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IF YOU WANT TO GET AHEAD, GET A HAT: So says master milliner Aoife Hannon. Photo: Pat Tobin

IF YOU WANT TO GET AHEAD, GET A HAT: So says master milliner Aoife Hannon. Photo: Pat Tobin

IF YOU WANT TO GET AHEAD, GET A HAT: So says master milliner Aoife Hannon. Photo: Pat Tobin

Listowel auctioneer Aoife Hannon could see the writing on the wall in 2006, when properties that used to sell started to gather dust.

Despite the looming crash - and almost certain unemployment - she put on the glad rags and won Best Dressed Lady at the Listowel Harvest Festival Race that year. What clinched the prize was her homemade hat.

Then, thanks to her father Donal's wise words, she decided to take clothes seriously.

Aoife had always been interested in fashion and decided to study fashion at the Mallow College of Design and Tailoring. where she focused on the area of millinery - an interest she inherited from her grandfather who was a tailor and owned a drapery shop in Killarney. Despite the atrocious trading conditions, she opened a small business in Listowel and now makes hats for high-end customers all over the world.

One of her special wedding hats was worn by artist Jemma Billington at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.

Aoife explains her journey from the auctioneer's gavel to pillbox hats and the role Listowel Races played in her new enterprise: "I won best dressed lady with something on my head I created myself. I had a most beautiful dress but I had nothing to match it. I would not call it a hat - it was made of feathers, Sellotape, anything at hand.

"As I was going into the parade ring my father rang -he was the first person on the phone - and he said to me: 'Didn't I say you'd win? You should make a career of that' - and I suppose that sowed a seed.

"We could see the recession looming, property prices were not the way they were, land prices were gone sky high as well - so I decided to take a leap and close the auctioneering.

"I absolutely love what I do. Everything is hand-made and stitched. It takes between four to five hours to make a hat and normally I would have lots of pieces on the go at the same time. You would have a heart attack at the number of hats I made recently; my hands are worn out. There is a lot of hard work involved, more so than people give it credit for."

In the early years the business was run from home, where Aoife catered for family and friends and a group of fashion conscious local ladies who never let her down.

However, in time Aoife Hannon Designs grew into a successful brand. Her unique creations are now highly sought after by clients from the USA to Switzerland and beyond.

The hat business in Ireland is small but vibrant. Almost every race meeting has a Ladies' Day with hundreds of exotic hats worn. And not just last year's hats, but one-off creations.

The wedding market is also important. Hannon spends a considerable amount of time adding to her skills and knowledge. Deeply passionate about the millinery trade, the Kerry woman also travels extensively sourcing new materials. So much so, the innovative use of new materials has become the hallmark of her hats and bridal wear collection of veils and head pieces.

Aoife is currently preparing for a trade event in Cheltenham. She will travel back to the UK again within weeks to an event in Leicestershire before flying off again to Dubai in January.

Luck is an important ingredient in any enterprise - and hat making is no different. Former jockey Jim Culloty, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times, is her brother.

Fancy hats and the horsey set would seem to go hand-in-hand and the family link has opened doors.

Now Aoife looks like the favourite to succeed.

Sunday Indo Business