Genevieve Sweeney: the humble, warm and boundlessly creative Brit
For a girl who from the ages of five to eight ‘never really went to school’, Genevieve Sweeney the creative genius behind the eponymous cult knitwear label, is doing pretty well for herself.
Just over two years ago the twenty-nine-year-old British knitwear designer launched her first collection and, already its uniquely refined designs have featured in Vogue Italia, Vogue Brazil, Vogue Germany and Elle Canada (to name a few).
In a fickle retail environment she is, season-by-season, navigating the balance between running her online store and stocking retailers like Fortnum & Mason, balancing cashflow and all the while maintaining her non-negotiable commitment to 100% British-made.
Knitwear just became ‘It’ wear
While Genevieve’s parents’s work meant the family was constantly on the road when she was younger, she practiced what were to become the foundations of her trade in the back of the family Volkswagen from an early age.
‘I started knitting when I was five, while living in Belgium,’ she says. ‘Nan taught me to knit to keep me entertained…I really had one ball of yarn and a needle and I would knit constantly.’
Genevieve cites her pattern-cutter and steamstress grandmother and her grandfather as her heroes and says the pair ‘always taught us to make things, not buy things.’
Premium knitwear in a fast fashion world
Fast forward a couple of decades and Genevieve is not just making things, but making seriously beautiful things, and also creating a scene in the global knitwear and broader fashion world.
In an industry where manufacturing has been offshored and ‘fast fashion’ has severe environmental and social consequences, Genevieve’s commitment to UK manufacturers right from the earliest days of her brand sets her apart. Her passion for supporting local artisans and for the industry is evident, as is her commitment to reviving heritage skills in the UK knitwear industry.
And while it was clear from a young age that knitting was her ‘thing’, the path from needle and yarn to business owner has been paved with late nights, frustrations, intercontinental transfers, marriage proposals (rejected the first time but accepted the second) and being laughed out of the front gate by manufacturers. ‘In response to this I just thought well, if you are laughing at the idea of supporting the industry we are not going to be able to work together.’
When I was sixteen I met a girl doing a degree in knitwear and i was like ‘oh my god that’s like actually a thing…that’s my career sorted!
On the path to creating a British-only line of manufacturing Genevieve would visit the Scottish borders and other places in the UK where once-thriving industries have been replaced by sites in Europe or Asia, and found it heartbreaking to see highly skilled artisans out of work.
‘A lot of them get burnt by new designers who can’t meet minimum orders,’ she explains. ‘And they have had some instances where they have found it tough. It has taken a while for UK manufacturers to change their processes from large-scale manufacturing in the 1970s to smaller custom runs of today; as the customers’ buying habits have changed, so too have the retail buyers’ and, therefore, the orders that are place with the designer.’
There were people who hadn’t worked in the industry for 30 years but had these incredible skills.
British made is best
She says that she was still employed at (menswear brand) Lyle and Scott while she was developing the label ‘so maybe those manufacturers who agreed to work with me thought they would be getting bigger contracts through me.’
At the same time, she began buying second-hand knitting machines, something she is still passionate about.
Now, her stable of knitters includes freelance knitters, a factory that employs about 20 people and a husband, wife and sister family team who also run a bakery.
‘Their Dad started a knitting factory,’ she explained. ‘They taught all their children and grandchildren to knit…so when I get a big order I give it to them and they get the family in.’
Genevieve’s biggest initial challenge was – apart from being taken seriously by potential manufacturers – getting the first collection out.
‘I had all these random pieces I’d made with a Scottish knitter, and I was going around to public relations consultants and showrooms saying ‘these aren’t the colours, but imagine… and they were like, just, no,’ she said (laughing).
Inspiration and years of hard work
In many ways though Sweeney is in an enviable position, having known what she wanted to do basically her entire life. There has been no typical millennial struggle about what to do for a career, or trying out something new every eighteen months.
Those long childhood car trips set the scene for her sister too: while Genevieve was playing with yarn, her sister Florence would draw on car windows. Now an artist in her own right, Florence illustrates for Genevieve’s label.
She also found the time to complete a degree in fashion knitwear, attended the London College of Fashion and racked up a stellar resume which included a coveted post-graduation job at Rag and Bone in New York, being headhunted by Hugo Boss, working at Burberry, and gaining experience in every aspect of the manufacturing and retailing elements involved in creating and selling beautiful sweaters.
Finding the confidence to launch a fashion label
It was her extensive experience working for brands like New Look, Marks & Spencer and later for a company creating designs for Tommy Hilfiger, Gant and Ralph Lauren; and then her time in production at Hugo Boss and Lyle & Scott that gave her the confidence to launch.
‘I had been running a collection for other brands – I knew how to do it and I knew who could make it, and I had the designs in my head,’ she said. ‘Because I knew how to program (machines)…it means when you’re talking to a factory you can easily problem solve.’
Keeping a small knitwear business afloat
But it was helping her husband launch his business (a modern power couple) Flint Fine Art that was the catalyst for Genevieve to step out on her own. The pair now work side-by-side, often putting in days that start at 7am and end at midnight.
‘If I could sum up my career to date, I would say that it has been diverse, challenging, inspiring, with a love for learning, but has always taken me on the path of launching my own label and supporting an artisan industry.’
Are you passionate about starting a fashion brand from scratch or supporting a valuable but struggling industry? Ask Genevieve for her expert advice in the comments below!
The Genevieve Sweeney brand is headed for great things