In 2004 Shauna Shiels found herself with three weeks to make her daughter Codie an Irish dancing costume.
Eight years later she now owns Doire Dress Designs, a company employing 14 staff making between ten and 15 dresses every week.
Explaining how it all started she said, “We had bought two dresses from a Belfast company but when Codie’s dance teacher saw them she didn’t like them - and they always have the final say because you take their advice.
“I was at home with my kids as my youngest child John-Paul was only one at the time, so I decided to have a go at making Codie a dress myself. My mum made wedding and bridesmaid dresses so she taught me well. I was also making my own clothes from a very young age. But tackling an Irish dancing costume was very new to me.
“I was fortunate enough to have been taught some basics from local dressmaker Edna Simpson the year before but they were the old skirt patterns and I was determined to make a new template so the dress fitted Codie exactly. That alone took me five or six hours - but it’s still the template we would use to this day!”
This new way of making a one-off designer dress involved cutting out the bodice and skirt individually, rather than working with pre-ordered template designs.
Shauna also used unusual fabrics and it was the close-fitting form and pattern that made Codie stand out.
“I had used a striped fabric which would have been very modern at the time, and the skirt sat differently than others because it was made specifically for Codie. At the competition there were lots of other mums and teachers asking me where I had bought the dress - and when they discovered it was me, they were asking me to make theirs too. I still love that wee dress.”
And so it started.
“Soon I was making dresses from home. It was just one here and there but I always knew I could do it on a larger scale. It was just the fear that was holding me back. Then I managed to get two sewing machines when Desmonds factory closed but I was working long days, getting up at 5am before the children were up, and working on after they went to bed at night.”
To start with Shauna’s business was run from a large shed in their back garden, before they expanded to a room above a shop a few doors up from the family home.
Now, after moving three years ago the business is based in an industrial estate with a busy workshop employing 14 people.
The space is filled to bursting with coloured material, thousands of Swarovski crystals, five sewing machines working constantly, as well as staff hand sewing and applying details and sparkle to individual dresses.
Shauna continues, “Each dress can take up to 30hours each to make and we have two product ranges. The gold range starts at anything between £600-900 and our premium Platinum range starts between £800-1200. This next few months will be really busy as the qualifiers for the world championships start, so we’re booked out fully between now and November.
“At the start it was so confidence boosting when people bought my dresses, nowadays I’m so delighted to be able to employ staff and keep the business going.
“People have said that we’re now regarded as ‘one of the biggest dress designers’ and that still takes me by surprise, I’m just a wee mummy from Derry! But we are also probably the only company who wasn’t a judge or adjudicator for the competitions beforehand.
“I just love designing and I’m always getting inspiration from all over the place. If I see a building or a shape I like somewhere I get my phone out, I take pictures everywhere.”
Business for Shauna these days also includes a lot of commissions from abroad.
“Around 60% of our work is for the overseas market. America is definitely our biggest market but we do ship out to Australia and New Zealand too.
“I would travel to America about three times a year to fairs and Irish dancing events. I’m just back from North Carolina and Philadelphia and there are trips planned to Florida and California for later this year. My daughter Tomasina comes to a lot of overseas trips with me, she understands the business and she knows how to measure and advise customers too. They’re very much working trips though, we could be working from 7am to 10pm for five days straight. I try and see some of the places we visit but generally we’re working.”
Designing is also going in another direction, as Shauna explains, “We’ve recently made a few professional boxing outfits for Paul McCloskey and Eamon O’Kane and I love doing them. They’re really loud and bold, especially for big fights.”
Shauna’s daughter Codie is also still competing. “She’ll hopefully be going to the World Champoinships this year in Montreal, Canada if she qualifies. So I’m still an Irish dancing mum as well as running Doire Dress Designs!”
You see more dresses at www.doiredressdesigns.com