Style queen Cathy Martin talks to Stephanie Bell about the huge success of Belfast’s fashion showcase. The PR guru also opens her heart about about the premature baby she lost and how her daughter Valentina has brought pure joy to the lives of her and her husband.
The excitement is building as Belfast prepares to once again serve up a feast of key season catwalk trends in the spectacular showcase that is West Coast Cooler Fashionweek.
Now an essential fix for the city’s fashionistas, the sell-out week-long series of shows celebrate all that is good about the fashion industry in Northern Ireland, bringing together all the current trends from the high street, local designers and independent boutiques.
The runaway success of the biannual event, which is now in its 14th season, is something its creator and director Cathy Martin says she could never have anticipated when she launched her very first show back in 2005.
“It sells out every season and is such a huge success that it is way beyond what I could ever have imagined,” she says.
“We try to make each one bigger and better than the last and this season we are delighted to again have something really different, new and exciting, with a really cool set and the best models from throughout the island of Ireland and beyond.”
For local retailers it offers a superb showcase for their collections and has helped put many of the province’s bespoke boutiques on the style-conscious audience’s radar.
Promoting the local fashion industry is at the heart of Fashionweek, as Cathy explains: “Initially the idea was to create something for fashion retailers who have small budgets which would allow them to pool their resources and come together for a huge event through which they could target consumers.
“What sets us apart from London, Paris, New York and Milan is that we are on season. What you see on the catwalk you can go out and buy the next day which the audience also love and it is of immediate benefit to the shops and designers who are creating the looks.”
Such is the huge amount of work involved that when one Fashionweek ends, work begins immediately on the next series of shows, with venues booked up to three years in advance.
For Cathy it is a labour of love and she has ensured that the show has gone on despite facing some traumatic challenges in her personal life.
Last year she suffered the agony of losing her first baby, Rosie, who was stillborn when Cathy went into premature labour.
Cathy has bravely talked about the pain of her loss to help raise awareness of the need for more research into stillbirth and neo-natal death.
She coped by throwing herself into work and no one would have guessed the deep inner pain she felt as she ensured just a few weeks later that her fashion extravaganza was as spectacular as ever.
“I still think of Rosie every single day,” she admits. “Keeping busy does help and I’m lucky to have great support at work and among my clients.”
And there was joy for Cathy and husband Julian Jordan in January this year when their second daughter, Valentina, was born.
Within hours of giving birth, Cathy was taking a conference call from her hospital bed — co-ordinating a fashion event.
She was back in the office just days later and those who know her well were not in the least surprised to see her arrive for meetings with a peaceful Valentina tucked up asleep in her Moses basket.
“When you own your own business you have to get back to work and so I just got on with it, bringing Valentina with me,” says Cathy.
“She is nine months old now, so she doesn’t come to work with me anymore. We have a great au pair who looks after her, but I do enjoy having breakfast with her in the morning and taking her for a walk before I go to work.
“I also make sure I am home for dinner and bath time, that’s one of my favourite times. She is a very happy baby and is surrounded by family and friends who adore her.”
Cathy is passionate about her work and in particular her other baby, which is Fashionweek.
She adds: “The day I get tired of it is the day I stop doing it. I just love it. It is so exciting seeing it all come together and there is such a buzz and it just makes me really happy.
“Even seeing the coverage in the newspapers and magazines gives me a thrill.”
NI boutique owners tell how Fashionweek has made a difference to their businesses
Ruth Parkes (55) left her teaching career in her 20s to join her partner Ruth Rankin, also 55, and their husbands in a new fashion venture that has evolved into the massive high street fashion chain Exhibit. Ruth says:
“Our husbands ran a small chain of fashion boutiques for older women and wanted to open a new shop for a younger clientele.
Ruth joined the company and a year later I decided to give up teaching and also joined. You have a dream, but I don’t think any of us expected it to grow as much as it did. We are now one of the leading independent fashion retailers in the province, with 25 shops, five of which are in the Republic of Ireland.
Ruth and I are the head buyers and we have been very hands-on to ensure we get the right products. We analyse sales every day and keep a close eye on what our customers are buying.
We translate the latest trends from the catwalk, celebrities and the street as fast as we can, providing our customers with fashion that is bang on trend — and great value.
When we first opened we didn’t have nearly as many high street fashion shops as we do now, so there is a lot of competition.
During the current economic downturn we have kept our principles the same — keeping staff motivated to give the customers great service and continually looking for new designers, manufacturers and suppliers to get the best prices so we can offer the best value for money.
This is our third season with Fashionweek and we feel it has really lifted the Exhibit brand onto a whole new level. We are excited to show the fashion-buying public of Belfast what great styles we have on offer for this autumn/winter 2012, especially as we celebrate our 30th birthday this year.”
Diamond Dolls Boutique in Banbridge, set up by Brenda Part, supplied the outfit that has created the stunning imagery to promote this year’s Fashionweek. Brenda says:
“This is our second year showing at Fashionweek after a wonderful time last season.
When we found out a dress we supplied for the campaign shoot was going to be seen by hundreds of thousands of people we were so happy. The image is beautiful and the colours mirror perfectly this season’s colour palette.
I opened Diamond Dolls a year and a half ago in the middle of a recession and it was a gamble, but thankfully my vision is paying off. We are in a unique old bank building that is flooded with light and I have done it up inside in a very theatrical renaissance style so that if feels very grand.
I wanted to create a range of fashion that was a little bit different and quirky and had something for everyone so we have sizes 6 to 18, cater for ages 16 to 60-plus and our prices range from £15 to £1,000.
The clothes are from all over Europe and are very unusual.
We want everyone who comes into the shop to find something that will be admired on them and not just leave the shop with something because it is a sale for us.
Personally, I would like to see everyone in Northern Ireland take pride in their appearance and be full of self worth and look as good as they possibly can — something fashion has the power to do.”
Noelle Rea (54) opened her designer boutique Natoria in Larne 12 years ago with the aim of offering fashionistas something a little bit different and special. She says:
“I had always worked in fashion and wanted to open a shop of my own, as back then there really wasn’t a nice clothes shop in Larne. The shop is high-end and we cater for all ages, from 20
through to 70, with a range of designer brands such as D’Exterior, Blue Blanc Rough, Hoss and Airfield.
I suppose you could describe our fashion as smart casual. We have a large range of very loyal clientele and we find that once someone comes into the shop and they like our range and brands, they always come back. We have customers who come from as far away as Londonderry and Armagh, and we pride ourselves on our customer care, taking time with each lady to ensure they are happy with their purchases and going that extra mile if we can do anything to help.
We also have a beautiful collection of shoes from Mary G and jewellery, cashmere and scarves from Caroline and About Face. We launched our website in December of last year and are now selling our favourite products online throughout Europe. We first took part in Belfast Fashionweek in March this year and we were very impressed with it. We are looking forward to again showcasing some fabulous fashion to the people of Belfast.”
Holly Harrison (28) runs Harrison boutique on the Lisburn Road, Belfast, with her sister Zoe. Holly says:
“When we opened the shop five years ago it was initially to specialise in denim, although it has evolved since then and you can now buy casual tops to go with your jeans, party dresses and outfits for older ladies as well.
Our focus is on premium denim and we take a lot of time with our customers, helping them to find the right jeans to suit them —it is something that you can’t really do on your own and so our customer service is a big part of what we offer.
We find women coming into the shop saying that jeans just don’t work for them. We also have women who would never wear skinnies who leave the shop with a pair of skinny jeans; it’s all about getting the right ones.
All the girls know the different body shapes and how different styles of jeans best fit each one. High-waist jeans are back and in big demand because they are more flattering.
We are looking forward to Fashionweek. It definitely gives your business a boost and it brings everyone together for a fantastic night out, there is a great buzz about it.”
Glenda Wilson (35) is manager of the well-known Dungannon boutique Snooty Fox, which was established 25 years ago and has a clientele that stretches across Northern Ireland and the Republic. Glenda says:
“Our range of fashion is from intermediate to high-end with some big designers. Five years ago we opened up the first floor to more contemporary labels for the 18-to-45 age group.
We have everything from casual wear to formal wear and all occasions. It is an eclectic mix of brands from Karl Lagerfeld, Ian Stuart, Marella, Leslie Monte Carlo to Vivienne Westwood, Olivia Rubin and Forever Unique.
I think what has made the shop so successful is our brand profile and the fact that we have been at the forefront of offering quality and something different. We pride ourselves on being a leader, not a follower of fashion.
With the recession, women have been more cautious about what they buy and more women are creating capsule wardrobes with key pieces that they are making work for them for different occasions.
We do have some price point labels and one of them, BT2, is one of our best sellers because it is such good quality. Women still want quality and to look good but are just that bit more discerning about how they spend their money. This is our first time doing Fashionweek and we are really looking forward to showing Belfast that there is high fashion outside of the city.”
Aileen Wilson has created a one stop shop for the big occasions in a girl’s life at her couture bridal salon and fashion boutique, Blush, on the Lisburn Road, Belfast. Aileen says:
“We have clients who travel from Glasgow, Manchester and London to buy their wedding dresses because we specialise in very sought-after designers, such as New York’s Elizabeth Fillmore.
“A big thing for us is sourcing designers and dresses which are made in the UK rather than the big factories in China and we try to offer a collection which is a little bit different.
We know how special a wedding dress is so we created a very special changing room. We have a lighting system which allows us to recreate whatever season a girl is getting married in so that she can see how her dress will look in that light. We also have a mirrored catwalk so that the bride-to-be can walk up and down to her heart’s content and get a really good feel for her dress.
Our special occasions collections are aimed at any big event — weddings, mothers of the bride, 21st birthday parties or a day at the races.
As the only bridal shop showing at Fashionweek, I think it really sets our dresses apart and shows just how different, stylish and very beautiful they are.”