Donegal designer who ‘didn’t intend to launch a business’ creates in-demand brand

An innovative young Buncrana woman, who ‘never really intended to set up a business,’ is now at the helm of her own luxury accessories brand that is hugely in demand.

Orla O’Hagan is the creator behind Orla Vera Accessories, which produces luxury, leather products that include bags, glasses cases, scrunchies and card holders.

The company places a strong emphasis on sustainability and works exclusively with sustainably-sourced remnant or end of line leather from companies like BMW, Mulberry and Mercedes.

In just two years, Orla (the Vera is her middle name) has gone from making bags for her family, to creating designs that are so popular they need a waiting list.

Orla O'Hagan, pictured in her Buncrana workshop, with the 'Joan' tote.

Speaking to the ‘Journal’, Orla explained how she always wanted to work in a creative industry, but wasn’t sure where to place her focus.

“When I was younger, I was really arty and creative. When I was doing my Leaving Certificate, I knew I wanted to do something creative, but didn’t know what.”

Orla completed the ‘brilliant’ Foundation course at North West Regional College and then went on to university in Leicester to undertake Footwear and Accessories design.

She began working for well-known shoes and accessories designer Sophia Webster and remained there for over three years. However, Covid 19 then took over the world and like thousands of others, Orla’s job was made redundant.

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The in-demand 'Vera' bag.

She decided to travel home for a short while, as she looked for employment. It was always her intention to return to the UK, but fate had other plans.

“I had bought a sewing machine from my lecturer when I was in second year, in order to practice. It was in the garage and I had some leather left over, so I started making bags for my mammy and sister. It was in that brief period where we were all allowed out until around 10pm and when they took the bags out with them, people were asking where they’d got them. Then my friends started to ask for ones and, through word of mouth, I got more and more requests. I began to post on Instagram and it all went crazy.”

Orla began offering clutch bags and then a cross-body bag for ‘every day.’ She also worked with a supplier in London to provide different straps for the bags.

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“I only made the cross-body bag for myself really at first, as I needed a bag for everyday. But then I kept getting asked to make them for others. People weren’t really going anywhere due to restrictions, so they wanted this type of bag. They started asking for different colours and straps etc and it kept going from there.”

Demand continued to increase ahead of Christmas 2020, when it became ‘absolutely insane’. As well as working on a huge number of orders from her own website, McElhinneys in Ballybofey also asked Orla to make 50 bags for Christmas week, for them to sell in-store.

“I was already living in my garage seven days a week, making bags, but I couldn’t turn down McElhinneys, it was a huge opportunity.”

Orla’s family and friends were drafted in to help, including her cousin, Claire, who ‘took the bull by the horns’. The orders were all made and McElhinney’s stock sold out within the week. Claire also joined the business as an employee. Demand didn’t slow down over Christmas and Orla then hired Emer McLaughlin, also from Buncrana and a fashion student.

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The brand continued to go from strength to strength, building a website and launching more products -including a massively popular tote bag, which was frequently requested.

Orla credits her customers for also igniting ideas for new products and providing excellent feedback on what they want to see in new products, colours etc. Many asked for a card holder, which Orla developed, as well as glasses cases, which are stocked by Inish Eyecare. Orla also began to get numerous requests for white bags from brides-to-be, who wanted them for their hen party, wedding day or honeymoon. This led to the launch of a bridal collection and new options for straps that included chains etc.

Orla is extremely proud of the brand’s sustainability ethos. “It’s all left-over leather, so it means nothing is going to waste. Otherwise, it would be getting destroyed. We might get two or three skins, so while everything we make is very limited, it also means that not everyone has the same thing. Our scrunchies, glasses cases and card holders are made from what we then have left over from making the bags, so that reduces our waste too.”

Orla is over the moon that she can base her business at home in Buncrana and ship right across the world. Orders have come in from countries such as Germany and the USA. While Orla Vera Accessories was stocked in some stores, demand became so high that is now only exclusively available via the website, or at Ashford Castle, Ireland’s only Forbes five-star hotel.

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Orla also has a store in Buncrana, which is open Monday to Saturday from 9.30am to 4.30pm.

She admits that, when she first began making handbags for her family during lockdown, she ‘didn’t intend to launch a business,’ but is delighted by how it has panned out. “I’m so proud of it, I really am,” she says.

Looking to the future, Orla hopes to hire more staff in September, update the website and launch a new ‘medium-size’ bag to join the smaller ‘Vera’ piece and the ‘Joan’ tote. She is also researching alternative leathers, including pineapple and apple leathers, which she hopes to launch.

“It has all grown very organically and I really want to keep it that way,” she explains. You can check out Orla Vera Accessories at www.orlaveraaccessories.com or on their social pages on Instagram and Facebook.