Having worked in the family business for four decades, Joan Dixon, tells Jane Hardy how the Coleraine fashion retailer, main sponsors of the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year awards, still cuts a dash.
Among the many fashion shops in Northern Ireland selling must-have labels and providing glamour alongside good customer service, Dixon's of Coleraine holds a special place in local shoppers’ hearts. And the Dixon family, a kind of retail dynasty covering four generations since setting up shop at the end of the nineteenth century, have quite a record.
At the head of this dynasty, matriarch of the Dixons, Joan (71), says that the secret of the family's success is due in large part to excellent customer service, including the personal touch.
“It's about being hands on, I used to be on the floor on my knees in the shop , pinning up hems. It's a question of being there, getting to know your customers and giving good service. You go the extra mile. Going into shops today, the assistants can't stop talking to register you're there.”
What is particularly impressive about Joan's career is that she has successfully juggled it with motherhood.
She has three grown-up children; Barbara, Janet and Ian, who have all entered the family business. Ian is MD, Barbara and Janet are both directors and fashion buyers. As Joan acknowledges, she had good support when her children were small.
“When they were very young, Vera Ravenhill, who's now 90 and has an MBE for her work with young people, was brilliant. She was a very kind neighbour and looked after the children for me for a couple of hours a couple of times a week, without expecting any pay.”
Joan says she has happy memories of when her children were small — all three were born within five years — and she had “two prams on the go, with Vera pushing one and me the other”.
Joan herself could easily qualify for two of the Belfast Telegraph of the Year awards, Businesswoman of the Year and Mum of the Year. She says motherhood was her first priority after her marriage to Harold Dixon, now 78, and the former MD of the well known Coleraine clothes business.
“We met when Harold, who started out as managing director at just 28 after his father died from a heart attack at 59, was sent to Corbett's fashion shop in Portrush. I worked there and two years later, in 1957, we married. Barbara came along in 1958 and then the two other children.”
But Joan's desire to make Dixons the style hub of the North Coast meant she was never destined to be simply a supportive wife and mother.
She wanted to get involved, partly because she loved fashion and partly because she saw the need. Joan, who also did some modelling as a young woman, explains: “I felt at that stage I needed to have an influence. After all, I had the experience and I found it difficult sometimes to find what I wanted in the store.”
In a way, Joan was in the early days a kind of mystery shopper and so she started on her brilliant career, shaping the identity of the iconic store, now 10,000 sq ft of fashion with a Gerry Webber satellite in the Lisburn Road, Belfast and two outlets in Newtownards, that caters for the sartorial needs of many women in the north coast area and beyond.
Asked what her definition of style is, Joan says: “In a way, it's to do with women feeling comfortable in what they're wearing. We try and help women to choose what's right for them. It's important to suit the customer.” She will admit to finding the modern trend for totally casual garb unattractive. “Oh, jeans are okay, we sell designer jeans, but I don't like very casual wear. I sometimes think people aren't doing themselves any favours.”
She particularly enjoyed the two or three buying trips abroad that she and eventually her daughters went on every year. “A few years back I stopped going — me and my daughters all walking into a show no longer seemed right.”
Over the years, many well known people have dropped in for a special outfit. Joan remembers one of their customers was Secretary of State in Northern Ireland, Douglas Hurd's wife, Judith.
“Judith Hurd came along for evening outfits. And Jane Prior, the wife of Jim, another Tory Secretary of State, used to drop by for something smart. Not hats, though.”
The changes in style and clothes over Joan's involvement in the retail trade are remarkable. She says now: “When I started working, back in the Sixties, it was a different world. At Easter, people always got a new outfit and a hat, their Easter bonnet and we always had a busy Sunday before Harvest. But we've changed with the times.”
Although Dixons didn't go for the mini-est of mini skirts in the 1960s, the store has introduced the best of new European and London fashion to Northern Ireland. The labels Joan likes reveal this — “Basler, of course, Oui, and although my personal style is more classic I do like clothes by Oska that are a wee bit more flamboyant”.
Her list of stylish women includes some well known names. “I think Joanna Lumley always looks elegant. Also, I have to say that ex-Irish president Mary McAleese dresses very well and when the Queen was in Ireland always looked stylish.”
On the vexed question of the Duchess of Cambridge's style, Joan is diplomatic. “Kate Middleton wears clothes that are a bit cautious for her age, although I thought she looked good wearing red in Copenhagen meeting the new generation of Danish royals. She and William are clearly in love and that helps but maybe she could trim her hair, there's an awful lot of it.”
Joan has, inevitably, had an influence on husband Harold’s wardrobe. “Yes, he had a tartan shirt that he took on holiday for about 20 years, often not wearing it, because he said it wanted to go. And yes, I binned it.”
Today, the seventysomething who still looks good in a leather jacket, says that she's going to enjoy putting her formidable energies into different directions. Joan retired a few weeks ago and hasn't stopped since.
“Just after I retired, we had a family wedding. My grandson Adam Davidson, married a Japanese girl he met in Bath when he was doing his PhD. It was a lovely wedding for him and Yui.”
Joan is also cultivating her garden — “I've got a beautiful winter bed with violas and am planning more.”
One thing Joan will be doing is going on cruises. She and Harold enjoy periods of time on the ocean wave and most recently, they flew to New York before taking a Caribbean cruise. “I love dressing up on cruises and wearing evening clothes. We went to quite a few of the Caribbean islands on our trip, including St Thomas and St Lucia. We had a stopover in New York before heading for our cruise.”
Charity work will undoubtedly take up some of Joan's time. In the 1970s, she tirelessly raised money for the Save the Children Fund by organising fashion shows. “I was on the SCF committee for over 20 years and put on several fashion shows with the help of the Brian Matthew model agency. We used to raise upwards of £1,200.” On Seventies fashion, Joan simply says “What a variety, yes, cheesecloth, long dresses, a bit of everything.”
Dixons has come a long way since it started out more than a century ago as the town's draper's shop. “My husband's grandfather started it and he employed up to 10 tailors who you can see in photos sitting cross-legged on the floor and he was there with his measuring tape.”
Although they never sold hot pants, about which Joan sounds quite glad, Dixons had the first boutique in Coleraine. “It did okay, catering for the young and trendy.” Then came the men's department, where Joan's grandson William now works as assistant, occasional buyer and, an obvious multi-tasker, as the wages clerk — “he's very good with computers”.
The secret to successful business, according to Joan, is knowing your market. “We don't compete with the high street or cater for the younger market now. Topshop is right opposite us and they do that. We cater for the thirty, forty, fiftysomething woman and give her exactly what she wants.”
As she says, they believe in the personal touch and Joan has always had some customers who want to be served by her and gain from her expertise, as well as enjoying talking to the woman with the rapid, humorous turn of phrase.
Today Joan remains totally on trend and daughter Janet says with an affectionate laugh: “Oh, she looks better than all of us.”
For the photo shoot, Joan wore an outfit from the family store and chose her favourite label, Basler. “I'm wearing a Basler jacket, like an animal print but with a sheen, plus black trousers. I do shop at Dixons and yes, I'm going to miss it terribly after 46 years.”
She admits to having been back since her recent retirement to help out on busy days. One senses that Joan and the store she has helped shape and make successful have not parted for good.