The Margaret O’Leary brand is renowned for its affordable, luxurious knitwear. Ireland native O’Leary founded the company nearly 25 years ago after setting up production in San Francisco and opening 10 stores along the West Coast. The styles are perfect for the cool, foggy, Northern California weather, but soon New Yorkers will get to experience the cozy, luxury offerings. Margaret O’Leary just opened her first store in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood this month.
Hailing from Ireland – San Francisco is probably the closest climate-wise to your native country. Was this part of your decision to move to Northern CA?
I came to San Francisco for the energy and excitement of the city, and it has never let me down! Moving to the Bay Area was part of my ‘master plan’ because our unique climate is the perfect place to design knitwear – it’s summer now and a foggy fifty degrees. We take full advantage of the climate to experiment with our designs.
What made you want to be a designer?
I was born on a farm in Country Kerry, southwestern Ireland. As the second oldest of twelve children, I was born into a working world and was taught to knit when I was just three. Growing up, I only had two outfits – a daily outfit, and a Sunday outfit. I would see other girls wearing different clothes throughout the week and I vowed that when I grew up, I would have more than two outfits. I have always been motivated to dress myself and my friends, in part due to that childhood desire to have the best styles to wear.
Was it tough at first in SF where the design culture was minimal when you launched?
I was quickly discovered after I began hand-looming here in San Francisco and I think this is because my design aesthetic was a natural fit for the more relaxed California lifestyle.
Do you enjoy being off the beaten path?
I don’t consider San Francisco as off the beaten path! I also travel so often to places like New York, Paris, Peru or Ireland so I am constantly exploring different areas and cultures too.
Using the finest materials – how do you keep your price points so reasonable?
I am often referred to as the Yarn Chef and there is good reason behind the name: I know how to create amazing designs (recipes), using cashmere and silk (the best ingredients) to deliver great product while maintaining a competitive price point.
After nearly 25 years in the business, what sort of insights about the industry have you learned?
It is a hard industry – there are many variables and challenges; however, I have the greatest team, many of whom have been with me for a decade or more, and believe it’s really important to have that strong support and foundation.
Many designers avoid knitwear – why do you think this is?
Designing and producing knitwear is all about engineering (it’s a little known fact that I was trained as an engineer!) and this can be more challenging than cutting and sewing. Since knitwear production today is completely automated, you must also be able to program patterns into large and complex knitting machines.
What is a Margaret O’Leary signature garment?
Wow, that’s tough, there isn’t just one! For the Fall, the St. Moritz, Chunky Cable Pullover, and Angel Cable are musts.
You’re moving to the East coast! How will the New York customer differ from those on the West coast?
The seasons are different, of course, so we have introduced a full sportswear line that integrates perfectly with the knit collection each season. We are also focusing on sweaters that work well under heavier coats during the snowy New York winters. New Yorkers love to wear black, so I think we are slowly introducing them to pops of color, which are found throughout every collection of mine.
How does the Nolita neighborhood reflect your brand?
Our block on Mott Street is a really great New York street – it’s energetic, but not too congested. The Nolita neighborhood is cool and current yet understated.
Will you be spending more time in New York now?
Absolutely! We have a lot of great surprises planned for our friends in New York City.
Margaret O’Leary is now open at 279 Mott Street in New York City.