Tuesday 23 December 2014

Something old, something new, and something very different...

60 Second Pitch: The unique force behind the Folkster and Shutterbug brands

Published 17/08/2014 | 02:30

HIGH-FLYING FASHIONISTA: Stylist Blanaid Hennessy owns Shutterbug Vintage in Kilkenny and is also the brains behind the popular online and in-store contemporary brand Folkster — the Temple Bar outlet is pictured above

From humble beginnings, Blanaid Hennessy has not only created an Aladdin's cave-like shopping experience in her Kilkenny store, but also a brand which has moved with its expanding fan base and continued to offer customers more.

Since opening on Kilkenny's main street - with the support of what Blanaid calls "a wonderful group of family, customers and team members" four years ago - Shutterbug Vintage has become more than just another vintage clothes shop.

Recently the store has moved on to become the all-encompassing Folkster brand - a mixture of Shutterbug Vintage, Folkster Edit contemporary clothing and the Gild & Cage homewares range developed with artist Conor Langton.

The brand expansion has also led Blanaid to set up an online store at Folkster.com as well as a pop-up, summer store in Dublin's Temple Bar this year.

"We have a few plans in progress," Blanaid says. "We've learned a lot of lessons with our online store Folkster.com, the main one being that it needs its own dedicated staff in order to maintain and develop that department."

From the very early days, Blanaid's keen eye for style, coupled with her innovative nationwide Shutterbug Vintage Kilo Sales - selling clothes by weight at €20 a kilogram - has bagged her brand an ever-growing and loyal customer base.

A huge amount of Blanaid's business has come from word of mouth, with stylish 
shoppers from all over Ireland travelling to Kilkenny for that unique item which the high street, and even some high-fashion boutiques, can no longer supply.

Blanaid has used her skills to capitalise on her buying trips and interact with her customers by blogging about her journeys, as well as tweeting and Facebooking the brand's way onto every Irish fashionista's lips.

"Social media has been a fantastic asset to the business," Blanaid explains. "Not just from a sales point of view, but more in helping us to understand our customers' wants and the market through constant communication and reactions."

"We're almost a co-op with our customers now - we try to create the store that they want, with the stock that they request, and add our own slant to it all."

Blanaid's business was put together on shoestring budget, which has been tough, she says, but has also worked in her favour.

"We've never had investors - we've just always tried to work within our means, and reinvest every single cent we earned along the way," she explains.

"That does mean that personal earnings took a back seat, but that was more than compensated for by the excitement of small achievements, overcoming obstacles and always aiming for that steady and stable growth.

"The early days were tough, but we figure they don't call it 'work' for nothing!" Blanaid adds.

"We just hoped that if we kept our heads down and just stayed grafting, it would eventually lead to the full 
life we wanted to live."

Blanaid has worked very hard to make her unique vision for the business a reality.

"The vision for the store itself was always based primarily on providing a positive customer service," she explains.

"I wanted to create a store that felt friendly, comfortable and personable. We treat every customer as though they are a personal styling client - we're pretty old-school in that way.

"I also wanted to create an eclectic, edited version of a much larger store - so that there was something beautiful for every customer - no matter what the age, occasion or budget. We stock everything from festival vintage fringe jackets, through to beautifully beaded bridal - and a whole lot in between."

The price point has also been key for Blanaid's business. She is aware that expensive vintage pieces can often put people off.

"We want people to enjoy the clothes they wear - and that's easier to do when you feel you've got a great quality item for a price that won't make you scared to wear it!" Blanaid says.

"We know that people have different budgets and we try to accommodate everyone. Our contemporary stock goes up on Folkster.com unless it has sold out in store, which can happen. The vintage is in store only or at our Kilo Sales - and there is a lot at those events."

For Blanaid, the challenge of creating a successful business during the recession has made the process all the more satisfying.

"We developed a motto to help us to survive the recession, and that was simply to 'Work Harder!' Every time we felt we were working all the hours we could, we just had to learn to find more time and use it in as smart a way as possible," Blanaid explains.

"Our father taught us that if you learn to work at that level during the lean start-up times, you generate an energy output and develop systems that will help the business to grow swiftly in a more stable environment. It was invaluable advice, and I do think that ability to take advice was the reason we overcame a lot of obstacles."

"I'm always trying to find a mix of mad and glamorous stuff so wherever that can be found, I try to get there. I've been to Berlin, Paris, Thailand, Canada, New York, Los Angeles," Blanaid adds.

"The main thing I've learned is to protect your contacts, as vintage in particular is truly a first-come, first-served business."

Blanaid is focused on providing her customers with unique items which are fun and unlike anything that can be bought on the high street.

"Our slogan is 'Something Folkin' Different', as that is what our customer is looking for, and what we love to wear ourselves," she explains.

"There is something beautiful or stylish to be found to suit every single person. We want our customers to feel like they can have fun with dressing up - so we have created the store to be like a sort of huge wardrobe for the kind of woman who doesn't want to look the same every day."

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