Derry woman and London College of Fashion graduate Aoife Doherty returned home in 2016 after six years studying and working in Newcastle and London. She set up Sass & Halo, designing and handcrafting bespoke crowns, at her kitchen table that year. Aoife, now 28, opened premises in Derry’s Craft Village in February 2017, and went on to win Council’s £10k Business Start Up Challenge. Today, Sass & Halo receives orders from all over the world, has more than 11,000 Instagram followers, and also employs two part-time staff.
Why did you decide to move back to Derry?
I always had this dream to come home. If anyone was thinking of living in London, I would say you have to experience it, but I never really thought I’d settle there. I went travelling for a while and then moved back to Derry and worked in retail, but it wasn’t really what I’d worked towards. I was thinking of going away again, but my Daddy, Thomas, died in 2016 and then everything kind of changed. It was a turning point for me. I thought, ‘I’m going to live here and I’m going to do something myself and try and make it work’.
Where did the idea for Sass & Halo come from?
I’m obsessed with wearing things on my head, so I was passionate about it, and at the time, there was a niche in the market. The hairdresser Ronan Stewart asked me to stock my pieces at the RoCo till for Christmas 2016 and they just kept selling out. I thought, ‘Maybe it’s something I can actually turn into a viable business’. I made enough money to put a deposit down in the Craft Village, and just took a massive risk.
What impact did winning the £10k Challenge have?
It was amazing. I got £5k and was able to buy a pink horsebox that’s been fitted out inside, so I could drive it to festivals and markets, literally taking the products to my target market on a day when people have disposable income. Winning the Challenge was great for marketing too, because so many more people heard about me and my business.
What have been your other key successes?
Topshop in Victoria Square, Belfast, got it touch last year and we had a stand in there for festival season, which was massive. And now we’ve gone down the wedding route, doing alternative wedding floristry – mainly silk or dry bouquets, hairpieces, décor – this summer has been wedding after wedding after wedding. I get a lot of job satisfaction when I do a wedding and it looks so beautiful. The business has grown so much from when it started.
What would you say to someone thinking of returning home?
You definitely do have to think about work and what you want to do here. There are challenges. But the best thing about having a business here is that everybody’s so supportive. I think supporting local is really big in Derry at the moment. Also, I think the internet is so powerful and we live in a time now where it doesn’t really matter where you are. You can move home, but you have this tool that anyone in the world can reach you and you can reach anyone.
What did you miss most about home when you lived in England?
Family. Getting from A to B much quicker. My Mommy’s home cooking. But then also Derry Chinese. It’s not as good over there. Free State Dairy Milk and Tayto. My Mommy used to post me packages with white pudding. I wasn’t sure if it was edible… I still ate it though!
How has Sass & Halo evolved since it started?
It’s completely changed. I used to think, ‘I’ll be a shop that people just come in and buy things and maybe the odd custom order’, but now pretty much everything is custom made. I’ve started to make stuff for Christmas, so that it is a shop at Christmas. I’m posting to all sorts of places – Florida, Australia. A lot of it seems to be word of mouth; I’ll get one order from Newcastle, then you get loads of messages from people in Newcastle.
What are your plans for Halloween?
We’ve been reaching out to celebrity make-up artists so we’re going to do some collaborations with them. I’ve also got exciting plans for my own costume. I love Halloween; I’m always trying to be as extra as possible. There’s nothing better than walking around and seeing all the costumes and all the children dressed up too.
And you’ll be part of Fashion Fest too?
I’m involved in the opening number. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to tell you – but we are sponsoring their heads! There seems to be a lot going on locally in fashion and the arts. There are loads of new start-ups and people trying different things.