Belfast Telegraph

The local ladies cutting it in a material world

These boutique owners certainly have style — especially when it comes to surviving the recession. Ahead of next month’s Fashionweek, Laura McGarrity hears how they did it

These may be tough times but in cities, towns and villages across Northern Ireland a tenacious group of businesswomen are steering their fashion boutiques through the recession.

Some of the shops such as Jourdan in Belfast and Elegance in Lisburn are established names, having been trading for decades, while others like Sarah Jane in Crossgar have only opened relatively recently.

But whether well-known or newcomer, they all share one thing in common — in straitened times, these stores are still managing to persuade women to spend their hard-earned cash on an irresistible outfit.

And that all comes down to shrewd buying, astute commercial skills, clever marketing ... and, of course, the fact that everyone needs to splurge out now and again.

This year Belfast Fashionweek will celebrating these shops with an Independent Boutique show on Thursday, October 13.

And ahead of that event we meet some of the ‘Iron Ladies’ of Northern Ireland fashion.

One of the most familiar faces on the fashion circuit, Pat was unfortunately unable to make it to our photoshoot. She lives in Belfast and has been in the business for over 40 years. She says:

After modelling for a couple of years I opened La Babalu on Church Lane in Belfast in the late Sixties; it was always full of models and bands visiting Belfast for the weekend. But I then moved premises to Donegall Arcade and we started trading under Jourdan, a sort of a play on my second name Jordan, but a bit more French.

Over the years we've been robbed a few times. I'll never forget chasing a thief down the arcade in the Nineties after he took money from our till. I finally tackled him and dragged him back to the shop, albeit with the help of a passing rugby player.

I've been in business for over 40 years and being business-minded really is the key. My mum worked in business and that's what gave my brother Tony and I our drive. A massive key to success is location and having the wit to know when to move on. If you said “Church Lane” to someone now they probably wouldn't know where it is, but in the Sixties it was a really trendy place to shop, now it's the Lisburn Road.

Northern Ireland women have always loved items that have the wow factor, be it a little black dress or a fishtail ballgown. Every item I buy has to be knock-out.

I remember one occasion a girl in full biker leather came into our shop — she was so un-Jourdan — but she wanted to get a dress for a ball she was going to.

The ladies cutting it in a material world ...

We found her this great red dress with a fishtail and she actually went and got an overdraft from the bank to buy it. A year later she came in and hugged me and showed me her engagement ring. She met her fiancé at the ball and told me his first comment to her was about her dress.

Another memorable customer was a wife of a president of an American airline who bought 22 outfits in one go; she even booked into The Europa so she could come back the next day.

She admired a piece of costume jewellery I was wearing, so I gave it to her. A couple of months later her husband arranged to have another one shipped to America, because his wife's had been stolen. It was crazy — that lady must have had such fabulous jewellery but she only wanted this £50 necklace.

A big challenge for independent retailers is buying. You have to know your customer inside out, but at the same time you need to impress the designer with your picks or else they might not be convinced to let you stock their collection.

I always go on buying trips alone — you have to be very confident because it's harder to make an impression without an entourage.”

Pat’s Must buy: Ribkoff Red wrap dress, £249.

Style advice: red is massive this season, faux fur will also be popular. After the Royal wedding, dresses with coats are a very popular look for mother of the brides.

Style icon: These people don't necessarily influence what I buy for my shop, but Tom Ford and Coco Chanel are just geniuses.

Business advice: Know your customer and research the area you plan to retail in.

‘Drop designers who just aren’t selling’

Aine McConaghy (36), is owner of Silk in The Quays, Newry. She lives in the city with her husband, Mark, and daughter Sarah (2) and twin girls Daisy and Amber (5 months). She says:

I was area manager for Kookai for 10 years, managing 13 shops before moving to Morgan for three years. In 2006 I decided I was experienced enough to set up my own shop and start to plan for my future.

I'm not from Newry, but I decided to open my shop here because that was always the area that lifted the most money when I was area manager for Kookai.

The recession has made it nail-biting at times, but we've learned how important it is to introduce new labels and drop designers that aren't selling.

We also upload pictures of our new stock on our Facebook page — it's instant advertising and it works. We’ve already sold out of our autumn orders of J Brand jeans and Barbour coats, which is funny because it isn't even cold enough yet to wear them.

In the last two years I’ve had my daughter and twins and also moved into a bigger shop, I'm exhausted, but that's only to be expected.

What keeps me sane is the fact that I’m so laid-back. I also make sure to make time for a meal out with my husband or a few nights away.”

Aine’s Must buy: Barbour jacket, £269.

Style advice: The equestrian look is big so team Barbour jackets with a pussy bow blouse, jeans and riding boots.

Style icon: Victoria Beckham, she looks fantastic.

Business advice: Being in a recession is a great opportunity to negotiate rent and short-term leases — just go for it.

‘Work hard to keep core customers’

Carol Turkington (56), is owner of Elegance in Lurgan where she lives with husband Brian (56) and their children Mark (27) and Kim (25). She says:

I’ve been running Elegance for 20 years, but prior to that my mother-in-law Hannah Turkington ran the business for 40 years. When she retired, the shop shut for a few years, then I opened it under the same name in the same town — Hannah was delighted.

Hannah didn't have the stiff competition I have from bigger retailers but she, too, found passing trade hard to come by. She worked hard to keep core customers and created a welcoming atmosphere. I’m trying to do the same.

Over the years the needs and style of women has changed — now my stock would be more casual than her stock was, though still of a luxury standard.

This is my first year at Belfast Fashionweek and I hope it will highlight Elegance as a fashion destination shop.

Many years ago I studied fashion and design in Belfast College of Art and have always been interested in fashion, but now my passion is retail and in my spare time I have been helping my son Mark set up his menswear company Cloth. It's on the floor above Elegance, so we’re going into our third generation of retailing.”

Carol’s Must buy: Ralph Lauren Blue, plaid coat, £570.

Style advice: Be confident, twist trends to suit your own style.

Style icon: I love what Kate Moss wears off the catwalk, be it in vintage, designer or in clothes from Topshop.

Business advice: Enjoy getting to know your customers and they will enjoy coming back.

‘Our market’s constantly changing’

Jocelyn Reynolds (29) owns Orchid Lingerie and The Bra Boutique in Belfast and The Lingerie Room in Dungannon with her mother, Evon McFarland. She lives in Moira with husband Stephen (32) and daughters Beth (4) and Sarah (2). She says:

My mum Evon bought The Lingerie Room in Dungannon ten years ago and I worked with her on Saturdays while I was training to be a nurse. But I gave up nursing in 2005 and started to work full-time in the business. Since then, we’ve bought over Orchid Lingerie on the Lisburn Road, Belfast, and last year set up The Bra Boutique in the city centre.

Actually, working as a nurse has in lot in common with selling lingerie because customers need to trust me, in the same way my patients did when I was a nurse. My medical knowledge is also reassuring when I am helping customers with mastectomies.

Our market’s constantly changing — recession or not — simply because people's tastes change. It's difficult going up against department stores, but we can react quicker to changes in the market than they can. We buy directly for our customers and buy conservatively. It's important for local businesses to help each other and I’m delighted we’re working with bridal designer Lizzie Agnew supplying underwear for brides.”

Jocelyn’s Must buy: the androgynous trend has filtered down to lingerie, so go for styles with pin stripes. Chantelle bra, from £52, brief, £26.

Style advice: try on as many bras as possible before buying. You may be a 34C in one style but not in another.

Style icon: It has to be Dianne Von Furstenberg.

Business advice: Know your product and always be passionate.

‘I’ve started putting clothes online’

Ruth Gamble, proprietor of Paparazzi in Lisburn lives in Lisburn with husband Bryan and son Kurtis (18). She says:

I opened Paparazzi the weekend that Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in 1997 — I'll never forget it, the name alone caused interest.

Before opening the shop I worked in the civil service for 15 years, but I saw a niche in the market for a mother and daughter fashion boutique in Lisburn.

The hardest factor for anyone running a business now is obviously the recession. There's less footfall, so I've started putting our clothes online. I'll sell more clothes and it's also allowed me to practice my photography.

Over the last 14 years I've expanded and had four shops at one point, but since the downturn I’ve consolidated to one. Retail constantly changes and you have to be smart and work hard to keep your business a success. One major problem that needs to be tackled is rising rates, which can be a killer for independent shops.”

Ruth’s Must buy: Elisa Caveletti shirts, £150-200.

Style advice: good boots, leggings and tunics.

Style icon: I love how Sarah Jessica Parker dresses in Victoria Beckham's fashion collection.

Business advice: tighten up your costs and work hard.

‘I wanted my own shop and to work for myself’

Blagheen Casement (27), is the |proprietor of Rebecca Jane boutique in Crossgar. She lives in the town with her husband, Chris. She says:

After school I studied fashion management at college for two years.

I was obsessed with fashion and knew that I eventually wanted my own shop and to work for myself.

I opened my first shop in Crossgar in 2003 and sold mainly accessories, but then I moved into bigger premises a few doors up and I now stock ladieswear, footwear and accessories.

This is my first year in Belfast Fashionweek and it will be a great way to show people just what my shop has to offer. It will also be good to get to know the people behind the shops that I like to shop in.

My friends always laugh that I buy clothes in other people's shops, but I just love stores like Rio and Brazil in Belfast.

When I’m not working in the shop I unwind by cooking and invite friends over for a big Mediterranean meal.”

Blagheen’s Must buy: YaYa grey cardigan with leather belt, that you can mix up with tunics or even skinny jeans, £89.95.

Style advice: layer cardigans and woollen dresses, the weather changes so fast now.

Style icon: Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Onassis.

Business advice: Don’t just buy the kind of stock that you want to wear, but also think of your customers.

‘We should be proud of our unique boutiques’

Sarah-Jane Knox (33) is the owner of Sarah-Jane Boutique in Magherafelt. She lives in the town with her husband, Stewart. She says:

Last year when I said to my friends and family that I was leaving my banking job to open a fashion boutique in the middle of a recession, they thought I'd lost the plot.

I knew it was a risk, but I was actually really surprised how interested the bank was in helping me get on my feet.

I’ve only known what it’s like to trade in a recession and have no idea what the good times were like, but I made realistic targets for the business and, thankfully, survived my first year.

I'm constantly doing paperwork, stock orders and sorting the marketing and advertising, but when I eventually do get some downtime I love to go swimming or go out on the town with my|girlfriends. It’s very important to unwind.

I think we should be proud of — and support — our boutiques in Northern Ireland, especially since there aren’t many similar shops in mainland UK.”

Sarah-jane’s Must buy: I’m really loving this |fabulous multi-coloured Lucidez dress with leather panels, £189.

Style advice: For autumn/winter team tunics and dresses with opaque tights.

Style icon: Jackie Onassis. I just loved her easy style. I'm tall, so some trends look silly on me.\[e.hagan\], so I tend to stick to tailoring and |minimal accessories.

Business advice: Women should never be afraid of opening their own venture, we need more women in business in Northern Ireland.

What to see at Fashionweek

  • Tickets for Fashionweek’s big shows at the Europa Hotel, Belfast, Oct 13, 14 and 15, cost £15. Catwalk shows start at 8pm. To book, contact the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau. Tel: 028 9024 6609 or go to www.belfastfashionweek.com
  • Cream Teas and Catwalks at the Culloden Estate and Spa, Oct 15, 2-4pm, features clothes from luxury retailer, Cruise, at Victoria Square. Tickets (£25pp) include a West Coast Cooler cocktail on arrival, tea/coffee, sandwiches, pastries, desserts and scones with clotted cream and jam. To book, contact the Culloden. Tel: 028 9042 1066.
  • Style Sunday at James Street South, Belfast, Oct 16, at 1pm, is an intimate look at fashion with local designer Una Rodden and Lisburn Road boutiques, Please Don’t Tell and Orchid Lingerie. Tickets (£45pp) include a three course luncheon and cocktail. To book, tel: 028 9043 4310. The event is being held in aid of Mencap.

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