With the launch of her new clothing company, Karen Connell tells DW why we need to get more 'badass' women in the spotlight.
Dr Kathleen Lynn, Lady Mary Health, Sybil Connolly, Granuaile – do the names ring a bell?
The Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley may be recognisable, but the stories of the others, and countless more Irish women, are not so well known.
Killybegs creative Karen Connell wants us to appreciate these trailblazing females through her new clothing brand KAIS.
Named after herself and her sisters Aisling and Aine, the brand aims to celebrate “bad ass, game changing Irish girls” by putting their names in full view on sustainable apparel.
The new company is an exciting venture for Karen, who has made her name in acting and modelling in London. She moved home to Donegal six weeks ago as the theatre world ground to a halt due to Covid-19. Most recently, Karen played a formidable role as the Angel of Death in the hit drama Vikings.
KAIS has been a business idea flourishing in Karen’s mind for the past two years. The slowdown of the lockdown gave her time to finally launch.
“I never thought I’d get it this far to be honest, my lifestyle is so unsteady that it’s hard to schedule brainpower, the lockdown helped me in that respect,” Karen said.
KAIS went live two weeks ago, starting with the names of four women featured on the clothes.
It was Sybil Connolly that started it all. Karen was in Limerick on a shoot for George R.R. Martin’s Nightflyers when she came across an exhibition of clothing by Connolly – the first Irish designer to achieve international success.
“I loved the exhibition so much and on the way out I saw a little Fruit of the Loom t-shirt, all rolled up with Sybil Connolly written on it. I asked to buy it but they told me no, it’s for the mannequin.
“I went away thinking the whole world, especially the whole of Ireland should know her name.
“I got an organic cotton shirt and put the hashtag on it to get people to look it up and learn about her. I wore it in London and I could see people looking at it and it started conversations.
“That’s when I decided to sell these T-shirts so people could know about Sybil, support sustainability and support Irish women.”
Karen also chose to feature the names of Grace O’Malley and Lady Mary Heath, who was the first female commercial pilot in the U.K. Lady Mary won her license only after dispelling the belief that women’s menstrual cycles are a disability.
Also featured is Dr Kathleen Lynn, hailed as “The Rebel Doctor”, who co-founded Saint Ultan’s Hospital for Children.
Karen, a leukaemia survivor, was influenced by her own childhood battle to chose a medic who broke new ground for children’s medicine.
“I’m fascinated by her story because I spent half my younger years in Crumlin,” Karen explains.
“There are so many things that these women had to fight for, that thankfully we don’t have now. I think it should encourage us to go towards what we want to, and to think about how we can serve the coming generation by doing things that are still difficult for a woman to do.”
Karen’s biggest hurdle with KAIS was sourcing a clothing producer that matched her ethics. Near the beginning of the pandemic, she finally found a factory of the Isle of Wight which made luxury organic t-shirts that supported sustainable farming.
“We have enough fast fashion. I wanted it to be a luxurious fabric that you keep and you want to wear,” Karen said.
Launching the brand at home has helped Karen benefit from great local support. She is delighted that everyone is ‘getting’ the message she aims to promote.
“Killybegs people have been so supportive in sharing and congratulating me,” she said.
“Plus I’m loving being around family and enjoying a different pace of life for a while.”
Karen’s next goal for KAIS is to secure a local stockist in Killybegs and to include more UK female figures on t-shirts. Eventually she plans on broadening the site to celebrate the legacies of ground-breaking women from all over the world.
“To me, these women are the unsung heroes and they make everyone proud to be where we are from and to acknowledge how good we have it.”