Striving in a Tough Economy

December, 2008

Ron Irwin’s life path has been anything but direct. It has included years in a monastery, ownership of a natural foods store, and work as a model, actor and clothing designer. But one might say the lessons of that winding path – particularly the importance of following his heart – was perfect preparation for his current business, Indigé Design, a clothing and interior furnishings store at 3449 Waialae Ave.


“If you don’t love what you’re doing, it’s not going to grow,” says the Los Angeles native, who first moved to Kauai in the 1970s before work and life took him throughout Asia and the Pacific.

After years of working for someone else in Japan, he wanted to create a business of his own in Hawaii. Part of that vision was a line of contemporary, Asian-inspired clothing in loose-fitting styles designed for Hawaii’s climate and lifestyle. He had gotten to know Thailand so well that he knew which local artisans did the best work (from cutting to finishing garments), and where to get unique fabrics such as batik, hand-painted cotton and hand-woven silk.

In October 2007, Irwin signed a lease for the space next to Harry’s Music Store in Kaimuki, even before he had anything to sell. The landlord granted him a month’s grace period while the space was prepared. The first thing he did was race to Thailand to place his furniture order and then to Indonesia to design his line of clothing.

He knew he was up against the clock. “Three months is nice. One month is pushing it,” he says. The merchandise started
showing up in late November, and he opened the store two days before Christmas.

Starting a business is never easy, but the challenge is even greater when overall economic times are tough. Irwin makes sure he doesn’t give in to the temptation to hunker down and worry. Rather, he channels his energy into exploring new markets for his clothing line, even taking it on the road to show and sell to a senior-living community. Other strategies include tinkering with his product mix. He has decided to carry more clothing rather than furniture to offset a rise in shipping costs, for example.

So far, it’s the women’s clothing line that’s keeping him afloat. Even as the economic downturn has worsened globally, things at Indigé are getting stronger.

“This has been my best month yet,” Irwin said in October. “Even if I have all this fear, I remind myself of what I’ve got … I’m back in Hawaii, I have my own means and I’m doing something creative. That always switches me.”

Knowing His Markets: Retail and Production
A large part of Irwin’s business approach is knowing his target customer as well as his producers. After years in the fashion industry, Irwin knows that designer clothes aren’t for everybody. That is, they don’t fit every body.

“Ninety percent of fashion is for very slim, very young girls,” he explains. By contrast, his clothing line aims to be truly wearable, focusing on comfort as well as design. Many of his pieces are asymmetrical, with varied lengths or tapered diagonals. “That breaks up the body into different parts so you’re focusing on the fabric, design or textile rather than just the body.”

Irwin knows the ins and outs of his product because he is involved in its creation, from the concept to the placement of the buttons. He sees that as a distinct advantage.

“A customer will never know more than I do about my products,” he says. “I’m making it, so I know that’s true.”

Still, many of his customers have traveled to Southeast Asia themselves, and they recognize that the things Irwin carries can’t be found in any marketplace. That’s not easily accomplished, but it can be, with enough energy and focus.

“Nobody wants to produce small amounts,” he says. “But anything is possible if you get out into the villages and you know people who will knit you one sweater … it can be done, but you can’t have clockwork.”

Finding New Markets
One of Irwin’s strengths is his ability to listen. “I listen to everything a customer says. I’m pretty perceptive. I watch them, even their body language,” he says.

That may be one reason he has been successful in finding new markets for his products. Recently, he was invited to show his clothing line at Kahala Nui, an upscale senior-living community. The invitation came after two of the residents visited his store.

“I asked them to tell me about their place. They invited me to show my things and I said, ‘If all else fails, it will be fun.’”

It turned out to be fun and good for business. “It got so busy, I had to just let go … Stuff was going all over the room, but it all came back,” he says with a smile. “They had a great time, and I think some of them will come to visit the store.”

While sometimes you have to go where the customers are, it’s also critical to get potential customers to come to you. Irwin recently displayed original artwork by local painter Lino Laure in his store as an added draw. It took a lot of effort to completely rearrange the space and hang the art, but Irwin made it an event by combining the show with the unveiling of his fall clothing line.

Some days the world’s economic and political unrest leave Irwin unsettled. That is when he catches himself and reminds himself to be present and positive for his customers.

“The challenge is how to get people here,” he says. Once they are in the store, Irwin knows he is his own best promoter. “Be genuine and open to anyone who comes in,” he says. “In Hawaii, word of mouth is important. People believe each other before they believe any other thing.”

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