Hailing from Co. Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, Eibhlin worked and studied in ceramic art for four years, before an unfortunate accident while travelling led her to rethink her career plan. “On Christmas Day, 2002, I was walking down some steps in the hostel I was staying in Chiapas, Mexico… I slipped and all the weight landed on my hand. Everywhere was closed for the holiday, so I just had my hand wrapped in some plaster. The bones didn’t heal properly. Even now I still get some pain in times of extreme cold.”
On arrival to Cusco a few months later, a new opportunity opened up for Eibhlin. “I was working in an Irish bar here, and was doing some creative stuff on the side – drawings, photos, things like that. One day myself and an Australian friend of mine, Susie Qullinan, were chatting and we decided to start making clothes. We bought an old sewing machine and started off by buying second-hand items and altering them. Two weeks later we were asked to do our first fashion show. From there things started growing for us.”
After just two years, the pair opened their first shop, “Uno,” and began selling handmade pieces to backpackers and locals.
In 2007 Eibhlin made the leap to open her own premises in the San Blas area of Cusco. “Hilo” (meaning “thread”) is a combination studio and workshop. It’s a cozy and inviting spot decorated with treasures and knick-knacks from Cusco’s Saturday morning flea market, El Barratillo. Visitors to Hilo are just as likely to be stopping by for a cup of tea as they are for a custom dress fitting.
With a sewing machine set up on the shop floor, all pieces are handmade by Eibhlin on-site. “I start off with a few scraps, just by sewing bits of fabrics together, and it just evolves and comes together into something new,” she says.
“At the time, I don’t even know what’s happening. It really depends a lot on how I’m feeling emotionally at the time.”
While many pieces are purchased off-the-rack by backpackers, Hilo also receives a lot of ongoing trade from locals looking for occasion wear. “I usually have at least one wedding dress on the go,” says Eibhlin.
“Recently I’ve been getting requests from younger girls for Quinceañeras (15th birthday celebrations) and Fiestas de Promoción, which are like school formals. It’s been generating a lot of local interest, which I like.” However Eibhlin says she still prefers designing things to fit her own style. “If I was business-minded, I would definitely go into the whole wedding thing full-time, but it’s not a real creative outlet for me. I have always wanted to be able to make a living from my creativity and making things I love.”
So, what was it like setting up a business as a foreigner in Peru? Fairly hassle-free, in Eibhlin’s opinion. “Personally, the only problem I had was sorting out my residency here which took a few years. There were ways and means around everything.”
A strong grasp of Spanish was a big help in solving business problems and integrating into the community. “In terms of the relationships I have built up here, so much of that is down to being able to speak Spanish. I definitely feel that I am a big part of the community here in San Blas.” That fact becomes clear when three young local girls pop their heads into the shop for a hug and a chat during our interview. “Those three girls are sisters… the youngest one is 11 and I remember her in nappies when I first moved here”, says Eibhlin.
While Eibhlin readily admits she is not the kind of person to have a Five Year Plan, she hopes to return to Europe at some point to further expand her work in fashion. “I think I’m going to have to give Berlin a go at some point,” she says. “Some of my best moments here have been working on fashion shows and photoshoots. I love that side of the work.” In October of this year, several of Eibhlin’s designs were featured as part of the opening show for the 3rd annual Cusco Always In Fashion Week. “Being asked to participate was such a great feeling,” she says.
Being near to her family is another big incentive for the Irish designer to move closer to home. “Some people who live here in Peru are running away from something or have family issues that they want to escape. That’s not me. I come from a very close family back in Ireland and I do notice sometimes how far away I am from them. That’s another pull to Europe for me.”
For now though, Peru is still where Eibhlin’s heart is. “Having been here now for 11 years, another big move feels intimidating for me. I’ve moved a lot in my life, but I’ve got so many friends and a great support system here. ”
Carmen Alto 260, San Blas, Cusco
Open Monday – Saturday