2020 is a year that billions of people across the world will never forget. Our lives were unceremoniously turned upside down by a disease that demanded changes. Face coverings, hand sanitisation, social distancing and lockdown have become everyday terms. In Ireland, businesses have been forced to close, jobs have been lost and the economy is on life-support. Extended family relationships have been strained and any plans for the future have had to be put on hold or cancelled altogether.
Ireland’s wedding industry is worth over €1.5 billion every year but has been severely impacted by public health restrictions. Wedding couples have been forced to cancel or reschedule their big day at the last minute. Large and meticulously planned nuptials have morphed into a reduced guest list with the ceremony being streamed over the internet. Thousands of workers who are employed directly or indirectly in the industry have an uncertain future. But despite the biggest spanner being thrown into their plans, the institution of marriage itself has never been stronger.
Young women across the world dream of one day wearing the most beautiful wedding dress and there are many unsung heroes who will go far and beyond to help that dream come true. One such person is Abi Howe, former flight attendant turned proprietor, of a two-and-a-half-year-old business called ‘The Bridal Lounge’ on Austin Friars Street, Mullingar.
Abi is a Yorkshire Lass who grew up in a picturesque town called Holmfirth where the classic tv comedy ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ was set and filmed. It was a mild-mannered and charming comedy that centred around the lives of 3 elderly gentlemen who ambled from one mishap to the next. The show was on-air for decades and is particularly noteworthy for being the longest-running sitcom in the world. Abi’s first-ever job was working as a waitress in the fittingly named ‘Compo’s Fish Restaurant’. She is as charming and delightful a person as you could meet. I would say Abi is a rather calming and soothing influence at a time of pure mayhem.
Before entering the wedding industry, Abi had a solid career in the aviation sector and recalls her fascination with aeroplanes and flying: “My family and I lived under Manchester Airport’s flight path and so I have always been interested in aeroplanes. My dream job was to be a member of the cabin crew with an airline so I studied travel and tourism at college. One of my earliest memories was being on a Boeing 747 Virgin Atlantic flight to Disney World. It was a night flight and I remember staying awake watching everything, listening to the noises and taking in all the sights and smells.” Abi passed an airline training course when she turned 18 that allowed her to start flying with the airline ‘XL.com’ on rolling seasonal contracts. However, by the age of 21, she had been made permanent and was regularly flying to Trinidad and Tobago from her base at Manchester Airport.
Calgary to Dublin
Abi accepted a 6-month overseas contract and was based in Calgary, Canada “I was working for an airline out there that had Canadian aircraft with a UK crew! It was -25 degrees and I was flying from Canada to Mexico and the Caribbean. I loved North America and the overall experience was amazing for a 21-year-old.” In 2008, Abby was offered another 6 months overseas contract and this time she was going to be based in Dublin. “That’s how I first came to Ireland. It was toward the end of the summer season.” However, the world was beginning to feel the ripples of what would go on to become the 2008 global recession and Abi was made redundant from her dream job overnight.
Retail to Rathowen
In February 2009, Abi was back in Dublin working for another airline “I felt I had a connection here. I felt very sad after losing my job and missed living in Dublin.” However, that role was short-lived because, in November 2010, Abi left the airline industry altogether and joined shoe retailer Kurt Geiger where she managed the shoe concessions at Debenhams and Brown Thomas. This new role meant that she was able to move to Westmeath with Rathowen man Cathal Manning. She progressed from running a concession to the whole store when she joined Carphone Warehouse. Her career went from strength to strength over 4 years but she found that her workload was increasing. So, after the birth of her first child, she left Carphone Warehouse and took a part-time job with TUI another airline. “I was 28 and had just given birth to my son. I struggled going back to work after having my child. Call it guilt or something. I handed in my notice and didn’t have anything else to go to.” Her role with TUI did not require any flying and she only had to commute 3 days a week to Dublin.
In 2016 while she and Cathal were building their home in Rathowen, Abi decided to start selling pre-loved wedding dresses. “A pre-loved wedding dress is a dress that has only been worn once [on wedding day] and is then dry-cleaned. I used to sell those dresses to brides and took a commission on every sale I made.” The lounge from where Abi was running her new business was just a concrete floor and walls and is where the name The Bridal Lounge came from. Some of the ‘pre-loved’ dresses required alterations and they are done by her highly skilled dressmaker Kay who lives only 5-10 minutes away from Abi in Legan. Abi understood that getting a cheaper ‘pre-loved’ dress was not an important factor for brides and was not the market to be in. It was time for her to open a store and sell a range of brand-new dresses.
In July 2017, Abi was going on maternity leave to have her second child and TUI [her employer] wanted her to travel to the UK as part of a restructuring of her role. Abi took voluntary redundancy instead and started looking for somewhere to open a store. “When I saw this property on Austin Friars Street, it was just one big open shell that needed a lot of work to turn it into a place where I could display beautiful wedding dresses. Thankfully Cathal is an electrician and his brother is a carpenter, so at weekends and evenings for about 6 months they did all the work for me.” Abi took out a loan and used her redundancy money to purchase the stock she needed “I purchased sample wedding dresses from designers that I use as samples and alter them for customers as necessary. I will measure up the bride and she will get a brand-new dress based on the sample that is fully customised for her.”
The Bridal Lounge is now an elegant and tastefully decorated store that sells an array of exquisite designer wedding dresses and upmarket bridal accessories. “It still doesn’t feel like work. It still gives me a buzz but there is a lot of hard work involved. When you own a bridal shop, you are a business like any other and bills need to be paid.”
Abi was devastated that she had to close her business because of lockdown. “Closing the business was a horrible experience. All the time and effort that had gone into establishing my business just stopped. But I felt very sorry for the Brides who were devastated by their wedding being postponed. As the person who helped them to find the perfect dress, I felt that I had a duty to support them too. I would have been chatting to brides, some brides were very cool, calm and relaxed while others were in floods of tears. I recall one particular bride was on her way from alterations when she got a call to tell her that her wedding was off.”
Abi was extremely busy once lockdown ended and had a successful 2020 but has worked very hard to ensure that her store is a safe environment as per Government guidelines. “The Westmeath Local Enterprise Office has always been a great support to my business. I have been fortunate to avail of their mentoring programme and have availed of the Trading Online Vouchers (TOV) scheme which has enabled me to launch a brand-new website. I’m also part of the Women in Business network which has always been an amazing meeting point for sharing ideas and meeting other like-minded business women.”
Abi believes that 2021 is going to be a big year for weddings now that a vaccine is being rolled out. “I think weddings are going to make a comeback but probably won’t be as big as they were in past years. However, the busiest time for me is usually January to February and unfortunately, I feel that I’m going to be shut.” During the most recent Level 5 lockdown, The Bridal Lounge was able to offer a ‘Click and Collect’ service. She also offered virtual appointments whereby she would dress a mannequin to help a bride pick out a few dresses that she liked.
Whatever the future holds there is one thing for certain, brides across Westmeath have an ally who they can count on to ensure that they walk down the aisle wearing the most beautiful dress they could imagine. That lady is Abi Howe of The Bridal Lounge.
This article was published across the Topic group 24/12/2020.