Petria Lenehan is a woman with perpetual beauty on her mind. Designing clothes that stand the test of time and trends, the designer bases herself in Upstate New York's Hudson Valley, where she lives with her family and heads up her own fashion company. The Irish native is no stranger to her field having studied her trade in Florence, Italy before setting up her own retail store in her hometown of Dublin. Narrowing in on her passions however, she now designs with, as she describes herself, “notions of authenticity, nature, craftsmanship and tradition”. Uncomplicated, effortless and continuous in their delicate authority her collections create a loyal and retuning customer who knows that no matter the seasons runway flings, a lovingly-made staple by Petria Lenehan is always a good idea.
Here we speak to Petria about what it’s meant for her business to move Stateside, how she came to start her own label and how she remains consistent in her message that less is more..
Inspired by the beauty of the Irish landscape, Petria you draw hugely on your upbringing in Ireland in your designs. What are your favourite memories of growing up at home and do they play a part in your brand?
I grew up looking out onto Dublin bay and spent many afternoons playing on the rocks searching for crabs and collecting seaweed! Holidays were spent on the West coast of Ireland in Co. Kerry so the sea felt omnipresent throughout my childhood. Nature plays a huge part in feeding my imagination and creativity and is integral to the identity of the brand. It is this sense of authenticity I find in nature that relates to the fabrics I choose to work with - like Donegal tweed, Irish linen or British ventile. Natural fabrics that are steeped in tradition but also have a strong connection to the landscape they come from and the skilled people who weave them.
What was your time studying in New York and Florence like and how have your stints in such notoriously stylish cities impacted upon your direction as a designer?
I began my studies in Fashion design in Florence and the city had a huge impact on me. Living in that city, you are surrounded by the history through the art, architecture and the deep rooted sense of culture that exists there. There is a textile history and design sense that has been built up for centuries and it is everywhere - in the shops, on the streets, in the textile factories and mills outside Florence. In contrast, New York offered me a completely different experience where I had to learn to keep up with the fast pace and energy of the city.
Your career didn’t begin solely in design.. tell us , if you would, of your path to date and what lessons thus far have shaped you as a woman.
Yes after studying design, I ran a boutique in Dublin for 8 years before starting my own label. Being able to experience the industry from both a retail and design perspective has been invaluable. Also having the business experience of running a shop, balancing the books and all the daily challenges that entails forced me to be independent at a relatively young age. Even though this was often difficult I do feel that it has stood to me.
And then how did you come to start your own label?
I began designing a few pieces for customers in the shop. It soon became clear that there was a market for the pieces I was making and that people were coming back for more. As the recession really began to take effect, it also made more business sense to be producing more of my own pieces rather than buying from other labels and the level of risk involved in that.
Who is your ideal customer?
My ideal customer is a woman of any age with a strong sense of self, interested in quality, sustainability and good design.
In terms of production, how important is it to you to keep a tight rein on the management of the daily runnings of your brand?
I recently made the difficult decision of moving most of the production from Dublin to New York where I now live with my family. This allows me to maintain more control and to deal directly and quickly with the inevitable and often unforeseeable issues involved with production.
Where do you find yourself most inspired? And by whom?
I now live in the Hudson Valley close to the river and beside a mountain. I am always inspired by the surrounding nature and in particular the effects of the changing seasons in this part of the world. I also love spending time in New York City where the energy is infectious and the people are so diverse and interesting. Spending time in the wilds of Co. Kerry is also very important to me with daily swims in the freezing sea! I would say I am most inspired by my mother. She is a deeply creative person and has an incredible eye when it comes to art, textiles and design.
What does a day in the life of Petria Lenehan look like?
A typical day is fairly quiet. I get up when my daughter wakes at around 7am. We have breakfast together and then if weather permits, I take her to school on my bike. I work on the business for most of the day at home where I have a studio - designing, making patterns, shipping and organising. Most days I manage to fit in mediation and yoga in the early afternoon before I do the school pick-up. The afternoons are usually spent outside with my daughter and the evenings cooking dinner. On other days I will head to the factory in Queens or into the city to get a good dose of culture. On the weekends we often take trips to different towns in upstate NY, sometimes into the city. Our weekend ritual is visiting a local farm where we have brunch and stock up on organic produce for the week ahead.
How has your your move from Dublin to New York influenced your business in particular?
I feel that for anyone in the creative industries, living and working in New York pushes you to be more focused. As a business owner I have been positively affected by the “can do” attitude that exists in America and the pride that people take in pushing boundaries. There is a sense of confidence here that is contagious and outward looking. I have also found people here to be incredibly engaging and supportive which has helped my business hugely. As a designer, being away from home has given me a stronger sense of self and a greater perspective on where I come from. In a sense my connection to the Irish landscape and heritage has intensified and this has had a huge impact on my work. By working with Irish fabrics and hopefully presenting them in a new way, I maintain this relationship to where I come from while always looking forward.
What were the challenges you faced in moving and how have you dealt with them?
Having to start from scratch in a new city was a huge challenge. My husband works as a freelance photographer and was very keen to work in New York. It has taken a lot of resilience, hard work and self belief to push on through but it has been more than worth it. We came to New York for more opportunity and to work in a bigger market with more of a demand for design and photography. With more opportunity comes more competition and the need to keep proving oneself. I would say that the hardest part has been maintaining a sense of self belief and confidence through the more barren times. But sometimes we make a big decision in our lives and have no other choice but to push on through. In the process we can surprise ourselves at our own resourcefulness.
Simplicity and strength are strong components in your designs, how did you come to understand your own style as a designer and how important is it to you to truly own that distinctive aesthetic in your creations?
I have always been drawn to understated design and pieces that will stand the test of time both in aesthetics and quality. And by having a shop for so many years, in the end it was always the most simple and well made pieces I came back to and wanted to hold onto. I have always been attracted to menswear and the idea of having a kind of uniform - simple pieces with a real purpose hold more value to me than design for design’s sake.
How do you balance consistency in your work while never letting your ideas or pieces become repetitive - in essence balancing the ever difficult line between creativity and consumerism?
I always design the pieces I want to wear myself while of course always considering my customer. The ideas are fairly free flowing - the challenging part is in the editing - a lot of energy and thought goes into this process - breaking it down to what feels like the strongest and most important pieces.
..and how do you remain consistent in your message of less is more through the clothes you create when there is so much noise in the industry these days, not to mention the fast-pace unfolding of fast fashion and it’s seemingly never-ending seasons?
I have always been drawn to natural fabrics and smaller production. Having a close connection to my suppliers and the people who make the clothes has always been foremost in the way I run the company. Valuing and respecting the energy and work that goes into making well made things is integral to the whole process along with a belief that brands have a responsibility to the world beyond profit. And by making inevitably higher priced items that carry a high level of skill and quality, I hope that the consumer will value and care for the item for many years to come.
As a mother, how do you balance between work and home life?
I now work from a studio in my home in the Hudson Valley. I’m able to bring my daughter to and from school and would love to maintain this level of work/life balance. As I’m selling directly to consumers online and no longer selling wholesale, I look forward to engaging more in person with my customers through pop ups and craft fairs. It feels good to get out into the world in short, intense bursts and then retreat back into a quieter place with space to think, create and be with my family.
What are your tips for building an unfailingly classic wardrobe?
Think about and research the pieces you really need before going out shopping. Be honest about your lifestyle and buy clothing that fits in with this. Buy colours that work together and invest in quality fabrics and pieces that will stand the test of time.
If you had one more hour in your day how would you spend it?
Out walking in nature, yoga and meditation.
And Petria, if you weren’t heading up your own fashion line, where might we find you and what would you be doing?
I feel pretty content right where I am, doing what I’m doing. If I wasn’t working in fashion, you might find me working in interior design or something to do with food, sustainable agriculture or cooking!
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