For three decades Exhibit has been selling low cost high fashion to women across Northern Ireland. Now, as the hunt is on to find a model to become the face of the chain, we talk to owner Colin Rankin about the firm's amazing success (and his famous brother, chef Paul).
The recession and the impact of the flag protests in Belfast city centre in the run-up to Christmas 2013 helped put Paul Rankin's much-admired Cayenne restaurant out of business – but his older brother has managed to steer his well-known fashion stores through the civil unrest and economic downturn.
Colin Rankin owns and runs Exhibit, which he started with his brother Maurice, who moved on around 10 years ago.
It's one of the most successful brand-names in Northern Irish fashion, counting Davina McCall, Christine Bleakley and Nadine Coyle among its customers, although it hasn't been all plain sailing for the family-run company since its inception in 1983. But while current profits are down, staff numbers have remained intact, thanks to smart cost-cutting measures.
"The flag protests were very dark days for us and it was definitely no exaggeration to say that Belfast retailers lost £15m during the last one," says Colin (58). "It was dreadful; there was a terrible fall-out from it. It forced a lot of people to go on to the internet to shop. Rents are also the big problem in recessionary times but thankfully landlords here have been reasonable.
"We've had to cut back to the bone, with natural wastage, working hours and so on, but with no redundancies – which is lovely – and things are starting to pick up. We had a very good Easter."
With 24 stores across Northern Ireland and the Republic, Exhibit has managed to stave off competition from cheap and cheerful stores like Primark, by offering affordable prices for better quality clothes.
Its own-label collections are designed by Colin's wife Ruth and Maurice's ex-wife, also called Ruth (Parkes), and are manufactured in England and the Far East.
Whereas many men could not countenance working alongside the missus, day in and day out, it's not a problem for Colin.
"Ruth does all the fabric buying and design with the other Ruth – I'm more into the business side and shop fit-outs, so we're not working cheek-by-jowl," he explains, from his office at the company's Belfast HQ. "It's good – it actually works very well for us. We have different aspects of the business to discuss when we get home. Our son Christopher's working with us too now, doing a great job with the e-commerce side of things and the new website www.exhibitshops.com."
Colin misses Cayenne and the "wonderful flavours" his younger brother whipped up in the award-winning Shaftesbury Square restaurant. He is perhaps better spoken than Paul (55), whose Mid-Atlantic drawl can be heard on his popular cookery shows. In fact, he sounds a bit like UTV's Paul Clarke on the phone, and, incidentally, is tall, at six foot three – remarking it's "hard to get sleeves long enough" for his stature.
The Rankin brothers were born in Glasgow but grew up in their mother Iris's home town of Ballywalter, Co Down, where their grandfather had a general store – which sounds quite folksy, like Olsen's in the Little House on the Prairie – selling everything from petrol and meal, to groceries and coal.
Iris had helped her father with the business after he was injured in a fall from a roof. She and her Scottish husband Hugh went on to open a local drapery, the Ballywalter Fashion Centre, followed soon after by a second branch in Kircubbin and a third in Newtownards.
Colin recalls: "The shop in Newtownards was called Dopey Dinah's – this was 40 years ago. My father thought that he could use the name as a value slogan 'Dopey Dinah's –Dopey Prices' and so on. My mother hated the name, though, so the store was re-branded as Miselle –which many would refer to Miss Ellie's. It was the heyday of Dallas, so what we thought was a nice sophisticated name got a bit distorted!
"Maurice and I were involved in the business at that stage. We'd been working in dad's manufacturing and wholesale company for a while and after learning the ropes we decided we wanted to open our own shops. After Miselle, we started La Mode in Castle Lane, Belfast doing younger collections. It was very brave to go into young fashion at the time but it turned out to be a great move."
After that first taste of success, the brothers were keen to expand. With their parents' help and a bank loan, they opened Exhibit shops on Donegall Place, Belfast and Main Street, Bangor in 1983. Within two years they had a chain of 26. The two Ruths –who prefer to remain behind the scenes and are reluctant to be interviewed – were instrumental to the stores' success from the beginning.
Colin met his Ruth at a friend's 21st birthday party in 1978. They have two sons, Christopher (26) and Charles (22).
"We had known each other from a distance but really clicked that night," Colin recalls.
"Ruth was a midwife in the Royal Victoria Hospital when we met. We married in 1980 and Ruth joined the business in 1982, focusing on our own Exhibit label as much as possible.
"Since then we've always tried very, very hard to do things differently from Primark, etc. It's a different type of operation – we're not in a race for the lowest quality and cheapest fabric but we still like to give excellent value for good quality. We try very hard to compete."
The Rankins' retailing mission has been hampered at several junctures over the last 30 years. They lost three stores in the Troubles: the North Street and Donegall Sqaure West branches were burned out by fire bombs, while their Bangor outlet perished when a car bomb went off on Main Street.
But the lowest point personally in Colin's life has been the decline of both his father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in 1999, and his mother, who suffers from neuropathy, a disease affecting the nerves which can impair sensation, movement, gland and organ function.
Paul Rankin has spoken of conversations with his brothers about which of them might also succumb eventually to Alzheimer's, a disease which currently afflicts more than 18,000 people in Northern Ireland. Hugh Rankin, now 83, initially became a little forgetful before his condition deteriorated rapidly, to the point where he doesn't recognise his sons.
"It's horrible," Colin states flatly. "Mum and dad are both in nursing homes now. It is a comfort that – before he became ill – dad saw and admired what we have achieved.
"He came from very humble roots, as the son of a steel worker in Scotland, and he always wanted the best for his family.
"Mum unfortunately became ill in February 2013, and after eight months in hospital, she was disabled and no longer able to walk. It has been a very hard time for mum, who was the most capable of women. She was a real driving force in their business –she had been brought up in business from age 14 and she and dad were a great team together."
Iris Rankin used to make delicious chicken broth and helped shaped Paul's love of cooking. She also gave her elder son Colin some sound business advice: work hard and count the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves. The work ethic and good economic sense Iris and Hugh instilled in their sons has helped Exhibit brave the financial storms, whereas equivalent independents in the Republic – including Libra Designs – have gone to the wall in the aftermath of the country's massive property crash.
"There is a difference between customers in the Republic and the north," Colin remarks. "I couldn't put it down to the original Protestant work ethic but there is definitely a different attitude to life and enjoyment in the south. We do seem to give a more sensible attitude to spending.
"Trading is still difficult but I can see customer confidence growing a little. We've managed to hang on through determination and hard work. I've done this all my life and we really enjoy what we do. We've no grandchildren yet but I'd just like to continue to grow and bring success into the next generation."
Could you be the face of Exhibit?
The Exhibit chain is inviting would-be models across the country to attend heats at their local store for their Face Of Exhibit 2014 competition – and the chance of winning £500 in Exhibit vouchers, a year's modelling contract with ACA Models and Aer Lingus sun route flights.
Alison Clarke, director at ACA Models, will co-judge the competition with Exhibit's e-commerce director Chris Rankin.
She said: "We're looking for a young woman who truly represents the brand, someone young, exciting, loves the current trends and who stands out from the crowd. Exhibit is a great local fashion brand that has been on our high streets for over 30 years and we're delighted to team up with them to find the next big thing in modelling."
Competition hopefuls are asked to register for free, online or in store, before attending the casting heats.
Event organisers are seeking aspiring young models aged between six and 25 to compete for the title at the final in September.
Entrants can register for a heat at www.exhibitshops.com or pick up a form at their local Exhibit store.
Seven heats have already been held throughout Northern Ireland and Co Monaghan but there is still a chance to enter in the upcoming heats, to be held on:
Saturday, July 19, 12-2pm, Exhibit, Letterkenny Shopping Centre, Letterkenny
Saturday, July 26, 12-2pm,
Exhibit, Erneside, Enniskillen
Saturday, August 2, 12-2pm,
Exhibit, Sligo Shopping Centre, Sligo
Saturday, August 9, 12-2pm, Exhibit concession, Tempest, Craigavon
Saturday, August 16, 12-2pm, Exhibit concession, Tempest, Cookstown
Saturday, August 23, 12-2pm, Exhibit concession, Tempest, Coleraine
Colin's top five style inspirations...
"Classic style mixed with modern tailoring give Blake's style a Hollywood glamour feel. Her look has been shaped by the designer pieces in her Gossip Girl wardrobe that's envied by women everywhere."
"Mila can glam it up when she wants to but she is a pro at doing laid-back, comfy cool. Not many can pull off such an effortless look with such style."
"Together Little Mix make one eccentric blend of styles, fun and fashion. Their style is playful, an extension of their personalities. They're all about mixing up patterns and fabrics and rocking out in footwear you can really dance in."
"Emma encapsulates traditional English rose elegance. In everything from ethereal ball gowns on the red carpet, to chic monochrome outfits while commuting, her fashion is always aspirational."
"Lydia has upped her fashion game since leaving The Only Way Is Essex but has always kept her polished off edge. She mixes in 1960s and '70s style pieces to give her look a modern vintage feel."