“I think she wants her clothes to be hardworking, to make her feel better, to give her a little bit of armour, without taking over,” says fashion designer Sonya Lennon of the type of woman who she keeps in mind when designing Lennon & Courtney, the label she founded with business partner Brendan Courtney.
This gives a sense of how Sonya approaches her craft, with a meticulous eye for detail and an intuitive awareness of what a women really wants to wear.
This awareness is one that has been strengthened by a career spanning thirty years working as one of Ireland’s leading fashion stylists, her time as a presenter on RTE’s Off The Rails, and working with women to tackle issues of self esteem through her not-for-profit initiative Dress for Success.
One of the best known faces and a formidable figure in the Irish fashion industry, Sonya showed her support far beyond shopping local by setting up with Brendan Frockadvisor, an online marketplace designed to support independent boutiques to thrive in the face of global competition.
While friend and collaborator Brendan continues to be a big part of Sonya’s life and career, she has continued to add to her own entrepreneurial skill set offering her creativity, strategy, and design talents to businesses to maximise their potential.
As we caught up with Sonya (on hands-free) as she made her way to chair a panel discussion at an National Women’s Enterprise Day event it seemed apt to start with the question …
Female networking and mentoring events have got a bit of backlash lately, with some calling them out as a money-making racket. Do you think they have value?
Absolutely. My big thing is that woman here that others have failed and got up again, that it’s not all rosy. Because when people get up and tell success stories sometimes you think, ‘my God, why is it so easy for them and so hard for me?’
I think we have a duty to share the horror stories as well so that people feel less isolated, particularly when you are a female entrepreneur – it can be a very lonely station.
I have been very lucky to have a business partner, but many women don’t so by building your network you are forming a trouble shooting gang.
So, you believe in the importance of creating your own network or ‘tribe’ of women then?
I think so, and you must tribe up and tribe down, so that you have people further along the track from you and people coming up behind you. You are creating a ladder on which everyone can learn from everyone and it just makes things so much easier.
Do you have your own ‘tribe’?
I’m part of a tribe of ten women, nine entrepreneurs and one interpreter – an entrepreneurial minded corporate professional – and we take time out of our businesses to meet every 12 weeks and present an analysis of where we are each at that point.
We come up with solutions for our issues through our shared experience and networks – and sometimes it’s just to vent! But once you’ve said it’s so much easy, because we have created this space where it’s okay to just be vulnerable.
Speaking of vulnerability, what style insecurity did you come across most on Off the Rails and with Dress for Success?
I think the reality is that Ireland is not a beach country, it’s a country where we cover up, and because of our poverty stricken history we are not a wealthy, showy country – although we might have gone through a moments of it!
I think our body image is wrapped up in all that. It is big issue for a lot of women, and you only have to look around at the amount of women wearing false tan to see that.
That’s not the colour of your skin! What’s wrong with you’re the colour skin that it’s not acceptable to you?
I think the biggest issue is that we think that things will change once we hit a certain milestone, but without the confidence to make changes you will never get to that milestone. The only way to make that change is to change where you are right now in the present moment, and that will bring with it a snowball effect.
Why do you think you and Brendan work so well together?
The pillars of our relationship are trust and respect. We trust each other as individuals, and respect each other as professionals. That started at a very early stage.
Brendan and I never let each other misunderstand each other – we never go to bed on an argument!
Do you follow trends?
I don’t massively follow trends. I watch fashion shows but what I take from them are shapes, colours, and details that I like, but I don’t personally buy into trends and I don’t think the woman who buys Lennon & Courtney buys into trend. I think she wants her clothes to be hardworking, to make her feel better, to give her a little bit of armour, without taking over. We do that intuitively rather than by following trends.
What is your favourite piece from Lennon & Courtney’s current collection?
There’s a dress that has just landed at the start of November, it’s navy with silver-grey piping. To me, it’s a phenomenal buy for any woman. It’s beautiful, easy to wear, classic, elegant, flattering, and it just has a little twist to it. I know I will live in that.
Although you don’t personally stick to trends, are there any out there that you can’t stand?
I’m not a big fan of overt labelling, and think it’s dying a little bit – although Gucci is going through a major renaissance!
But I think an intelligent, fashionable woman doesn’t necessarily want to become a billboard for another brand. Why would you want that?
Are you an impulse or sensible shopper?
It’s not as straightforward as that for me! I have thirty years’ experience in selling and buying clothes and have built an understanding of how clothes are manufactured, so I could buy on an impulse but it would be fuelled with thirty years of experience and knowledge. I have made mistakes, but I would rarely buy something that doesn’t have a defined function.
What has been your biggest splurge to date?
I feel that as I design my own clothing line if my needs aren’t met and I need to go to another brand I’m doing something wrong, so, I wear mostly Lennon & Courtney now. But I do have a huge love affair with shoes and I think I can kind of justify that!
And what is the most treasured item in your wardrobe?
A friend of mine Tim Ryan is an Irish knitwear designer, based in London, of extraordinary talent has made some beautiful pieces just for me and I have a gorgeous collection of his clothes. He made me an outfit to wear to Downing Street. I have items like that from him that are just imbued with emotion, and I would never, ever give any of them away.
Aside from this, what would save from your house in a fire?
I have been journalling every day since January, so for over 250 days, so I would probably save the notebook that I have filled. Just so that I can remember what I am trying to do and achieve.
What are your top three dessert island beauty essentials?
I love Elemis Triglercin cleanser, it’s an acid exfoliator and it leaves your skin living incredibly clean. I love Kinvara products for moisture, their serum is exquisite.
Lastly, I could go without every other piece of makeup except lipstick and I recently re-bought a hot pink Tom Ford lipstick which is just an unbelievable extravagance, but there’s nothing like it.
I believe you are handy in the kitchen, what’s your signature dish?
Well, one of the things I’ve always wanted to do was to make a sourdough starter and bake sourdough bread. I’m experimenting with that at the moment and I’m really enjoying it.
Can you share your guiltiest pleasure?
Guilty pleasure? It has to be Cheetos. Absolutely vile, toxic waste – but, the odd time, there’s nothing like them!
What is the one thing you wish you could tell your 16-year-old self?
I used to worry. I would tell myself to be braver, from the get go. I am pretty risk-adverse now, but I was a late bloomer. I was afraid of pushing myself too hard, afraid of the change that success would bring. I would tell myself, ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’
— Sonya Lennon (@sonyalennon) September 5, 2017
What’s the biggest risk you have ever taken?
Probably because it was the first in a series of dominos, presenting Off The Rails. I wasn’t at all sure that it was the thing to do because I was already a successful commercial stylist with a lot of clients, I was doing vey well, and for me to take Off The Rails meant parking all of that and jumping off a cliff. As it happens I jumped off that cliff in 2008 when a lot of commercial work dried up, so it was the right decision.
Going back to the very beginning, what was your life goal aged 10?
I wanted to be a fashion designer, funnily enough! I had countless notepads full of sketches, some of them I still have.
My mum was a transatlantic air hostess and she would come back from New York with wild and wonderful things that no one had ever seen before and I was fascinated.
I was the kid that had things first because of that, and, I’ve never said this before but, I probably I got such a buzz in being that kid, and it definitely had an impact on my subconscious as well!
And what is your goal now?
I have achieved what I want in that I understand now what my overarching purpose is. I believe that I have the capacity to help individuals and organisations to meet their potential through the power of creativity, strategy, and design. They are my things and I know that I can use them through different processes to improve people’s situations.
What plans do you have coming up that will help you strengthen this purpose?
I’m working increasingly with companies to really unlock that potential and look at what the opportunities and assets at hand are. It’s like looking at a deck of cards and shuffling them in a new way to see what can be achieved. There are a couple of companies that I’m going to be aligned to, and I’ll also be working as a creative strategist on a contract basis. It’s a very interesting time for me!
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
The thought of doing something is always one hundred times worse than actually doing it, so whatever it is that you are agonising over, just do it!