Acappella is ready for lift-off at Dublin Airport's Terminal 2
THESE are exciting times at Acappella. The Kenmare-based fashion agency and distributor has just unveiled plans to launch its first foray into retail, a 1,500sq ft store at Dublin Airport's much-anticipated second terminal.
The core Acappella is growing like gangbusters, boosting turnover by more than 40pc last year, and is on track to do the same or better this year, having picked up another two brands in the past fortnight.
And Acappella boss Vivienne Mahony has just "had a field day" at a recruitment round, where two candidates from a highly qualified field were selected to join the 30-strong Acappella team.
"I don't think the country is in a very bad place at all, we've just gone back to where we should be and people are learning a lot," says Ms Mahony, who founded Acappella as a one-woman band back in 1998.
Her world view is born of experiences with the 320 retail clients that make up Acappella's customer base and the 17 brands the firm now supplies, as well as the trials and tribulations of the company itself.
In the heady days of the boom, when Acappella was selling its brands to boutiques all over the country, "they wouldn't know what they were going to spend and they'd buy without even calculating what they were spending", she says.
These days, boutiques greet Acappella's team with a calculator in one hand and a budget in the other, conscious of every last euro as they run the rule over brands like Culture, Darling, St Martins and Snob.
"Boutiques would have brought their prices down by anything from 30pc to 50pc as well," says Ms Mahony. "We have high-end boutiques -- who would never have dealt with us before -- coming to us now, so that they can stay competitive."
The retailers' resilience is demonstrated by the fact that Acappella has had almost no bad debts and is still trading on either 30 days' credit or cash on delivery.
"The strong retailers are getting stronger," says Ms Mahony.
International brands' continued interest in Ireland is also testament to our retail market's endurance. Ms Mahony says she has new labels contacting her "every two or three weeks", wanting her to sell their wares here.
"They wouldn't think Ireland is a basket case at all," she says.
"We do a small bit of men's and that came back by 30-40pc last year, but the great thing about the ladies' market is that women will always shop, even if it's at a lower price point."
Having signed up two brands in the past month, the Kerry-dweller talks enthusiastically about growing the portfolio to 30 brands or even 40.
"We have so many boutiques that you can easily open 45 accounts without overlapping with what's already in the market," she says.
"There's no limit to the number of brands we can take, if they're the right brands."
Acappella's own trading has also affirmed her view on the survivability of the current recession. When the storm clouds first hit, she admits she was "of course" concerned.
"We didn't know how many jobs would be lost, would people just stop spending? But the increase we've had in business goes to show that they didn't."
That increase has seen Acappella add 43pc to its turnover in 2009 alone, with another 45pc rise pencilled in for 2010.
"The last few years have been the best we've ever had," says Ms Mahony.
The surge in business coincided with a change in Acappella's business model around 2007.
"We used to be a forward-selling company, customers buy from us and then it's delivered in six months. Then we found some fast fashion labels, where we buy in bulk and we can give delivery to our clients almost immediately, so they're not tying up their money buying forward and they can move faster with trends."
While Acappella's topline has powered through the recession largely unaffected, the firm's cost line has seen a more significant impact.
"If you're in any good position at all, this is an ideal time for bargaining with all your suppliers," says Ms Mahony, relating tales of substantial discounts on everything from rent to haulage to insurance.
With the core business doing so well, branching into retail was the last thing on Ms Mahony's mind, until she got an out-of-the-blue prompt from her father, who told her about the Terminal 2 opportunity.
"The more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be a lovely project to do," she says.
"It won't interfere with any of our retailers and will be a great showcase for all our brands. It's nearly like advertising."
Mahony was also attracted by the terms of Terminal 2 contracts.
"You don't pay a rent, you pay a percentage of sales, so you're not tied to anything," she says. "You also get very detailed information on passenger flow and footfall, data you just wouldn't get anywhere else."
The Dublin Airport Authority's own figures factor in some decline, Mahony's business plan factors in an even bigger fall, but even that prospect doesn't faze her.
"We've been very cautious, but even then, it's a very good opportunity," says Ms Mahony.
"We already have all the stock in our warehouse and we have a lot of flexibility to swap brands and change things."
The 1,500sq ft store dubbed 'Azure' is set to open in November and Ms Mahony will soon begin recruiting for a manager who'll spend the summer working with Acappella and getting to know the brands.
"We'll need about 10 people to staff it because the opening hours will be so long," she says.
While she's brimming over with enthusiasm for the Terminal 2 project, Ms Mahony is quick to point out that the venture is effectively a "one-off" with Acappella's core focus remaining on its agency and distribution business.
"I just love it, finding the brands, bringing them into Ireland, building the PR, the marketing, the brand awareness," she says. "If we found an amazing brand in the US, I'd have no problem bringing it into Europe, if we could get a licence. We've lots of ambition."