Interview on Country Wide
The very popular radio show, Country Wide, with Damien O Reilly, which airs every Saturday on RTE radio One at 8.10am, did a feature on Liz and Kiwi Country Clothing in early 2014.
Louise Denvir, the researcher, recorded over three hours of material for this “mini- documentary” about Liz and the business and how it all began 12,000 miles away in New Zealand.
Have a listen to this segment (which aired on 1st February) which largely focuses on the possum fur aspect of Kiwi Country Clothing.
Damian: Well, Elizabeth McGuinness is originally from a forty acre dairy farm within the boundaries of Monaghan town. But now she's wholesaling and manufacturing workwear in factories on the other side of the world in New Zealand. What makes her product so unusual is that one of the materials she uses has up until recently rarely been worn in Ireland. Louise Denver went to Monaghan to meet with Elizabeth on her family's' old farm.
Louise: Do you miss it?
Elizabeth: I do, like I know that the older we get the less time we have but really with this business I have very little time, that is so true. I went from playing the harp in choirs and theatre, typical thespian who loves dancing and staying out late at night and hanging around in dubious company, to going into McDonalds and flipping burgers and doing a different kind of work altogether.
Louise:Elizabeth McGuinness has had more than a few career changes. She was a champion musician, a teacher and she worked in fast food management but now she is in the on-line business. She is a retailer of clothing products made from a material that is generating an unusual dialogue in the global fashion industry. But before all that, Elizabeth faced a rather remarkable life experience, a lightning strike aged 8.
Elizabeth: Lovely old Dr. Jack Carragher at the time, I do remember him saying that "this child should be alive, this is a miracle". I remember just as it came towards me this mad orange ball, bolt lightning came down the chimney in the farmhouse and I was thrown into a fireplace in the next room and I survived it.
Louise: But that's just the beginning of the story. I am here with Elizabeth on her family's farm to chat business.
Elizabeth: What a view, on a good day you can nearly see Donegal, on a really clear day. You've got Fermanagh, Tyrone, there you've got Cavan.
Louise : Living on a farm growing up it's a place which inspired the workwear garments in her business, Kiwi Country Clothing.
Elizabeth: It was very intensive dairy farming for us in those days in the 70s, 80s.
Louise:When you were growing up here on the dairy farm did you ever think that you would become a fashion designer of sorts catering to the equestrian and farming sectors.
Elizabeth: Well do you know something, I've done so many varied things especially in my last fifteen to eighteen years but I had no idea.
Louise: What brings a women from Monaghan town to the other side of the world to develop a business like that?
Elizabeth: Well I went to the other side of the world to get married, so .
Louise: Following some time spent in Dublin playing music Elizabeth settled in New Zealand.
Paddy: I met Elizabeth in church, as you do.
Louise: That's Paddy Doyle, Elizabeth's husband. He was the owner of a number of MacDonald's restaurants
Paddy: I was in the choir, allegedly not singing very well and she was in the congregation with her cousin, course I was running McDonalds at the time as a franchise operator, yeah, the main store was a big one called Rangitikei street which is in the middle of Palmerston North and Liz got involved in it and did an enormous amount of work. She is very entrepreneurial and quite an amazing women in lots of ways.
Louise: What made you come back to Ireland?
Elizabeth: Well I did a deal with Doyle, when we got engaged and were talking about marriage and if one of us had to move I said I tell you what I am going for five years. November 2011 I said right, a whole lot of things, the earthquake, one thing and another had happened and I thought Ireland very far away. It gets farther when you are older.
Louise: And that brought her back to Monaghan with a book full of contacts in New Zealand and an entrepreneurial spirit.
Elizabeth: Now this is my little mini warehouse. We have stuff arriving in from New Zealand and we are empting boxes and unloading boxes.
Louise: Elizabeth now distributes garments for her company, Kiwi Country Clothing from its base just outside Monaghan town.
Elizabeth: We have all the fashion stuff for the guys there, then we have all the farming workwear here.
Louise: After her years in New Zealand she decided to bring back a product which often provokes a mixed reaction.
Elizabeth: Possum fur, blended with pure merino wool an silk, like everybody in Ireland knows the intrinsic value of merino, but when you blend merino wool with silk and fur it just means it doesn't matter how warm or how cold your body temperature will stay at 36.6. It is not like any other wool garment that we have in this part of the world, in Europe. They can only be made in New Zealand because New Zealand is the only place we have to cull possum, because it is a vermin.
Louise: Elizabeth says that while possum aren't farmed for their fur, they are trapped and culled in the wild, with their pelt being commonly referred to as eco fur by those in the fur industry. The culling of the animals is a practice that has been given the green light by the Department of Conservation in New Zealand. Herb Christophers has been working for the government agency for twenty years and he explains why.
Herb Christophers: Possums were introduced from Australia to start up a fur trade in the middle of the eighteen hundreds. That fur trade has yet to take off properly and instead of actually creating a fur trade all they did was create havoc in the native bush in New Zealand because there are no predators. We've lost a lot of species to the introduction of possums. Fur trapping is only a very common, very minor of the management of possums and so it is not as if we endorse it but we don't oppose it and we do work with trappers to help us keep populations of native species in good health. From an ethical point of view there is a few animal welfare, animal rights issues that do arise. People feel that the animals have a right to be there because they didn't put themselves there and they are just trying to live their normal life. The trouble living their normal lives means killing normal species in New Zealand. And we have to make the hard choice. It is one or the other. It's not sort of bliss and bliss, side by side in harmony because they do live in harmony. So we are talking about creditable survival here.
Elizabeth: So you have got all your oil skins here, all your different oil skins.
Louise: Is there such a thing as echo friendly fur?
Elizabeth: Yes, possum merino is basically the number one renowned fur for being an eco fur because we have to cull it regardless if we never did anything with it, if we were just destroying it or getting rid of it, once we cull the animal.
Louise: Whether for or against it, the culling of possum specifically for the use of fur it is selling well for Elizabeth. She tells me that thanks to showcasing the RDS last week, she'll now be supplying her product to five stores in America. But interestingly, this clothing industry isn't necessarily her dream job. Her ultimate passion, which she returns to time and time again is music.
Elizabeth: It is a funny old thing they call it bringing it all back home, you know I've just gone full circle and it is has just been wonderful.
Damian: And that was Louise Denver reporting from Co Monaghan with Elizabeth McGuiness of Kiwi Country Clothing.