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The NI woman looking after Diana's legacy

Sandara Kelso Robb presented headgear to Prince Charles, Diana and the Duchess of Kent before hanging up her millinery dreams for life-changing charity work

By Una Brankin

When Sandara Kelso Robb made a black pill-box hat for Princess Diana in 1988, she never dreamt that one day she would be made an ambassador for a national organisation set up as a lasting legacy to the princess.

The former milliner, from Straid in Newtwonabbey, was named in a Downing Street ceremony last year as a Diana Award Ambassador for Northern Ireland, a role which honours young people – nominated by their schools and communities – in recognition of their contribution to society.

Now the executive director of the Lloyds TSB Foundation for Northern Ireland, and strategic adviser to the new Giving Northern Ireland charity, Sandara's hat-making days are long behind her but she will never forget that royal encounter.

"It was a silk and lace pill-box I made especially for Diana. I was given the nod that Prince Charles would be stopping by my stand at a Prince's Youth Business Trust exhibition in Birmingham and I'd made a silly Prince of Wales golf beret for him too," she laughs.

"We had a good laugh at that – he was very down to earth and went off chuckling. I don't know if Diana ever wore the hat but it was her style at the time and I made it to suit her face shape."

Diana did wear a black pill-box hat with a Chanel suit at one of her much-photographed events but Sandara (50) isn't certain it was hers. She did, however, present another one of her creations in person to the Duchess of Kent, at a NI Small Businesses Institute event at Hillsborough Castle.

"It was a pale blue picture hat trimmed with little cream feathers," she recalls, speaking down the line from her Gasworks Buildings office. "She was very good-looking, absolutely lovely and very quietly spoken. She is a hat wearer and seemed genuinely interested in the hat-making process.

"I also made Margaret Thatcher a black beret made with leather from Killyleagh. I met her at another exhibition of small businesses in Hillsborough Castle – it was a strange meeting as I tried to gift her a hat and she proceeded to give me a telling-off in front of all the cameras saying that I'd never make a profit if I gave products away. "She insisted I invoice her and I remember sitting at my typewriter, typing out an invoice to Mrs Thatcher, 10 Downing Street. I got a personal cheque by return!"

Sandara's unusual first name is a combination of her christened names Sarah and Alexandra, after both her grandmothers. When she went into the world of fashion 'Sandara' seemed a little more exotic than 'Sandra'. Her surname is a mix of her maiden name Kelso and her husband's surname, Robb; she chose to use a double-barrelled name as she is the last in her family circle with the Kelso moniker, which has it roots in Scotland, home of the eponymous racecourse. Her daughter Lana (17) – named after the Hollywood actress Lana Turner – has also retained Kelso as a middle name to keep it going for a little while longer.

Sandara grew up in Mossley, Newtownabbey, as an only child in a working-class family.

After attending Ballyclare High School, Sandara graduated with a BA (Hons) in Textile Design at the University of Ulster and with a Chartered Institute of Marketing Postgraduate Diploma. Head-wear of all kinds was very much in vogue when she designed a few hats for her degree show in the mid-Eighties, and she was accepted for a postgraduate course in hat design alongside a business course at the Northern Ireland Small Business Institute.

"When the hat business started to take off I had to take the decision to give up the postgrad course," she recalls. "I won the NI Livewire Award, was the runner-up in the UK Livewire Award and won a few other young entrepreneur titles, which was all great in terms of publicity for the business.

"Initially I worked from home and then moved into a little studio in Belfast, but I ended up going to Harvard to study public relations and that led to a job as a fashion buyer for Filenes, a House of Fraser sort of store in Boston, while still making my hats."

But just when business was booming, multi-tasking Sandara tired of it.

"Quite simply I got bored," she admits. "All my clients wanted hats hand-made by me, so there was little opportunity to contract the designs out to be manufactured. I did have a few clients who lived abroad who gave me free rein with the designs, but some of my local clients had quite conservative tastes. It was when I was doing the PR course at Harvard that I realised that I was finding the PR and marketing of the business more interesting than the designing."

And so Sandara came back home and took up a post with the Simon Community, then went on to NIMBA (now the Tiny Life charity) as chief executive. At that time she was the youngest charity CEO in NI.

The first official voluntary work Sandara undertook was with Corrymeela, where she taught arts and crafts at a Prisoners' Wives and Families Week, as well as raising funds.

"It's a long way from my current voluntary charitable work," says Sandara. "I now prefer to be more engaged with the people and organisations I am donating to or giving time to.

"I co-founded Ireland's first Giving Circle, Give Inc, having come across the model in the US.

"Our circle comprises a number of businesswomen who each donate £1 per day via direct debit and we meet four times a year to decide who to donate to. We've just passed the £40,000 mark which proves that a little given regularly can add up to a lot.

"Giving Northern Ireland has only been officially launched within the last year but has been very well received – our aim is to get more people to give more and to do so more strategically. People in Northern Ireland are very generous donors and we want to build on that. If they plan their giving, no matter how small or large an amount, they will have more engagement with the good causes they support and the causes will be able to do more with increased sustainability. We have a very exciting programme of events for 2014 including Philanthropy Fortnight in May and an international conference in June," she said.

For someone with a flurry of social events to attend, ironically Sandara doesn't wear hats – not even when she met Camilla on the Royal visit to Ballyclare two years ago.

"I have a very small head and hats make it look even smaller," she laughs. "I loved the Philip Treacy hat that Camilla wore to her wedding to Prince Charles.

"It was very flattering.

"She was very nice and talked away about her son's restaurant business and food. Of course these people are trained how to focus their attention on you but she was genuinely very down-to-earth."

Ever the diplomat, Sandara won't be drawn to comment on the disastrous toilet-bowl confection Princess Beatrice had perched on her head at the most recent royal wedding. "I like all hats!" she protests. "I'm just sorry my head's too tiny to wear them."


What's the secret of your success?

Hard work, self-improvement and always working with something I feel passionate about. I love learning new things and meeting new people and I have a difficulty saying 'No', which can be good and bad."

How has the recession affected your charities?

It's hard for everybody out there, particularly in Northern Ireland – more people are facing desperate times, homelessness, having to get support from food banks. The charities supporting them are stretched to the limits with increased demands for services and decreased funding. And yet in some ways that has made a lot of the public realise how lucky they are for what they have got. Now is not the time to stop giving and it's not just about giving money, it can be about volunteering your time or giving some special skills. And it is very true that you get so much back from giving – I often refer to it as 'getting more warm fuzzies from giving than from Readybrek!'

What are your ultimate ambitions?

To win the Lottery and set up my own foundation supporting young people in their philanthropic journeys.

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