Coronavirus creativity: Home is where the art is

Boutique owner Maeve Culligan is tie-dyeing, sewing and painting through the lockdown

Maeve Culligan, director of the County Boutique, at home in Ennis with daughters Aisling and Aoife. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Maeve Culligan, director of the County Boutique, at home in Ennis with daughters Aisling and Aoife. Photograph: Eamon Ward

 
With her boutique business on ice, Maeve Culligan and daughters are dreaming up new designs at home

Working from home means different things to different people and while some just need a table to place their laptop so they can carry on as normal, others have had to adapt both physically and mentally to the challenges posed by the current global crisis.

Maeve Culligan runs the County Boutique in Ennis and Nenagh with her sister Gwen, but they have had to close overnight and come up with other ideas of how to keep going.

“Our first store was opened in 1966 by my parents, Merty and Frank in Ennis and the second one in 2014,” she says. “Mum absolutely adored clothes and had a business head so she saw an opening for a new kind of shop where she could import brands which weren’t available in Ireland.

'Everyone has been trying to adapt to the new world that we are living in, we have noticed that we have been getting more enquiries in the past few days – it’s a glimmer of hope'

“There have undoubtedly been a lot of ups and downs since my parents opened but this crisis has seen sales drop off a cliff, overnight. Demand for clothes to wear to work, at the weekends, to events or just out to lunch or dinner just suddenly disappeared. It was a complete shock to the system when we had to close on March 15th to protect both our colleagues and customers.”

Before the closure, the fashionable sisters had started to operate a home delivery service and are still operating this in a small way.

“We are extremely lucky to have an online store and have been adding more styles to that over the past few weeks as we know our customers will definitely want to cheer up their wardrobes and will be tired of living in tracksuits,” says Culligan.

“We offer a layaway service and customers have been calling to have their items delivered. We have also been changing our window display every week, to keep in tune with the season and to satisfy our drive-by and walk-by window shoppers. Everyone has been trying to adapt to the new world that we are living in and we have noticed that we have been getting more enquiries in the past few days – it’s a glimmer of hope that we will get through this.”

While most of her working life was spent inside the boutique or travelling to source stock, life has changed dramatically. These days Culligan, who is married to Guy, has, along with their two daughters, Aoife (21) and Aisling (18), made the most of their time by turning areas of their home into workspace to alter pieces of clothing, and post their efforts online to their followers, who can then either buy the finished products or gain ideas for their own wardrobes.

Maeve Culligan with Aisling and Aoife and some of their creations from CB Upcycle. Photograph: Eamon Ward/The Irish Times
Maeve Culligan with Aisling and Aoife and some of their creations from CB Upcycle. Photograph: Eamon Ward/The Irish Times

“I started to help out in the shop when I was about seven and was probably more of a hindrance than anything else, but that is where the seeds were sown for me,” she says.

“I love beautiful fabrics and since I was a teenager, I loved customising my own clothes,” says Culligan, who spent all her childhood summers working in the family’s shop and then studied dressmaking at Sion Hill.

“These days I’m a hoarder of ribbons, bows, buttons and brooches, as well as left-over fabric, and I customise pieces for our customers on a regular basis, so that they get the most out of them.”

The trio started a plethora of projects to while away the time, starting with customising their own clothes – adding buttons and sleeves to shirts.

“The girls did some tie-dying and bleaching and I share all of these efforts on our social media accounts. I also put up a couple of videos on what I am customising and our works in progress and am getting a lot of traction from customers and followers who are enjoying seeing the alterations and either following suit or buying the pieces from our website.”

'The girls sent letters to their friends, some with pressed flowers and hand-made crochet friendship bracelets which got a great reaction'

Having retrieved her mother’s sewing machine out of storage last year, Culligan has transformed rooms into creative hubs where she and her daughters have been busy cutting, sewing, tie-dyeing, colouring and modelling clothes.

“We set up a work-station for the sewing machine in the guest bedroom and have been doing furniture painting in a barn at the back of the house and painting in the dining room,” she says. “We shoot videos [of them modelling the completed pieces or of works in progress] in the garden for our, and our customers’, amusement.”

Even before Covid-19 took hold, Culligan had noticed a shift in customer awareness and a growing interest in vintage and bespoke garments. “Many are looking to upcycle their clothes and get more wear out of things. We’ve had a vintage area in the shop for the past year and this time together is perfect for getting on with the projects and for the girls to help me out and include some of their own ideas. So while I initially started the videos to give customers some ideas of how to alter their own clothes during this isolation period, I have also been selling pieces as well.”

The mother of two says they are very fortunate to live in an old house with lots of space both inside and out, so the entire family can do their own thing without getting in each other’s way.

“On any given day, Aisling could be found studying [for her Leaving Certificate] anywhere in the house – also singing and looking for distraction, while Aoife [who is completing her third year in science at UCD] studies in her room and takes random photographs when she is out and about. And Guy, who has a home office, is now operating his career guidance business entirely online with videos from career guidance counsellors and online sessions with students and parents, as all of his events have been cancelled. ”

As well as redesigning their wardrobes and studying, the industrious family can also be found in various locations around the house engaging in other creative activities.

“Along with playing Bingo on Zoom with friends in Kildare, we also took time out to write letters to my elderly aunt and uncle and the girls sent letters to their friends, some with pressed flowers and hand-made crochet friendship bracelets which got a great reaction. And we have been getting our daily exercise either in the local green with Suzie our dog or in the field at the back of the house, where the girls have also been taking picnics to get away from us adults and have their chats.”

The Clare woman believes the time we are all having to spend at home is something we should try to make the most of before the craziness of modern life begins again in earnest.

She sees a big change coming to the boutique business with more transactions online. “We will certainly be operating on that premise, so I hope that our customers will adapt with us. We have always been grateful for the legacy we have been given but we are having to rethink everything we do and how we do it.

“On another note, the pleasure we have taken from simple things over the past few weeks has been an absolute joy and I will always treasure this time spent with my young adult children, before they go forth into the new world.”

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