“Nobody wanted to sell Virginia Park Lodge to my great-grandmother because she was a woman and a Catholic, so she had to bring a priest to sign all the documents,” explains Ashley McDonnell.
If you have an inspirational role model in your life, there’s none better than the enterprising Helen McDonnell (née Sullivan), a accomplished woman from Mallow, Co Cork who didn’t believe in women playing second fiddle to men and breaking into sensationalism Style through endless glass ceilings in Ireland.
At 28, Ashley is driven by the same kind of entrepreneurial spirit. She smiles as she describes how Helen managed to get the property owned by Geoffrey Thomas Taylor, 4th King, in the 1920s.
“Helen McDonnell understood the importance of education for women and traveled to Europe and beyond. Knowing that women in Ireland – including my own great-grandmother – have paved the way for the economy for decades gives me great pride and inspiration. We’ve made tremendous progress as a country and I think we’re just getting started,” Ashley said.
Generations apart, Helen and Ashley are definitely cut from the same “can do” stuff. With a career spanning Paris, Dublin and Geneva, and dual bachelor’s and master’s degrees and a Harvard degree in Entrepreneurship, Ashley has built a career at the intersection of luxury and technology. She specializes in data-driven marketing and luxury strategy, transforming legacy brands into digital pioneers. She manages teams with eight-figure budgets and goals, and crossed another career goal off her list this year when she was shortlisted for the European Championship forbes 30 under 30.
“I’m definitely overly ambitious and I usually underestimate what it takes to do the things I want to do, but that’s okay. I prefer to aim too high and then get 80 percent of those things and strive to do whatever I love to do,” says Ashley, who was born in New York and grew up in Craughwell, Co. Galway with her parents, Grace and Fergus , and her brothers, Christopher, David and Ryan.
Ashley’s journey into fashion began when she was 16 when she traveled to London with her mother to see a Christian Dior exhibition at Somerset House.
“I just fell in love. I knew I had to work for Dior and I left London that day with the aim of making it happen,” says Ashley, who promptly Googled “student exchange” to improve her French.
“My mother thought my school organized it and my school thought my parents organized it, so I went to France a year before my Leaving Cert, where I found that I didn’t speak French well.”
Twelve years later, Ashley laughs as she describes the approach of an ambitious teenager. She didn’t find her metier in design, but rather in the fashion business and in the complex world of the global luxury industry, which a report says is set to grow to $105 billion by 2027 Yahoo Finance last February.
For the past year and a half, Ashley has been Global Digital Media and E-Commerce Manager for Spanish luxury group Puig, working with brands such as Carolina Herrera, Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Louboutin and Paco Rabanne.
Before that she worked at Google in Dublin, supporting fashion and beauty houses in their marketing and advertising strategies through technology. She also spent three years in Paris at the headquarters of the world’s leading fashion brands, including the LVMH Group (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) and led the development of digital marketing worldwide for Dior’s travel retail arm.
Speaking of ambitions, Ashley says: “I would love to launch my first luxury beauty brand in five years, designed and made in Ireland and eventually start my own luxury group. This would allow investment in other Irish and international brands and create Ireland’s answer to LVMH. That is the dream.”
The idea of running her own luxury group would be to “help Irish designers and promote Ireland as a luxury market and as a country producing luxury goods”.
Ashley says: “Ireland would not be considered a market producing luxury goods today. France, Italy, UK and Spain are the four main markets. We don’t have the ecosystem for that in Ireland today. We don’t give our designers the training or support to actually transform their luxury products into a luxury brand. I would like to change that and create a hub that actually empowers designers and creators, giving them the tools and support to turn their designs into luxury businesses where creativity and quality are at the core.
“This is a huge opportunity for us. In 2019 alone, the luxury fashion industry was worth $70 billion. I love anything tech related so the goal would be for my group to be both sustainable and digitally oriented, unlike any other luxury group today that is more focused on heritage brands.”
When she returned to Ireland last month, Ashley’s “working holiday” schedule was not for the faint of heart. She has packed 10 appointments over four days with young designers from NCAD and members of the Council of Irish Fashion Designers who she has been mentoring since lockdown. There were fittings with Helen Cody for a new dress to be worn at the Image PwC Businesswoman of the Year Awards, where she took second place in the Management Professional of the Year category.
There are also meetings with Guaranteed Irish who work with Digital Business Ireland (DBI). As the new Chair of DBI, Ashley will return to Ireland each month to educate business owners and those who work in the industry here.
Early in her career, Ashley used old-style detective work, such as scouring Google and LinkedIn to find the paths that successful people had followed. Her rapid climb up the ladder has led to many questions from schools, parents and students, who she always advises to be fluent in French if they want to work in luxury retail. While studying in France, she taught English at night and secured paid internships that helped fund her studies, and she also took advantage of a grant from the Erasmus program.
Ashley’s top advice to Irish brands is: “Imitate what the top luxury brands are doing. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Definitely bring your own creativity and style and design and image, but in terms of experience it has to be something that doesn’t compromise. They don’t compete with other Irish brands but with global luxury brands like Dior and Chanel and Louis Vuitton. When brands sell luxury scarves at a really high price, the customer needs to have the same experience as Hermès. In Ireland we are known for our hospitality. Luxury is about service and storytelling, two things we are actually known for. The most important thing is to get back to the product and storytelling and building a community.”
Reflecting on the ins and outs of the fashion industry, Ashley says, “What I love most about my job is that there’s a huge community around fashion, and you can find your own fashion community and the people who are interested interested in the things that bring you happiness, joy and excitement.”
The worst thing about the fashion industry, she says, “is definitely the environmental impact, and that’s why I wrote my bachelor’s and master’s thesis on these topics to really understand what’s going on behind the scenes. Is that something I can work on and can I be some kind of environmental activist to make sure the right action is taken in the end? I’ve tried to take roles in that space, but 10 years ago they didn’t really exist, and even now they’re few and far between,” she says.
Strangely, for a woman with access to countless luxury stores and exclusive private sales, there isn’t a single logo on anything Ashley wears when we meet up in Dublin for a few days. “I just wear inconspicuously; You don’t generally find a logo with me,” she says, laughing. “In France, the focus on style is high quality; It doesn’t say logos or “Look where I bought this”. It’s really about finding pieces that will last for many years.”
Nowadays Ashley wears French labels like Ganni, Celine and Patou and her sneakers by Dior. She uses Irish sustainable rental company Rag Revolution, of which she sits on the board, and enjoys wearing young designers like Gabrielle Malone and Caoimhe Murphy. On the last day of her whirlwind holiday trip, Ashley took part in a shoot where she was photographed inside Irish designers and companies she admires and supports.
The splint featured an epic floral print coat by Richard Quinn, a gem from last season’s NCBI designer drop on Thriftify, the platform set up by social entrepreneur Rónán Ó Dálaigh, who she knew from DCU.
“I think what Thriftify is doing is really exciting because they’re helping charity shops and thrift stores digitize their inventory and have a reach that goes well beyond the footfall in their stores. It is truly scalable, combining technology with retail and having a tremendous social impact, creating new business channels and revenue streams for charity shops.”
These days, jogging is more of a morning or evening jog across European cities, but Ashley credits her decade with Craughwell Athletic Club with having “set me up for life. It taught me to set goals, both collective and individual. I always say that I really owe everything I’ve done to discipline, a sense of responsibility and a sense of achievement. Celebrate your victories, but also your defeats, that’s probably the most important thing. It’s about admitting mistakes, knowing how to overcome them and moving on.”
https://www.independent.ie/life/my-advice-to-irish-fashion-brands-emulate-what-the-top-luxury-brands-do-we-dont-need-to-reinvent-the-wheel-41638583.html “My advice to Irish fashion brands? Mimic what the top luxury brands are doing – we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.