OK, so it was the 1990s – we can cut her some slack. And, as she points out, those florals are probably back in fashion round about now. But, coming from a sensible family with solid, working-class values, a career in fashion was considered a little, well, frivolous. “I was a child of the 1990s so what I wore wasn’t particularly fashionable,” she laughs now, virtually cringing at the memory.
“There were lots of patterns – which are back in again actually – and big jumpers. I remember one Christmas getting my Levi 501s and my DM boots and thinking I was it. My brother still teases me about that. I also remember going to visit my mum when she’d had my little sister and dressing me and my other sister in matching floral Laura Ashley dungarees, thinking my mum would like that. But when I said I wanted to work in fashion, everyone was a bit, ‘Fine, but do you think that’s a real job?’”
So the girl from Northern Ireland, now aged 30, packed her bags for Glasgow to undertake a sensible degree in business management instead. “But it was always in the back of my mind that fashion was something I wanted to get into,” she says.
After graduation, she went travelling and then studied a masters in fashion marketing, during which time she attended a lecture she describes as her “lightbulb moment”. It was on ethical fashion, and “really inspired me to think outside the box. It seemed like a way I could combine working in fashion with something interesting and positive.
“At the time, I just used that as my dissertation topic, then after uni it was the usual story – I needed a job. So I did lots of things completely unrelated to fashion. While I was working in a marketing job I didn’t particularly enjoy, I decided that if I really wanted to do something about it, I would have to do it for myself.”
So she started researching a way of combining her love of fashion with her desire to stay true to her ethics. “At the time I was studying, the environmental movement was just beginning to get fashionable. For a long time it had been hemp and tie-dye and that sort of thing, which is not what I was into at all. But hearing that lecture convinced me I could combine my personal style with my values.”
And so Think Boutique was born. “My key goal was to make a site that was fashion first, with things people would look at and say, ‘I love that dress,’ not, ‘That dress is recycled.’ It’s always about the clothes first; the story behind it is almost a bonus.”
It has been a work in progress, going to trade shows and doing a lot of digging to source the best ethical, fair trade, organic, upcycled and locally produced fashion around. Her autumn/winter collection features stylish skirts, silk T-shirts and tailored jackets from Leeds-based label Antiform. There are lush dresses made from recycled saris by luxury brand House of Bilimoria and handcrafted paper jewellery by Crumple. And none of it looks like it was made from old egg boxes. “Some pieces are totally gorgeous,” says a proud McQuillan.
“The knitwear is probably my favourite for winter. There are some gorgeous dresses too – I’ll definitely be having a couple of those for the Christmas party season. It reflects me so much, it’s kind of a given that I’m going to want to wear the stuff. It would be wrong if I didn’t.”
McQuillan is just back from the Pure London trade show, where she was among six ethical fashion experts talking about the industry, she is now back in Glasgow to continue running the website and looking after her one-year-old son. “To begin with I was just working when he was napping and at night,” she says.
“Now I have some childcare in place. But working from home means I’m very flexible – I can be walking round the park and checking my e-mails at the same time. It’s a challenge, but it’s also quite nice.
“It has also taken me to another arena,” she adds, “children’s products: things like reusable nappies. It’s a whole new world, trying to source clothes for him, so it has been quite interesting and opened my eyes to another aspect of it all.”
So can we expect to see ethical children’s fashion appearing on Think Boutique any time soon? “I would love to,” she says.
“It’s just a case of getting the right products that would sit well with the ladieswear. It would be amazing if I could get there in the end.”