Letterkenny produces a first for Ireland

AN ENTERPRISING Donegal couple are blazing a trail in the world of fashion with a conscience, becoming Ireland’s first vegan fashion brand.
Based in Letterkenny, Forester Products has already been tipped as one of ‘eight fashion brands that every fasionista needs to check out’.

Sean Forester and Alannah McGhee with Forester Products, Vegan friendly Weekend bag and Laptop bag.

This week the Donegal News met with founders Sean Forester and Alannah McGhee to hear how their business is the culmination of a journey to create ethical accessories for everyone.
Weary of his career in finance, Sean, who was brought up in Dunfanaghy, wanted to align his professional values with his new vegan lifestyle. 
He explained: “I worked in finance in Dublin and then Montreal but it just wasn’t for me. Alannah grew up in Glasgow but has strong family connections in Gaoth Dobhair so we decided that we’d move back to Donegal. We came back to Ireland in 2017 and I had turned vegan in 2016, I wanted to do something that would align my professional values with my new lifestyle.”

Forester Products; Laptop bag, Weekend bag, wallets and watches.

It was an attempt to find a replacement strap for a leather watch given to him as a present by Alannah the previous Christmas that initially sparked the idea for Forester Products.
“I just couldn’t’ find anything out there that was a vegan alternative for the leather strap and that’s when we started researching the possibility of creating our own brand. We wanted to create something that was sustainable and vegan-friendly, it’s becoming such a big movement and we knew someone was going to do it, so why not us? We then spent a lot of time deciding on what materials we wanted to use and what the first range would entail.”
A trip to Portugal to meet with artisan cork producers in Porto opened a world of possibilities for Sean and Alannah. They explained: “We looked at different materials that might work, but for us, cork is definitely the best option. It’s plant-based and sustainable and so versatile. To begin with, the cork trees are allowed to grow for 20 years and the outer bark, the cork, is removed every seven to ten years it then goes through a process of boiling and drying which creates a product which is the perfect vegan alternative to leather. The same cork tree can produce products for 200 years and it has a positive environmental impact also.”
“Most of our products are made from cork but the watches and straps are made from a material called ‘ultra-leather’, an alternative product made through a more environmentally sustainable process.”

Forester Products; Laptop bag and watches.

With a vision for the business quickly developing, it was time to look for a base. Sean explained: “We initially called into the CoLab at LYIT to look for office space but on speaking with Patsy Donaghy, the Manager of the innovation centre, we found out that we could apply for funding under the New Frontiers Programme. We set about putting our business plan together and everything fell into place. The programme was great in terms of providing mentoring and advice on setting up the business.”
 “During this time we were also designing the first products for Forester Products range. These became vegan leather products designed with functionality, style, and ethical principles at their core. We want to create classic sustainable wardrobe staples which last beyond the trends of fast fashion. Another important side of the business is that we want to give back so we have committed 10 per cent of all profits to causes that align with our own values.”  
Alannah added: “It’s nice being based in Donegal too. People like the idea that innovation is coming from outside the big cities and everyone we speak to seems to have a real fondness for Donegal, so that’s quite cool.”
Sean said it’s his experience that people are definitely more aware of the impact they are having on the environment. He said: “There has been a real awakening in recent years. There is a major movement happening and companies will have to respond to changing public opinion. You can still have amazing, non-leather products without compromising on quality and style. It’s such an exciting time for vegan fashion. I think it’s a trend that’s going to continue and that can even be seen in the number of local restaurants and cafes now in Donegal who are all catering for vegans.”
Forester Products  has attracted great interest in the vegan community in Ireland and abroad. In recent weeks Donegal’s own ‘Green Leafy Gael’ Amy Ni Cholgain recently posted about the brand.
“We also attended a number of vegan events in Belfast, Cork and Dublin and that’s where we did a lot of our market research,” added Alannah. 
“ Within seconds of launching the website, we had an order for a belt. People obviously have the same frustrations that I had. We’ve been completely blown away,” continued Sean.
“We always like to think that we make cool products which are vegan, as opposed to vegan products that happen to be cool. A lot of our customers may not be 100 per cent vegan but each purchase is a little step towards a positive global change. I think most people will buy something that’s more environmentally friendly if they’re given that choice,” added Alannah.
The current collection is made up of stylish essentials, from wallets, watches and straps, bags and belts, from which Sean’s favourite is the Classic Red Wallet. “It probably suits my style the most,” he said. “I think the colour just pops. Because our wallets are made of cork, every single one has a different finish, which I really like about the range. It’s the perfect size for me as well, slim and lightweight. Alannah loves her Everyday Black Backpack, she uses it all the time.”

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