Our county capital evolving as a national destination for Fashion

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Maria Field, Ela Maria's Boutique. Photo: Cian Reinhardt
Maria Field, Ela Maria's Boutique. Photo: Cian Reinhardt

“NEWCASTLE West has been a fashion capital for as long as I can remember,” observes Margaret Hannan, one of the town’s many entrepreneurs in the sector.

Also heading up the GAA Club on a voluntary level,  Margaret runs Delicate, the lingerie outlet on  North Quay. “The town would have always had drapers’ shops but then, Ela Maria opened its doors and following on from that, All Seasons opened. Deirdre Cussen had a boutique on the corner and from that cornerstone, Kimono then opened.

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“The rest of the shops seem to have filtered out from there.”

In previous dealings with Newcastle West for our Fashion pages, Limerick Post has observed how together the retailers are, supportive of each other’s mission and individuality.

Case in point was October 6’s fundraiser by Newcastle West GAA when each and every one of the local boutiques, men’s outfitters and shoe stores pulled together to stage a fashion show in the Long Court Hotel. Several thousand was made for the town’s St Ita’s Hospital in one afternoon, working with Ursula Stokes Agency.  Margaret Hannan confirms that every cent made, less professional costs, goes to the hospital and its many services.

Now, back to the retail powerhouse that is Newcastle West.

Ela Maria has pride of place in the beautiful square, three floors of envy-stirring loveliness comprised of finery, shoes and accessories.

One of two sisters running the show, Elaine Murrihy and Maria Field, Maria credits her mother Mary Hayes with setting up this landmark boutique some 37 years ago. “She was teaching fulltime and the business grew out of having to pay off a farm loan at home. She set up a boutique up the street and when she realised she had lots of clientele travelling to her, my sister Elaine joined the business and then I joined two years later.”

The family was able to acquire different properties occupying the ground floor of The Square House and finally, were able to take out all of the period building. It’s a beaut. “There are loads of little boutiques surrounding us. I suppose in the last ten or 15 years, they have mushroomed up around.”

What profile do these upmarket boutiques attract?

“There are all different price levels,” is the first point the retailer makes clear. “It is all about finding something that is not on the high street – and that is the big thing about Newcastle West as a shopping destination, that people are getting lovely attention and meeting the owners of the shops when they come to the store.”

Indeed, throughout our day of being roving reporters, Cian Reinhardt and Rose Rushe met a beautiful  welcome at every stop on the road, from our hosts Dan Cronin’s Bar and The Long Court Hotel, to historian Pat O’Donovan and the Desmond Complex day centre.

Maria nods in agreement. “People get that individual help and attention and then, the business owners work together. You can have a great coffee or lunch across the road, visit another shop, and parking is no headache. All in all it is a nice experience.”

Ela Maria has 80+ labels and the various retailers concentrate on building their own collection of clothing lines, with no copycat behaviours. There is respect for the other person and recognition of the principle of individuality as each company foward-buys for the next season.

“You start getting deliveries from before Christmas onwards for Spring/ Summer 2020.”

Buyers go to London, meeting agents who represent European designers and merchandisers in their UK based warehouses. She makes the point that all the local traders offer a different look; that the menswear shops are every bit as fashion-forward looking; that accessories and shoes shops are another complementary dimension to what the town offers.

Buying per season overseas sounds like work but fiercely interesting, this cycle of exploration for what is new and will translate well back at home. In Milan,  Germany, Paris: “We kind of handpick.” Yet the eye of a true fashionista is required. It cannot be a simple process, accumulating expensive stock that will not sell for at another four months or so.

The fashion world is not for wussies or the lazy. Anne Melinn, who heads up Fashion Dept in Limerick School of Art and Design, was clear about this in a Limerick Post page profile in June this year.

Maria Field explains the process. “We move in and out of the different fairs. The fairs are more for inspiration, what are the trends going forward, the different colours.”

Staying loyal to your client and core labels is another principle for staying power.

“Really, our fashion here is very European based. We in Newcastle West would all be on the same track, all travelling at the same time of year but our appointments are individual.”

Milliners are Ireland based such as Emily Jean O’Byrne from Galway, Siobhán Boyce from Cork.

Parenthood is the other challenge for rag trade homemakers as “you are buying during holiday time, when the kids are off school. That is the biggest bother.”

The cluster of Newcastle West boutiques makes for catnip to the long distance traveller from Cork, Dublin, Galway. “People come all the way from Clare by ferry, they come over from Tipp. We have so many places for lunch and parking is good. We have all these services as we are at the heart of the Golden Vale and are the capital of the county.”

What about the business acumen essential to thrive?

Maria pauses, but not for long. “I suppose that first of all, you have to know your customer. What you feel that your loyal customers over the year will be looking to you for.  You have so many coming to you season on season. They love something new, love to think that you are thinking of them.

“It’s not about dressing yourself, it is about dressing the customer.”

Now for A/W tips on how to dress for work-to-play scenarios in the months ahead:

“An awful lot of the dresses that are in season at this moment, you can change them from day into evening. The longer length definitely helps, I think, with the footwear that goes with them. A long floaty dress with sleeves going into Winter, wearing it with a pair of chunky boots or smart runners during the day. When you are going out to work, throw on a leather jacket with it, another layer.

“Going out to meet friends that evening, you are going to change the shoes, lift the heel, change the boots or shoes to lift you up, and you feel that bit more ‘after 6’.”

An alternate look?

“It is always lovely to have a nice blouse and skirt. I am a trousers person myself and there are loads of options there. You could have leather skinny pull-ups with a longer sweater, or a nice pants with a defined waist – a little bit softer on the leg but tapered in so I can still wear my runners but change into a heel after work.”

Men’s outfitters offer similar savvy in styling customers and take the time. Doing the town, it is clear that Newcastle West makes for an exceptionally focused destination, defined by charm and business nous as much as those gorgeous shop windows that rival Milan’s.