Fiona Smyth and her mother Susanna Smyth founded The Harlequin in 1993. The vintage shop, specialising in clothing and accessories, quickly became something of a cult destination for lovers of vintage.

It was the perfect time to open. The British high street behemoths were yet to seize control of Dublin’s city streets, and, in the age of Britpop and ‘heroin chic’, celebrities such as Kate Moss, Justine Frischmann, Liam Gallagher and Damon Albarn made dressing in old flares and a vintage Adidas tracksuit top the thing to do.

Over the years, The Harlequin became a much-loved feature of the retail landscape in the area now known as Dublin’s Creative Quarter. Formerly the site of many clothing wholesale companies, the area is renowned for independent shops selling everything from jewellery and antiques to homewares and coffee.

The 1,200 sq ft shop across three storeys became a popular place for a mooch and a chat as well as a place to shop for a unique item of clothing for the Trinity Ball or a night on the dancefloor at The Kitchen or Rí-Rá.

“My mother, Susanna, was a dress designer so we were always interested in design. Before people were really thinking about sustainability, we were the original sustainable fashion store,” says Fiona Smyth.

Smyth has been contacted, following the announcement of her store closure, by many well-wishers from home and abroad. “We’ve had a huge number of people contacting us saying that they’ve been shopping with us since they were teenagers or students in college,” says Smyth.

“Independent businesses bring personality to a city. What else would it be without them?  Just phone shops, McDonalds and Burger King?”

“There are many different types of customers – from those who wear a lot of vintage clothing to those who love the idea of having a unique one-off piece for a wedding or a party.”

“We seem to have been a reassuring presence in the city for many of our customers. I suppose it’s about being a constant for people – they associate long-term businesses with stability. It’s how people feel about Tower Records or Bewleys closing down – it makes people feel safe to see the same businesses in the city for years.”

More than a shop

The singer Lana Del Ray in a dress purchased at The Harlequin

Smyth says that The Harlequin was more than just a place to shop. “Coming into The Harlequin was part of people’s day out on a Saturday. We could have probably made a lot more money doing other things over the years, but we got a lot of job satisfaction out of meeting people that we wouldn’t otherwise have met – it was a two way thing,” Smith says.

“Lots of people have sent us really sweet messages like ‘You were really nice to me when my Dad died’ or saying that the closing of the shop is a huge loss to them. Tourists sending messages about clothes they bought a decade ago and people thanking us for being there over the years.”

Items at the shop (and now the online store) range from €5 to €500 depending on their rarity, era and quality. The Harlequin has seen movie stars and stylists, musicians and performers pass through its doors – Keira Knightly, Brad Pitt, Noel Gallagher and Lana del Rey are just some of the famous faces who have shopped there over the years.

However, while students and stars made up some of the footfall at The Harlequin over the years, tourists also accounted for a large proportion of visitors to the shop – something which, unsurprisingly, has nosedived due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

“The tourists are gone apart from people who might travel within Ireland later in the summer, occasional wear is gone – theme nights, weddings and events made up a good part of our business and people are mostly only wearing casual clothing,” says Smyth.

Rents, rates and Covid

Smyth is more honest, perhaps, than most when she admits that, having seen the vagaries of the market for many years, she wasn’t sure that she had the energy for yet another plot twist. “We have pivoted so many times over the years that I wasn’t sure I was willing to do it again,” she says. “It can be tough to constantly have to do that in business. In reality every business has lulls whether they say they do or not.”

The pandemic is not the only reason that The Harlequin has closed its doors. There are other reasons too, such as Susanna Smyth’s retirement from the business and the fact that their 30 year lease was due to expire, but one senses that the prolonged periods of retail closure, as well as a landlord insisting on full rent while the doors remained shut, created the impetus to close up shop and go online only.

“We were doing very well until we closed last year. It’s always a struggle running an independent business in the city centre – you’re up against expensive rates and rents. When things get quiet it can be hard but we’ve come through a number of quiet times,” says Smyth.

“The benefits of having a bricks-and-mortar shop is that your business is very visible. The flip side of that is that a lot of premises in the city centre have been bought out by investors who are looking to make large profits and don’t really care about the businesses they are letting to. One year, for example, our rent doubled. That was about 15 years ago. We’ve had five or six landlords over the years. If you’re locked into a lease, you don’t have a lot of leeway when it comes to rent hikes.”

Smyth joined The Harlequin in her early twenties having done some costume work in film and having obtained a City & Guilds qualification in Fashion Design. She says she only really began to take things seriously in her thirties and put her “shoulder to the wheel” out front in the shop while her mother preferred to work behind the scenes – the two women compromising when it came to their respective roles in the business.

Smyth and her mother always took a pragmatic approach to their business, she says. “Ideally of course, a business would build up money over the years to protect itself from those down times and we were lucky that we never had to take out big loans or anything. We always tried to be resourceful – when things were quiet we always tried to up our game.”

More often than not, their most challenging times were caused by situations beyond their control – the development of suburban shopping centres such as the Dundrum Town Centre saw footfall in the city centre drop significantly and changes in shopping habits nationally also impacted the business over the years.

“Years ago you’d have events like December 8th when people travelled to Dublin from around the country to do their Christmas shopping,” she said.

“That’s all gone now – no one has to travel to shop anymore. Saturdays aren’t what Saturdays used to be in retail because all the shops now open on a Sunday. That’s the nature of change, I suppose, and your business has to adjust to the changing habits of people otherwise it won’t survive.”

Competition and underselling in the vintage market also present challenges: “A lot of people are selling clothing by the kilo – for me that doesn’t make a lot of sense and it devalues the product. Charity shops are selling a lot of vintage now too, they get the items for free and they don’t pay rates so it’s not really a level playing field.”

A recession is coming

Smyth says that the lack of a clear timeline for the reopening of retail has put huge pressure on small businesses like hers. “It really is desperate for business people like myself to try to gauge what to do about buying stock in, holding onto stock, stock devaluing… It’s a very tough time in business, the losses are huge, it can be very scary,” she says.

Does she believe that the government has done enough to support small businesses such as hers throughout the pandemic?

“I understand that there’s not an endless supply of money. I think they’ve done a lot but I am not sure they’ve done enough. I am not sure that there has been enough consultation and communication with people but the supports have certainly helped. It won’t be possible for every business to keep going and I am frustrated by the vaccine roll out. I am not sure if they [the government] really appreciate what small businesses bring to the table.”

“Independent businesses bring personality to a city. What else would it be without them?  Just phone shops, McDonalds and Burger King? Tourists want the colour that independent stores bring to a place – for them it is about something unique, a full experience, something special, something memorable.”

Smyth believes that it is vital that the public supports small and independent businesses if they want them to exist post-pandemic. “If we want them to be there when this pandemic ends then we need to support them now. “

She believes it is inevitable that a recession and more unemployment is coming.  “It wasn’t just Covid that caused us to make the decision to close the shop, there were many factors that came together. We could have held on another few years but I was worried about what’s coming around the corner next year. I believe that there will be a recession down the line and I am preempting that. All the money being used to salvage things now will have to be repaid at some stage. I think there is going to be a lot of unemployment coming down the line.”

While The Harlequin had a fairly rudimentary shoppable website some years ago, the lockdown gave Smyth the chance to launch a new online store. “Vintage is a very hands-on business and an online store was always put on the long finger. When Covid hit we decided to bite the bullet and I had great help from my husband who spent two months setting up the website for us.”

She says that last year would have been even more challenging had she not launched the website in July and that a newly refreshed website will launch in the coming weeks.

“In some ways the lockdown softened the blow [of moving out of the Castle Market shop].  Because I’ve been out of the shop almost a year now it has made it a little bit easier to work on a strategy for going forward,” she says. “We want to grow our customer base online across Ireland and abroad. I am learning a lot about digital marketing which is something I’ve been enjoying – it’s been good for me to push myself and to learn something new. Social media plays a huge part in what we’re trying to do now.”

While the website is going well and the store has over 10,000 followers (and counting) on Instagram, Smyth says that as soon as she can she’ll be looking at new ways to sell her products to customers face-to-face.

“I really miss that interaction and I am surprised how much I miss it – the randomness of those customer interactions – things we didn’t even know we wanted, needed or craved,” she says. “I will miss the routine of going into work, my neighbours, pottering around the city and the interaction with customers. It’s probably a bit like childbirth,” she laughs. “I’ll be remembering the good times.”

Closing up a shop you’ve worked in almost every day for 28 years, in favour of selling your products online, is bound to be an emotional experience. “It’s a funny one – it’s a mix of emotions. I think I will only know in a while if I have made the right decision but, in physical and mental terms, I am much better off,” says Smyth frankly.

“I am happy that I have made a decision and that I am no longer spending time in limbo. I feel a sense of relief but I am also worried about the future. You have to take a chance otherwise you’ll stay stuck in the situation. It is the end of an era so it’ll take a bit of deprogramming.”