Sunday 19 November 2017

My favourite room: Boutique owner is on to a winner

When boutique owner, Paula Corbett, and her husband decided to have a family, they moved into an old house, and the fashionista set about putting her very stylish stamp on it. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin

Boutique owner, Paula Corbett, in her kitchen. The units are painted in
Farrow & Ball’s Elephant’s Breath, while the island is painted in a darker shade. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Boutique owner, Paula Corbett, in her kitchen. The units are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Elephant’s Breath, while the island is painted in a darker shade. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Frank’s brother, Graham, of Graham Walsh Design, did all the carpentry in Harry (seated) and Billy’s playroom, including the window seats, which are ideal for storing toys
The bedroom furniture is by Willis & Gambier. The painting of the shoe above the bed is by Nina Divito
The flooring throughout the extension is engineered oak. The dining table is from The Conran Shop in Arnotts.
The sitting area is where Paula and her husband, Frank, like to relax. Frank’s parents gave them the sofas and they had them recovered by Out of the Blue in Monkstown. The mantelpiece was bought by Paula, who had it painted, and the mirror over the mantelpiece is also from Out of the Blue
Mary O'Sullivan

Mary O'Sullivan

If you were a gambling person, you might be into assessing the odds on calling a fashion business after a horse that didn't win many prizes, but Paula Corbett didn't waste time on negative thoughts when she opened her gorgeous fashion boutique in Leixlip in 2004 and gave it the name of a horse.

"The boutique is called PaLua. It's an anagram of my name. How it came about was, I opened just after Cheltenham and there was a horse running called Palua. I don't think the horse did well, but the shop did," she says.

In one way, giving the boutique a horse's name was apt – the retail business is almost as risky as horse racing. Paula was only 24 when she opened the boutique, so she didn't have a lifetime's experience in the trade.

"It was a risk, and it wasn't a risk. I was 24; I had nothing to lose. I wasn't tied down with a mortgage and I had always wanted to work for myself. I was always going to be my own boss," she explains.

This desire to be self-employed was something that Paula, who is from a family of four girls and two boys, says she inherited from her dad, a publican.

"He worked very hard and he always pushed us to be independent. It was all I knew. And I always worked. Even when I was in university doing French and Economics, I worked part time in fashion shops, and I loved it," she says.

Straight after college, Paula went travelling, but, even as she sat in the sun, Paula admits that she was thinking of her business strategy and how she would get started.

"While I was lying on beaches, I was thinking, 'I've had my fun, now I need to get more experience.' So, when I came home, I got a job with an Irish fashion house, Traffic, which sold wholesale to retailers. I worked in Traffic for three years and I got a brilliant insight into how other boutiques bought," she says.

"I would have sat in on design meetings – I was able to see what all the boutiques around Ireland were buying. I got great insight."

Paula explains that, after three years, she felt ready to go out on her own. It helped that her then boyfriend, Frank Walsh – now her husband – is an accountant. They met while both were studying for the Leaving Cert in the Institute of Education on Leeson St; they stayed together throughout college and even went travelling together.

"He was my only serious boyfriend, and it worked. We're best friends. He helps me with the books, because that's his forte. Every month, we sit down together and have a big meeting," Paula says, adding with a sheepish laugh, "and he kills me." If Frank's forte is figures, it's obvious that Paula's forte is selling. The boutique – on the Main Street in Leixlip – recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, and it's thriving despite the downturn, which shook the foundations of many more established businesses.

"It's a great little business. Even though Leixlip has a massive population, it's still quite a small village. Everyone is very friendly and I love it," Paula says. "I have built up friendships with clients and customers, who I think trust me and trust Eileen, who works with me.

"Initially, I did a lot of my buying in France, because I speak French and I was able to negotiate, and it was brilliant. As times have changed, I do a lot of Danish labels, and I think that's partly to do with the fact that the Danes are quite similar to the Irish, build-wise, and they have similar weather to us. I do Ilse Jacobsen rainwear. I also do some Irish labels – Fiji and Luke Lovely; and I do Irish jewellery – Mary-K, from Dalkey, and Scribble & Stone."

Paula doesn't describe her clients in terms of age – she likes to think that she has something to appeal to both mothers and daughters. And her own mother often helps her out in the shop.

"If I'm there and a customer comes in who's older than me, I don't want her to think, 'This is not for me', so, when Mum is there, they can identify with her," Paula explains.

Paula is so close to her parents that she opted to buy a family home in Dublin 7, on the same road as her parents' house; the road the family lived on all her life. She and Frank, who is also one of six kids, bought their first house in 2004 – the same year as the shop opened.

Then, when they decided they needed a bigger house, as they wanted to start a family – they now have two adorable little boys, Harry, four, and Billy, one, –they decided they needed to be even nearer to Paula's parents.

"They are our rock," she says.

They bought their current home in 2008, lived in it for a while, and, since January 2010, they've been doing it up, a room at a time. A double-fronted, period red-brick house dating from the 1930s, it had been lived in by two ladies who, according to Paula, kept it like a dolls' house and maintained the extensive gardens beautifully.

However, it did need modernisation, and she and Frank decided to break into the kitchen and living room at the back, and add a large, open-plan area, serving as a kitchen, dining and living room.

"We drew up the plans, and we got drawings done based on our plans, and my cousin's husband, Paul Reilly, a great builder, did all the work," says the pretty thirty-something, giving credit where it's due.

Though the kitchen units are grey, and the engineered floor is dark oak, the south-facing aspect, the glass doors to the garden and the four skylights ensure that it's a very bright room.

Paula didn't want the kitchen to be either too country or too modern, and she has achieved a nice balance with the different shades of grey, the quartz worktops and the modern lighting. The lights over the island came from Eden Home & Garden in Blackrock.

Paula is a bit of a traditionalist in some ways – in the sitting area, she was firm in her conviction that she wanted a real fire, and put in an antique fireplace around it. "I know a real fire is a lot of trouble, but we love it," she says.

The house originally had three bedrooms, but they added a room over one of the front living rooms, so they now have four bedrooms. They also converted the attic and made it into an office.

Like most fashionistas, Paula has a talent for colour – she knows when to keep things muted and when to let loose.

One of the front living rooms is very definitely the boys' playroom, and everything is either blue or fire-engine red, like the boys' play kitchen.

Paula likes to spend as much time as possible at home with the boys, and she has organised her work schedule in such a way that she combines the two – work and home – successfully, and she wants it to continue that way.

"My father always says, 'Keep it small; concentrate on one thing', and he's right. I've never had the desire for an empire – just one successful boutique, and it works," she says.

Odds on it, given Paula's warm personality, flair and ability, that it will continue to do so.

PaLua, Main St, Leixlip, Co Kildare, tel: (01) 624-2711, or see PaLua boutique's Facebook page

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