In the space of two years, south Belfast woman Gráinne Maher has established herself as the North’s leading milliner.
A mother of three, all under the age of six, it was simply her decision to create a life at home with her babies that sparked the idea to make hats and fashion head wear for a living — but not any old hat you understand...
Ulster Tatler Northern Ireland Fashion designer of the year, she has featured in television adverts for the likes of Down Royal and Specsavers, and has taken calls from the magazine editor of American multimillionaire business magnate, Martha Stewart. Dame Mary Peters wore one of her designs to Buckingham Palace to receive her MBE.
In her busy and divinely cute home studio on the Ravenhill Road, Gráinne herself is still wondering, “How did this happen?”
“I can only describe it as a eureka moment the first time I hit on the idea to become a milliner,” Gráinne begins, “I was sitting at home, with baby number two in my tummy and the lap top on my knee. I was searching for ideas on the internet — what could I do to work from home?
“You see, when two children come along you immediately begin to weigh up the pros and cons of being a working mum and paying the child care costs. I knew as soon as I had the second baby the costs would not begin to add up, so I was desperate to find a way that I could work from home.”
That internet search brought up a collection of creative business ideas for Gráinne, but all were quickly dismissed as she could easily ascertain ventures such as jewellry design were very established markets already in the country.
Gráinne says: “That same evening I eventually stumbled across hat design, and I thought, ‘Hats! Yeah — hats are nice!”
A past pupil of Our Lady and St Patrick’s College Knock, in east Belfast, Gráinne’s two main passions from a young age were art and music.
“My mum is an artist and was the chairperson of the Pastel Society for Ireland for quite a few years — she was also a teacher.
“I was the eldest of four kids and our mum spent a fortune on us going to different music lessons to give us options and we were always encouraged to do art at home. I loved singing and I went to the Belfast School of Music three times a week. It provided me with the opportunity to sing in the Ulster Hall many times as part of the Belfast Music School’s choir, which was a great experience at such a young age.”
It was to be the subject of music and not art then, that Gráinne chose to develop through her choice of university studies. And quite right too, for it was in her first year at Queen’s University Belfast that she was to meet her husband Ciarán.
After their first year, they both decided to transfer their music studies to Dartington College in Devon, a deciding factor being that one of their tutors at Queen’s, the highly acclaimed (and Carrickfergus born) musicologist Bob Gilmore was moving there.
Gráinne continues: “I feel really lucky to have had my education in Dartington Hall — it was such a beautiful place where time stood still. After we completed our music degree, Ciarán and myself both took up a PhD in musicology but as always I ended up having too many other things going on and never quite finished it — but it did give me an insight into design as through the course I was designing pieces for the body to alter the voice — corsets and the like which has fed into the millinery work that I do now.
“I obviously hadn’t a clue at that stage I was to become a milliner, but it was a thread of influence.”
Gráinne and Ciarán spent eight years in Devon — tranquil life on the ‘English Riviera’ came easy for them in the idyllic town of Totnes. They briefly returned to Belfast to get married in 2000, but it wasn’t long after, in 2002 that they both felt it was time to make a nest ‘back home’.
Gráinne says: “I’m a real home bird and I love, love, love home. As much as living in Devon was warmer and so beautiful, and everyone there was really sweet to us, we knew we wanted to return — I think mostly we really missed Irish people!
“When I returned to Belfast I had the opportunity to work in PR. It was great fun and I met lots of contacts. I was working for an old school friend, Michelle McTiernan. Though it was really enjoyable, the thought did creep into my mind that I would like to work for myself some day, though in what I didn’t know — until that lap top moment.”
She chuckles: “That was it, everything fell into place and I began to seek places that I could learn the trade privately.”
With no millinery courses in Northern Ireland, after the birth of her second child, Gráinne journeyed to Dublin for her first taste of making fashion headwear — and she did exceedingly well. When I push her on it, she may have made her tutor a tiny bit jealous as well...
Gráinne shows me the first piece of headwear she made while attending that course — an intricate yet striking black and fuschia pink fascinator, it most definitely deserves praise.
For having no millinery or art college background, this first piece almost launches into one of Gráinne’s, now well established, trademark designs. When I ask her what her tutor thought of her very first attempt, Gráinne admits, she said absolutely nothing and glanced over it.
“My confidence really grew after that, it was like I knew what I was doing, I knew what would work and what wouldn’t, and I could be as creative as I want.
“As I began to experiment and design hats at home, I realised that no one else in the country was making the sort of headwear I was creating. Knowing this spurred me on further, and not long after I went to London to do another short millinery course. I don’t think I could stop myself making hats after that.”
In January 2009, after completing a business management course at the University of Ulster, Gráinne began to trade — Gráinne Maher Millinery was born.
With Gráinne’s PR know-how acquired from previously working in the industry, her couture hats soon took a grip and her name quickly took hold in the different target markets she had her eye on.
Wearing her own headwear, it only took a few trips to the races at Down Royal for Gráinne’s creations to turn heads and create waves in the industry.
These soon made their way up to the owner of the Down Royal who personally asked his advertising company to commission Gráinne to design and make a unique hat for their TV commercial to advertise the Northern Ireland Festival of Racing that takes place early next month. (The luxurious shimmering green and golden bejeweled hat that provides a back drop for the shadows of race horses as they run the course, that’s the one.)
Her business was also awarded an Arts Council grant from the Creative Industries Innovation Fund this year, which has already served to expand and develop her business and brand.
She used some of the money to create her home studio boudoir experience, which had the power to make me drop my notebook and pen so as to allow me to try on the odd creation or two.
It’s here, as she guides me through the ultimate ‘couture’ experience, that I feel Gráinne is in her absolute element.
With my pen, or rather my gauntlet down, Gráinne welcomes me into her world of hats, a fashion item I have previously dismissed from my wardrobe as I always thought they were, I’m sorry to say, duddy — not any more.
She explains to me how wearing the wrong kind of hats and fascinators can age you, how skin tone, face shape, hair colour and type of event you are heading to of course, all play a role in the design.
To my surprise, some of her creations are actually a fantastic way to give me a bit of extra height. Lightweight too, I can see now why a lot of girls like me are into these...
Breaking into business and bringing headwear into the 21st century has taken equal doses of creativity and dedication but for Grainne it is clearly a labour of love. “I’m so excited about this business I can’t tell you enough how much I love it,” she says.
“My studio is my very own patch of turf, and my kids really love what I do in my studio too — my little girl Sorcha thinks it’s Aladdin’s cave.”
Well, I for one have to agree with five year old’s Sorcha’s opinion — although I got away with not having to say ‘open sesame’ to get in.
For more information on the collection, visit http://www.grainnemahermillinery.com/