Artistry blossoms for wedding suppliers as pandemic puts nuptials on hold

Designers: Jill De Búrca; Aoife Doherty of Sass & Halo; and Maria Reidy of Signature Rentals
'I’d always thought about doing homeware, and had done bits and pieces for family and friends, but the pandemic was definitely a push'

With so many nuptials postponed, cancelled or downsized since last March, wedding suppliers have faced an incredibly challenging 10 months.

But in those uncertain early weeks of lockdown, when the only thing many of us created was a Zoom login and a laundry pile of loungewear, resourceful Irish florists, bridal designers, photographers and events planners were finding imaginative new ways to keep their businesses alive. For some, this meant crossing the threshold into homeware.

Pre-Covid, Derry designer Aoife Doherty, who hand-makes bespoke crowns and dried and silk wedding floristry under the name Sass & Halo, was fully booked for the wedding season.

Hopefully people will still want to dress up after all this, but at least now if they don’t, there’s another way for money to come in

When the pandemic struck, “it all just stopped”, says Doherty, who had been gearing up for several weddings per week from May to August.

The designer had just one cancellation. But multiple postponements of weddings (which make up around half of her usual trade), coupled with a drop in sales of festival and party crowns, forced a rethink during the first lockdown.

“People were buying things they needed, like trampolines or comfy clothes. No one really needed a decorative headpiece to wear around the house,” Doherty says.

“I’d always thought about doing homeware, and had done bits and pieces for family and friends, but the pandemic was definitely a push to say, ‘If I’m going to keep going, I need to change things up’. Everyone was at home and doing up their houses, so it was the perfect time to launch.”

With links to flower sellers in Amsterdam already established, Doherty set about sourcing vases from wholesalers (and spending “a lot of money to find the right ones”).

Aoife Doherty hand-makes bespoke wreaths and dried and silk wedding floristry under the name Sass & Halo.
Aoife Doherty hand-makes bespoke wreaths and dried and silk wedding floristry under the name Sass & Halo.

Within weeks, the shelves of her workshop in Derry’s Craft Village, once displaying floral and embellished crowns, were filled with vases and arrangements in a range of colour palettes, from neutral pampas and amber, to suitably sassy teals and hot pinks.

The customer response has been excellent, with some products selling out hours after being restocked online – something Doherty attributes in part to a “huge movement to support local”.

At Christmas, she also launched a limited-edition range of festive wreaths.

“I would put them on the website every Sunday at 5pm and within minutes, about 90 per cent were sold. I sold over 100 wreaths and my hands were bleeding from the wire work – my next-door neighbour left me in a tub of hemp cream.”

In addition to the weddings, which went ahead on a much smaller scale in the past 10 months, Doherty faces a busy summer of rescheduled ones. She also plans to further expand her homeware offering, including a range of dried, hand-tied bouquets for Valentine’s Day.

“We’ve all been in our cosies and not doing much for a very long time,” says Doherty. “Hopefully people will still want to dress up after all this, but at least now if they don’t, there’s another way for money to come in.”

Sass and Halo vases
Sass & Halo vases

Tablescaping
The simple act of setting a table has enjoyed its own ‘unprecedented times’ in 2020/21. Chipped crockery and crusty ketchup bottles have been banished, or at least hidden from #tablescapes Instagram snaps (check out Fiona Leahy on Instagramfor inspiration ), and replaced with embroidered napkins, pastel-hued plates and vintage vases.

As an experienced events planner, Maria Reidy was ahead of the curve on the tablescaping trend. Before the pandemic, she had already started sourcing and supplying stylish tabletop rentals such as coloured glassware, bespoke scallop-edged Italian linen placemats, and Bordallo-style cabbage plateware to destination wedding planners and brides and grooms-to-be.

When Covid arrived on the world stage, faced with multiple cancellations for corporate events and marquee weddings, the Dublin-based business decided to forge ahead with its Signature Rentals website in June. Customers also have the option of buying the products, which include menu calligraphy and a carefully curated ‘tablescape in a box’.

Maria Reidy of Signature Rentals
Maria Reidy of Signature Rentals

During those moments in 2020 when restrictions were relaxed, Reidy’s clients made the most of seeing loved ones again.

“If you were inviting people to dinner, even if it was only six people at home, it was a special occasion to see friends or family after such a long time and I think people put a lot more thought into it,” she says.

The online shop, intended as a small part of the rental business, exceeded Reidy’s expectations and “started to take off very quickly”, particularly for Christmas items. Reidy is currently working on a Spring gift brochure, and the shop will soon have its own dedicated website, Signature Editions.

“People are at home looking at the same plates and cutlery and glassware every day, maybe not noticing previous to this that it was tired or they didn’t really love it. Some people are still earning the same salaries they’ve always earned and they’re willing to invest in those items,” adds Reidy.

“We’ve had brides whose weddings we did a few years ago come back and ask us to recreate the wedding table they had a few years ago – the linens, plates, glassware – and some brides-to-be [who’ve postponed] come to the site and buy candles from the look they’d chosen.”

Launching a new business model during a pandemic hasn’t been without its challenges for Reidy and her team, with supplier and client consultations taking place virtually, and rental orders fluctuating depending on the latest restrictions.

And just weeks after launching Signature Rentals, Reidy – who’s originally from Kilmihil, County Clare – had another new arrival: a baby daughter, Nora.

Signature Rental tablescape
A Signature Rentals tablescape

“I think it’s about adapting and being resilient,” Reidy says of her hectic year, “and trying to remain positive.

“Things will get better, and that’s all you can hope for. It’s made us stop and think about the business in a way we would never have had the opportunity to do, if Covid hadn’t come along.”

Hats to homeware
After more than a decade as a milliner creating headwear for brides, wedding guests and racegoers including Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, Belfast’s Gráinne Maher launched her debut wallpaper and fabric design in late 2019.

The Lady Garden pattern – a tongue-in-cheek homage to the female form, featuring painted breasts and hourglass-curved plants and flowers – was chosen to feature in the city’s chic new boutique hotel The Harrison.

'I found it a saviour for me mentally, the fact that I’d already been doing the groundwork towards the end of 2019...'

Maher intended the wallpaper and fabric to serve as a side project during quieter months in the millinery calendar. But in Spring 2020, with weddings being cancelled “left, right and centre”, or going ahead with vastly reduced guest lists, homeware became more of a focus.

The designer got an e-commerce site up and running, and expanded her Pluck & Devour homeware and gift range (named after the last line of a Joyce poem) to include more affordable cushions, lampshades, cups and plates based on the Lady Garden design.

A lamp from Grainne Maher’s Lady Garden collection
A lamp from Grainne Maher’s Lady Garden collection

Like Reidy, Maher is glad she had made a head start on her new venture before the pandemic arrived.

“I found it a saviour for me mentally, the fact that I’d already been doing the groundwork towards the end of 2019,” Maher admits. “It was like, ‘thank goodness I’ve started this already, I’ve got somewhere to go with it now and even more of a reason to keep honing my skills’.”

Maher plans to continue developing Pluck & Devour, with new products and patterns in the pipeline. She is also working on a “fabulous” new millinery range.

Grainne Maher
Grainne Maher

But don’t expect to see her signature breast prints adorning a wedding headpiece or mother-of-the-bride hat any time soon. “I have contemplated turning the patterns into things like silk scarves, but I’m not quite so sure about hats,” Maher laughs.

“There’s a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous.”

Magic florals
For wedding photographer Kat Mervyn, teaming up with florist Hollie McNeice of The Rosehip and Berry was a match made in heaven.

The pair, already firm friends from working alongside each other on the wedding circuit, recently set up a side project called Dustie Roo (named after pet dogs past and present), to create “moody floral magic”.

“Just after the first lockdown, when all our wedding work had been rescheduled, we would send each other ‘inspo’ pics,” explains Portadown-based Mervyn.

“We both love moody interiors and Hollie came down for a bit of a play day for me to shoot whatever she was making. She pulled arrangements apart and made new ones, and it all came from there really.”

Dustieroo Autumn Print
Dustieroo Autumn Print

McNeice’s floral wizardry – from blousy cafe latte roses to pretty Cymbidium orchids – is captured in sharp, evocative splendour by Mervyn’s camera lens. The images are then sent off to a lab and printed on fine art paper, its velvety texture adding to the moody aesthetic.

Customers have ranged from overseas admirers who spotted the duo’s work via Instagram, to Mervyn’s 83-year-old aunt, who has a Dustie Roo print proudly hanging in her living room. When government rules permit, the photographer’s daughter, 10-year-old Martha, has been also trying her hand at some flower arranging with McNeice.

'In a lot of ways the pandemic has given me time to think about what it is I want to do and what the important aspects of that are'

For Mervyn, “it’s been nice just to have an excuse to work together with Hollie, and I’m learning a bit about flowers too”.

Dustie Roo has also been a welcome distraction from the challenges and uncertainty Covid has posed to her industry, and the wider community.

“Last March we never thought we’d still be in this situation,” Mervyn admits. “I don’t think it will be back to normal for a very long time.”

Hollie and Kat from Dustie Roo is Martha Mervyn. Photograph: Kat’s 10-year-old daughter
Hollie and Kat from Dustie Roo is Martha Mervyn. Photograph: Kat’s 10-year-old daughter

Exquisite embroidery
Award-winning embroidery and embellishment designer Jill de Búrca moved away from seasonal collection work a few years ago to focus on bespoke commissions, including beautifully detailed wedding gowns, capes and custom veils with messages stitched into them.

Although Covid “kind of kiboshed everyone’s plans for a while”, the designer was kept busy. She spent 2020 moving house from Dublin to coastal Co Wexford, getting to grips with virtual teaching in her role as a lecturer at Griffith College, completing non-wedding related orders, and working on a Master’s of her own.

In her studio overlooking Bannow Bay on the Hook Peninsula, with dolphins, buzzards and falcons passing by her window, de Búrca also managed to find the headspace, and inspiration, to branch out into interiors.

Jill de Búrca embroidered artwork
Jill de Búrca embroidered artwork

This summer, she plans to launch homeware products including stretched canvasses, wall hangings and room dividers. As well as the designer’s signature bird and botany-inspired embroidery, there will be “a bit of a seaside influence”, in tribute to her new surrounds.

“I’m really excited about it,” de Búrca says. “And even though I haven’t had as much time to be creative and to produce as much as I’ve wanted to, in a lot of ways the pandemic has given me time to think about what it is I want to do and what the important aspects of that are.”

Her new life and way of working are very different to the deadlines and occasional “all-nighters” she faced making seasonal fashion collections.

Teaching students about the textile industry has also driven home the importance of sustainability and creating heirlooms to the designer, who received an IDI (Institute of Designers in Ireland) Textiles award in November.

Jill de Búrca. Photograph: Mark Henderson/Curator Paints
Jill de Búrca. Photograph: Mark Henderson/Curator Paints
Jill de Búrca embroidered artwork
Jill de Búrca embroidered artwork

“The way I wanted to work is to be more bespoke, to have less wastage and make things people really wanted,” de Búrca adds.

“If someone is getting something bespoke for their wedding, or bespoke for their house, it’s definitely not on a whim. It’s something very personal.”