Saturday, May 30, 2015

From pop-ups to Hillcrest, back to family roots

When Shirley Kavanagh Hallion opened her Secret Kloset fashion outlet shop on Hillcrest just five weeks ago, she was putting down business roots not far from where some of her family roots are, writes Brian Byrne.

"My mother's parents were from Kilgowan, and though we were Dubliners, we were regularly brought down there to visit our grandparents," she recalls. "It was a small cottage on a bit of land, and there wasn't really a lot for us to do."

But that changed when Shirley and her siblings were teenagers, and they could come camping with their friends and all of a sudden Kilgowan was a lot more fun. Years later, all her family but one of her sisters had come back to Kilgowan to make their homes. Including Shirley, though she moved further down the road a bit to Crookstown last year following the death of her husband.

"Some of my friends were wondering if I was mad to be setting up a business after having had such a difficult year, as a newly single parent with two children," she told me last week, after a very successful Open Evening at the shop. "But for some reason, it just seems like the right time."

Shirley knows the fashion business inside out. She has spent 25 years in it ever since realising that her original job as a dental nurse wasn't what she really wanted to stay with. She began working in fashion for friends, then became deeply involved at retail, wholesale, production and buying. She took some years out when she had her children, but stayed in touch with the industry.

"When I came back to it, I worked in Fashion City, the wholesale centre off the M50. Over the last couple of years I also did some regular pop-up shops as a sideline in this area, and built up a terrific mailing list of customers."

Shirley had her eye on setting up something permanent in Kilcullen, a community which she really likes. Through an introduction by the Jennifer Monahan half of J & A Shabby Chic next door, she was able to do an acceptable deal with the new owners of Hillcrest. "Jennifer was actually one my neighbours in Dublin, so it's very much being with friends."

Her network of friends in the fashion industry too, helps her to offer high end clothing at affordable prices. "I'm able to buy sample collections and end of lines, and so far I haven't had to do too much travelling to buy. But things have taken off so well, I know that won't last, and I will have to travel further soon."

Just like at the buying end, Shirley's retail side is also very much about networks, of customers. The pop-up shops, and the word-of-mouth bush telegraph that is women and clothing, means that Shirley already had a solid customer base before she ever opened the Secret Kloset.

Her fashion experience has also developed a strong skill in styling for individuals, and she offers that as a complimentary service. "There are people who genuinely don't know what suits them, and they appreciate this. I'll also give them ideas on how to adapt something they already have to suit an occasion, and even if somebody like that doesn't buy at the time, I know they'll be back."

Even though Kilcullen isn't a key shopping town, it has advantages for the kind of customer Shirley attracts. It's easy to get to from Naas or Newbridge or Carlow, and is less than an hour from Dublin. Parking isn't an issue, and the kind of one-to-one interaction which is a hallmark of her retail modus operandi is easier to manage away from the High Street rush. "And my regulars from the pop-up shops are delighted that I'm somewhere full-time, it means there's less panic-buying because I'd only be around for a few days."

With signs of a brighter economy, it's another reason why Shirley has opened the Secret Kloset at this time. "In my last months in Fashion City I could see it coming. The buyers coming in were ordering more, they weren't being as restricted in their budgets as they have been for the last few years. For lots of reasons, this is the right time."