‘I started by the seat of my pants!’
2007-07-26 15:07:32 -
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In the latest instalment of Metro Eireann’s Meet The Boss, SANDY HAZEL speaks to Anna Maria Dabiri, proprietor of Retro in Dublin’s George’s Street Arcade

Anna Maria Dabiri is originally from Trinidad. She came to Ireland when she was 13 after her parents’ divorce. School was Sacred Heart in Mount Anville, but Dabiri left school very young without any formal exams. 

“After school I took receptionist jobs to enable me to travel,” says Dabiri. “When I was about 20 I went into business with my boyfriend and we started designing and making teenage clothes. We had a stall at the Dandelion Market [on the site of what is now the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre] in Dublin and our label was called Bo Peep.

“At that time there were no fashions available in Ireland really, and you had to go ‘up the North’ to buy anything unusual.  We were extremely successful, selling truckloads of stuff.  By the age of 21 I had bought my own house. 

“But easy come easy go. Between one thing and another I got fed up and started to travel again.”  
Dabiri moved on to the West Indies, America and Africa. When she came back to Dublin, she found that the ‘glory days’ had gone and it wasn’t so easy to make money. 

“This was around the seventies,” she recalls. “I took a job at Peter Marks on Grafton Street as a floor supervisor. I loved it there but travel again took me to Atlanta, Georgia, and it was there that I found vintage.” 

Dabiri found that America was full of glorious vintage clothing, and immediately saw the potential for the Irish market. “I started to import,” she says, “I put everything I had into a little shop in Dublin, which failed miserably. Difficulties arose in the supply and maybe I was a bit inexperienced, but my landlord at that time very kindly let me out of the lease.” 

She feels strongly that it is important in business to realise when things are going wrong, to acknowledge that fact and to bale out when debt mounts. “There is no point, if you know that something is just not going to work, in throwing more money at the situation,” she says. “You need to know when to let go.”

Dabiri downsized and began trading at a stall in the George’s Street Arcade in Dublin. “At the time that part of Dublin was not buzzing as it is now, it had gone into a pretty major decline and it was rundown, it was the early eighties,” she remembers. 

“But I seemed to do okay because then I was sourcing vintage clothing from the UK instead. The clothing that I was selling was so unusual that my customers would seek me out.”
Then came a break. 

“I was on holidays in Trinidad when I got a phone call from a friend; premises had suddenly become vacant in the George’s Street Arcade. I knew that it was a good move so I negotiated my lease all over the phone. After my previous experience, I asked for – and got – a year’s trial to see how it went. I got right in as soon as I got back.” 

The George’s Street Arcade is now a bustling, trendy location – with Dabiri’s shop Retro at the heart of it. Dabiri admits that other businesses, especially retailers, cannot always get such a great location and such a good deal: “Yes, it would cost a lot now to buy a lease here, but people are very creative too, making their own niches. Good retailing locations can still be found.”

Vintage clothing has since become very hard to source, and there is more competition too. “There was price-cutting and it was harder to get the stuff so I decided that it wasn’t worth it anymore,” she explains of her change in focus. “I started to deal in weird and wonderful gear; I do Goth clothes, rockabilly clothes. I try to source really unusual, different types of styles. I go to trade shows and over the years I have built up a lot of valuable contacts.” 

Dabiri loves running her own business and it has proved highly successful, even though her motivation for starting out on her own was “desperation and poverty – I started by the seat of my pants”.

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