Representing the creative future

Robyn Lynch: “As a young designer, your next collection always feels like a gamble.”

The Irish menswear designer explains why social connections are crucial to avoid chaos

What are the hallmarks of a successful young creative? To most of us, menswear designer Robyn Lynch, who recently presented her eighth collection at London Fashion Week Men’s, would fit the description.

Having moved to London for her MA at Westminster after graduating in printed textiles at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, the Irish native was selected by Fashion East and showed her first commercial collection shortly after finishing her degree. The young graduate produced her first two collections from her family home in Malahide before moving back to London just as the pandemic locked us all indoors.

Robyn produced multiple collections in partnership with sportswear labels like Rapha and Columbia, who perfectly matched her fresh take on active menswear staples. For the ‘Robyn Lynch supported by…’ series, the designer dove into the overstock archives of the brands, reimagining the iconic sweats and tracksuits. And most recently, she was selected for the Newgen class of the British Fashion Council.

As the reason behind her seemingly steady career progress, Robyn cites her parents, who always incited her to remain realistic about her aspirations. A journalist, however, would also add her honesty and charisma. When asked about her achievements, the designer easily opens up about the difficulty of financial instability and the production mistakes she made in the past — an honesty that is rare in fashion where a “fake it till you make it” attitude is habitual.

It is a healthy reminder to any reader that “success hallmarks” always come with a story and that the biggest lessons are hidden in the missteps. With the loud Milan traffic in the background of the Zoom call, Robyn talked about her education in Dublin and London, the importance of personal relationships, and what it takes to be an adult (hint: a bedroom door is part of the answer).

Happy belated birthday Robyn! You turned 30 on the day of your show. Do you feel like the mature, responsible adult your age suggests you are?

[laughs] No, I don’t feel like I’m 30 at all. When you’re younger, you have this perception of what your life will be at 30. Although I definitely have hit some career milestones, selling with Tomorrow and being in Milan, for example, it doesn’t feel like I’m as put together as I had wanted to be at 30. But then, 30 in London years is very different to 30 anywhere else!

“As a young designer, your next collection always feels like a gamble.” – Robyn Lynch

What do you feel is still missing to be a “full adult”?

I would stay stability. As a young designer, your next collection always feels like a gamble. You invest a lot of money to put on a show and then you have to wait months to find out whether it actually performs well and sells, whether you’ll be able to survive and pay your studio rent for the next six months. I think it’s about that not knowing, that risk every season…

“It’s all well and good to sit in a library for three months and find inspiring images, but having that conversation with buyers and knowing what sold out, is equally valuable.” – Robyn Lynch

How much time do you still have for research and creative inspiration when you’re running a brand? Compared to your time at university, for example?

I definitely spent a lot more time researching and finding inspiration during my studies than I do now, but then, all that work feeds into the brand I have now. The research I did back then influences what I do now. I can turn around a collection quicker, because I have had the time to do the research in school.

It also comes down to commerciality and what actually sells. It’s all well and good to sit in a library for three months and find inspiring images, but having that conversation with buyers and knowing what sold out, is equally valuable.

“It takes time to build the relationships with the people and factories you want to work with, it takes time for them to trust you. ” – Robyn Lynch

Were there surprises those first seasons – in terms of what sold out and what didn’t?

This is my eighth season, but it honestly feels like my third. In the beginning, you make so many mistakes. Those first seasons counted as collections, but as viable products, there would be a lot of mistakes. My yarn supplier wouldn’t be the quality I wanted, for example. There would be manufacturing mistakes, like not factoring in the cost of grading, or the cost of shipping, so I had to be extremely slim on my markup, and all my profit would be gone. Now, I’m looking at my work as a viable business option and I’m delivering on time and the product is manufactured as I want it to.

It also takes time to build the relationships with the people and factories you want to work with, it takes time for them to trust you. They need to take you seriously in order to adhere to your delivery date.

That’s interesting, this need for authority.

Your reputation is very important too, and you build it up through small gestures. Sharing the Vogue Runway pictures, for example, so the people who made the clothes feel included and excited about the product. Going on location is very important as well. Last year was actually the first time I visited my factory in Romania. I realized how important it is.

How did some of your brand partnerships, like Columbia or Rapha, come about?

They were Instagram DMs. [laughs] Rapha was an Instagram DM to Ger Tierney, who is the brand creative director. She shared one of my pictures on Instagram, so I had to take the opportunity. I wrote to her, and we went for a coffee. Columbia was a connection through Ben Schofield, my stylist. It just happens that the head of marketing, Owen, is also Irish. Sometimes that helps!

“You can’t turn around every idea. You need to be flexible.” – Robyn Lynch

So much about what you describe underlines the importance of building personal relationships. Is that ever difficult to manage alongside production timelines?

So many of these decisions are the result of timing. Because LFW got rid of January mens, for example, I had to present my collection in June, after having shown in February. That is incredibly close together. Unfortunately, you can have the best ideas for projects and collaborations, but you need to fit everyone’s turnaround and production cycle. It’s about being able to manage your expectations of what you can achieve in that short amount of time – you can’t turn around every idea. You need to be flexible.

“The problem with upcycling isn’t the limit on units, because you can find deadstock items in high numbers, but the time it takes to unpick.” – Robyn Lynch

You regularly work with deadstock and upcycling, what are the challenges there in terms of production?

Right now, I work with Nona Source, which is LVMH deadstock. It’s limited in terms of units, but in terms of manufacturing, it’s a lot cheaper. The problem with upcycling isn’t the limit on units, because you can find deadstock items in high numbers, but the time it takes to unpick. That makes the product incredibly expensive and that price difference – between an upcycled piece and a new one – is very hard to justify to the consumer.

There is still a lot of communication and education needed around the production process.

Yes! And that includes buyers too. Because otherwise, it just ends up on the e-commerce site with a flat picture and a tiny description. What kills me is when it says something like “100% polyester”, and I just think, “I’ve used ocean waste recycled nylon and recycled fibres!” Having that level of communication throughout the chain is so important to justify the price point.

“I knew very little about fashion, so I needed space to learn before I could explore what I wanted to do.” – Robyn Lynch

I want to ask about your education. How well did your formation prepare you for the reality of running a brand?

I studied in Dublin for four years before coming to London. That was amazing because it was very intimate. I didn’t get into fashion though, I studied textiles. I did fashion on the side, more intensely when I started applying to the MA in Westminster. I was doing classes every Saturday morning, with older ladies making pillow cushions. In a way, I was very sheltered, which gave me time to develop myself. I wasn’t thrown into the deep end. When I came over to London, I specifically chose the Westminster course for that reason. At CSM, I asked Fabio about the desk space, and he told me, “It’s first come first serve, like Germans on a summer holiday.” I just thought to myself, “I need my own space.” Bear in mind, that I knew very little about fashion, so I needed space to learn before I could explore what I wanted to do. At Westminster, we had lot of space, it was a brand new studio. They have a printed textiles room and a dye lab that is open to all fashion students.

Interestingly, it was when I came to London that I started using Ireland as a source of inspiration. Before that, I had never really looked into my Irish identity, whereas in London, I had suddenly become so patriotic and nostalgic for home. I was the only Irish person in my class, so I was thinking more about what makes my identity unique.

“I chose my internships very wisely, choosing designers I really wanted to learn from, such as Phoebe English and Cottweiler instead of going to a big corporate brand. I didn’t have the financial luxury to experiment.” – Robyn Lynch

It sounds like you were very conscious about every decision you made concerning your education.

My parents are very practical people. They run a business too, so every decision I made had to be thought through. I couldn’t afford to test the water first. My parents were always asking me about the next step, so that was instilled in me from a very young age. I chose my internships very wisely, choosing designers I really wanted to learn from, such as Phoebe English and Cottweiler instead of going to a big corporate brand. I didn’t have the financial luxury to experiment.

What was the biggest lesson you learned from those internships?

It was eye-opening to see how much work it is to run your own brand. I knew fashion was hard work, but seeing it in front of me really solidified that I wasn’t afraid to stay up until four am. That doesn’t happen to my gang now, I make sure everyone can go home in time, but hard work and determination were really instilled in me. That adrenaline, I just thought – I want this.

This is a topic that really interests me because we’re part of that “burnout generation” who actively started questioning work environments. I believe it’s an incredibly important conversation, but sometimes I also wonder when we lost the excitement for the job. Being young and working through the night with your friends to finish a project is fun! But those stories are less common now.

I completely agree. I have made some of my best friends in those situations. I remember one particular night from one of the internships. It was the night before the show and we had been working until 5 am. We all went back to my flat and took turns showering while the others napped, then we headed back to the studio to organize the transport of the catering at 7 am. Those people are my friends for life, we’re still helping each other now. We all have that drive now, and we learned it together. I hope this sense of camaraderie still exists.

Coming back to the show you did in June. In terms of communication, how much do you gain as a young designer from following the standard show format?

We’ve been having this conversation many times running up to the show. Unfortunately, there was no New Gen space this season, so we had to arrange our own venue. There was a lot of added stress in terms of production management – it really puts into perspective the effort that goes into a 4 minute show. But then there is nothing more pleasurable than creating that energy around the collection. We had Nivea diffusers around the venue to create a smell of sunscreen, for example. That is very hard to match with a digital video.

But then, with the Rapha project, the entire production budget of the video, which I shot and edited myself, was 890 pounds. From that one project, I got my first order from Browns. That was during COVID, so everyone was on an equal playing field, and you had more of a chance for people to watch your video. Now, I don’t know whether people have the attention span for them anymore. I see how busy the buyers are, they are running around from showroom to event, I can’t imagine them sitting down to watch a video.

Last question! I really want to ask you about the Aran knit meme. What was your reaction when you saw it?

What happened with the original piece is that it had been dyed so many times that it just stretched and became oversized. When we styled it for the photoshoot, we tucked it in so we could see the shorts. I didn’t see it until someone sent that meme, and I thought it was the funniest thing. But for production now, we made the design about 25 cm shorter so it could sit flat.

“It’s important students know – there is a lot more happening than what you see on the runway.” – Robyn Lynch

Interesting that the fashion meme community is the most important criticism we have. They’re the ones giving the feedback designers need!

Yes, in London everyone is so kind to each other, you won’t get it otherwise!

Well, you have been very honest during this interview. Thank you for that, it’s very rare!

It’s important students know – there is a lot more happening than what you see on the runway. I got my first studio eight weeks ago, after graduating in 2018. I worked from my flat all that time. I share it with a housemate who is a school teacher and the most understanding and patient person in the world. I took over the living room and kitchen, and sleep in a mezzanine. To go back to the start of the conversation, I would have hoped to have had a bedroom door by the time I was 30, and I don’t.