Hairdresser Mark O’Keeffe has his dream job and a large family he adores. All he and his fiancee Aimee Penco needed was the right home, and they got that last Easter, just before their latest arrival
Playrooms in general are fairly standard - comfy furniture, a TV, possibly a PlayStation, definitely lots of toys.
But an aspect of the playroom in the home of hair supremo Mark O'Keeffe, and his fiance, Aimee Penco, stands out, and that's the shelving crammed with Nike boxes. And the casual observer might jump straight to the conclusion that Mark's kids must be pretty indulged to have all these runners.
That conclusion would be wrong. Mark is the spoilt one. "I love my shoes," he says with a laugh. "I've close to 100 pairs of runners, and the same with shoes, I'd say. I didn't realise I had so many until we moved to this house and I put them in here. Then it dawned on me - I've a bit of a shoe fetish."
Mark can be forgiven for such frivolous self-gifting, given that he works very hard in his business to give his family a good life. His footwear-purchasing is a small self-indulgence in a life that has known many challenges, including the death of his mother when she was only 53; a marriage break-up; the death of his best friend and colleague, Eugene Riley; and his adored son Riley's diagnosis of autism when the child was three.
In any case, Mark has some more serious passions. The most important of which is his passion for his kids. He has three - Charlotte (13), Isabella (11), and Ely (10) - with his ex-wife Paula; and two - Riley (six), and Frankie (eight months) with his fiance, Aimee.
His other great passion is his hair business. He is the owner of seven salons in Dublin - three branches of Brown Sugar, on South William Street, in Ranelagh and on Main Street, Blackrock; Sugar Cubed, also on South William Street; Sugar Coated nail and beauty salon in the Frascati Centre in Blackrock; and two barbershops, Sugar Daddy, one on Exchequer Street and one in the Frascati Centre. All the salons are under the umbrella name of Sugar Culture.
"I only ever wanted to be a hairdresser. My dad, Frank, used to bemoan the fact that he and my mum spent all this money on private education and I still wanted to cut hair," Mark, who went to St Mary's in Rathmines, recalls with a laugh. "My dad started with Peter Mark when it was only one salon. He rose to general manager, and when he retired, they had 70 shops. I wanted to work in a hair salon from when I was 12, but I was too young. They allowed me and Peter's son to work in the laundry during the summer then. We met people the like of whom we never met before - real workers who wouldn't let you slack off no matter who your father was."
At 15, Mark was finally allowed to work in the salons during the summer holidays, and when he left school at 18, he started to train in Peter Mark.
"That was the start of my journey," he says. "I managed my first salon at 24. I moved up the ranks, and at 30 I became the manager in Stephen's Green, the flagship. That was a crossroads moment. I felt I wanted to work for myself, to be leader of my own band."
By that stage, Mark was married to Paula Callan, the well-known make-up artist, and they decided to combine their skills and open a salon offering hair and beauty. Getting a premises was the first hurdle. Fortunately, at the time, all the fashion wholesalers were moving out of South William Street and heading to Fashion City, leaving the street almost empty, and Mark found an affordable premises there.
"Our salon was actually a laneway between two old houses, leading to what would have been the stables. It had been done up - badly - in the 1980s, turning it into a building, so we did it up properly," he says. It was a canny move, as his chic salon stands out, on a street that has become really hip. Then there was the question of a name. "I was determined to call it Brown Sugar, but everyone was against it. They said it sounded like a cafe. I went ahead anyway," he says. Aimee adds: "If he gets something into his head, there's never a doubt."
The salon was an immediate hit, and Mark credits Paula and her connections with its initial success. "Paula knew everyone in the fashion and beauty business and the media. That catapulted us to a different level to your ordinary salon," he says.
The opening of Brown Sugar coincided with the start of the Celtic Tiger, and it took off. Soon the business was expanding. His dad Frank, Mark says, was a big influence on the way he runs his business. "He's been a huge support and mentor. He's great on recruitment and helping me focus. I couldn't have done without him for the last 15 years."
The salons thrived, there was plenty of money around, and Mark started living the high life. "A real rock-and-roll lifestyle," says Mark. "It was full-on for a good few years. I'd be out most nights, clubbing, dining out, house parties, and Paula would be at home with the kids. I thought I was a rock star."
Something had to give, and it was their relationship. "The marriage began to fail, and there was no way back. We were on two different paths," he says. "She met her partner, Kevin, and I met Aimee."
Aimee had also trained in Peter Mark, but when she went into hairdressing initially, it was only as a stopgap - she actually intended to become a chef, and started hairdressing to tide her over until the cheffing course started.
"I went for an interview with Peter Mark. At the time, I had green hair and mad clothes; I was full-on," Aimee recalls, laughing. "As it happened, Stephen's Green needed trainees and Mark's sister, Kerrie, who was doing the interviews, said: 'My brother Mark is the manager there, he's going to love you'." Aime adds that the minute she started working as a hairdresser, she fell in love with colour.
Mark obviously rated her as a colourist; when he opened Brown Sugar, she was one of the first members of staff, and she is now the manager of Sugar Coated in Blackrock. They got together nine years ago, and she says she was into the party lifestyle too, until Riley, who is named after their great friend, came along.
"As a baby, he never slept; he had terrible night terrors for a long time," Aimee says. "Then he was diagnosed with autism, and that was very hard."
Riley is six now and fortunately they got a place for him in a small local school with his own SNA. He's non-verbal, but they are hoping that he will talk some day. "That's the dream," says Mark. "He's getting speech therapy, and he's saying a few words and doing some sign language."
Riley's arrival meant a complete lifestyle change for both of them. Aimee says that initially she became introverted, and stopped doing everything except work and family. "I was just gone 30. I found it very hard to admit that my child wasn't easy, but I had to come out of my shell and find things," she says. "Nobody tells you anything. I talk to mothers on Instagram - that's how I get information on what's available."
"The loudest little boy in the world" is Mark's description of Riley. "He's a beautiful kid, but he shouts a lot. He's not an angry kid, it's frustration at not being able to communicate," says Mark.
Aimee says: "He's very loving, very tactile, but he has to have what he wants when he wants it. He screams until he gets it. He has to get out every day to run around. We call it 'Riley's movements'. And he sleeps very badly. You might get two good nights, then you'll have two nights when he'll drag you downstairs in the middle of the night to get him cereal, a drink, TV, and there's no point objecting - you have to give in in the end. You become accustomed to not sleeping."
She adds that they couldn't do without her father, Greg, who collects Riley from school and brings him to many of his appointments.
Riley's great loves are his siblings, baby Frankie, and Charlie, Izzy and Ely who come to live with Mark and Aimee every weekend - a busy household, but Aimee says she loves that.
"At the start of our relationship, if Mark and I wanted to see each other, it involved the kids, so that's all I've known. I'm a real mammy and I love having them here - we've all grown up together. I get on great with Paula," Aimee says, while Mark adds: "Paula only lives five minutes away. I think Paula and I are great co-parents."
In fact, it was to be near Paula's home that Mark and Aimee bought their house in the same area of north Dublin last year. It was brand new, but had already been named Tir na n'Og, referencing the Irish myth about Oisin and the land where no one grows old. "I saw the name, and I said to myself, 'l'll have that'," Mark says with a laugh.
Running after five kids will make sure he stays young. Getting up every morning to go to the gym at 6am helps. And those endless runners will come in handy there.
See brownsugar.ie, sugarcubed.ie, sugardaddy.ie, sugarcoated.ie
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin