, Havana in Dublin, and Emporium Kalu in Naas, Co. Kildare. There is also a direct-to-consumer channel on Castanea's website.
"Paula is Irish and it is hugely important to support Irish design where possible,” said Mary-Claire O’Sullivan, store manager at Samui in Cork. “We find Paula to be a designer of great integrity who chooses the finest cashmere to create a luxurious, contemporary edit every season.”
“She is not afraid to work with colour and we find that our customers react really well to this. For example, for fall 2018 she used rich berry tones and vibrant red while also showing subtle hazy blues and blush pinks,” said O’Sullivan.
“We are delighted to be one of only a few stockists in Ireland. We are confident that Castanea is one of the best cashmere labels. It does not pill, which is essential for any cashmere brand we stock. The knits are super stylish and cosy. We have built up a great repeat business with it,” said Nikki Creedon, the owner at Havana in Donnybrook, Co. Dublin.
The limited retail presence is a strategic move. “I’m hoping to sell to two more Irish stores and that will be all for Irish retail. I want to maintain a level of exclusivity,” Marron explained. Ultimately, this means smaller sales but modern day designers are willing to place a price on brand image.
Marron graduated from the National College of Art & Design, Dublin, in 2004. She spent the summer interning at Ralph Lauren in London, across multiple departments, including PR. She declined an offer to join the London PR team, reasoning, “if I went down that route I would’ve never returned to design.” From there, she worked closely with the late Rachel Mackay in Dublin before joining knitwear brand Sphere One, where she remained for ten years. “I learned a lot. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that experience.”
She founded Castanea during Fall 2017, almost two years ago, following her departure from Sphere One. Castanea is Latin for chestnut. “I always wanted to launch my own line. I had enough experience in fashion design to finally do my own thing. I think [the Castanea] woman is young at heart, even though the prices aren’t,” she said. Prices range from €395 to €725. "I can imagine a cool, stylish 60-year-old woman wearing it but also someone in their thirties. It’s broad."
“I always knew I wanted to work with the manufacturer in Nepal. He is a great person and he treats his workers fairly. The quality of the craftsmanship from knitting to washing to finish is excellent." She motioned to her sweater, remarking, “it’s hard to come across this level of craftsmanship anywhere else.”
Would she consider manufacturing in Ireland? “I haven’t really thought about it but it’s incredibly expensive, now more than ever, to manufacture in Ireland.”
The rail she presented to O’Sullivan at Samui consisted of a sun-kissed pastel colour palette informed by her time spent in Spain. “I got engaged last year in Spain and I visit there quite a lot so there were a lot of Spanish influences in the collection,” Marron said. “I was inspired by the movement of flamenco dancers which influenced the ruffles on sleeves.”
“I’m always inspired by architecture,” she said. She took cues from the Jürgen Mayer-designed Metropol Parasol at La Encarnación square in Seville. “It’s this brilliant modern, mushroom-shaped structure in the centre of Seville which has spectacular views of the city. I recreated the honeycomb shapes of the building in the designs.”
Castanea is a work in progress. At present, Marron is the only employee. She works with a financial advisor but the responsibilities of day-to-day business rest on her shoulders. The next step could be international expansion. “I’m hoping to launch in America soon, I’m currently looking for an agent over there.” The Irish fashion industry’s presence in America has proliferated due to Margaret Molloy’s continuous effort with the Wearing Irish initiative which showcased Irish designers to the American market.
“I do everything myself. I would love to take on an intern but I’m too busy to even dedicate time to explaining what would need to be done. You have to work on it every day. It becomes your life,” Marron said.
In a March 2018 interview with the Irish Times’ The Gloss supplement, Marron described cashmere as “the Rolls Royce of yarn.” For spring 2019 she introduced silk-cashmere blends. She doesn’t envision expanding greatly beyond cashmere, at least for now. “You don’t really want to go back from the Rolls Royce.”
Photo Credit: Paula Marron