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Cape crusader: Co Down fashion designer Sara Hall is coming to America

Co Down fashion designer Sara Hall will showcase her work in May at a special New York event aimed at supporting Irish designers in the United States. The young mum of two tells Joanne Sweeney how she hopes to break America

Co Down designer Sara Hall, who is New York-bound with her fashion collection Picture: Kara Pringle

FASHION designer Sara Hall has borrowed a quote from Bono's designer wife Ali Hewson on her website which says 'Business is tough, and the fashion industry is particularly tough.'

The Co Down woman, who is part of the famous musical Sands family from Mayobridge, has just received a major helping hand from another Irish fashionista to potentially open the American market up to her.

Her online brand called Sands & Hall is the only designer from Northern Ireland selected to take part in the Wearing Irish 2018 event in New York at the Bank of Ireland Startlab next month.

Founded and organised by New York resident Margaret Molloy, who is originally from Co Offaly, the Irish designers' showcase will see Sara and her stunning range of Irish tweed capes, coats and jackets introduced to the most influential movers and shakers in the NYC fashion and PR industry.

"It's brilliant that I'm the only northerner who's been selected," says Sara. "Margaret Molloy is a really high-profile businessperson living and working in New York and is hugely experienced in branding and the fashion industry. Wearing Irish will be a huge exposure to the American market for us, so this is massive.

"Hopefully we will be able to meet with some potential investors as we are at the stage as a company that in order to grow, that's what we need right now. It's coming just at the right time for us."

The other design brands taking part are Triona Design from Donegal Tweed Visitor Centre; Monaghan-based designer Natalie B Coleman; west of Ireland knitwear design brand Aine; Connemara bridal and womenswear designer Alison Conneely; Wexford-based jewellery designer Bláithin Ennis; Inner Island jewellery design, also from Wexford; Kildare-based DE BRUIR craft leather goods; Dublin print designer Jennifer Rothwell; and Galway tweed designer The Tweed Project.

Sara splits her time between Mayobridge, near Newry, where her family still live in the houses that the Sands family were reared in, and in Spain where she and her husband David work and raise their two daughters, five-year-old Arianna and Evelynne, aged one.

Her father Hugh is the brother of the Sands Family folk group members Colum, Ben, Anne and the late Eugene and while Sara says she is not greatly musical herself, she heartily joins in family sing-along sessions at Christmas.

What started out as a need to make a tweed cape for her little girl has grown into a thriving online fashion business, with customers all over the world. Originally called Cocoon Luxe when the business began nearly four years ago, Sara rebranded the it as Sands & Hall – to incorporate her maiden name and the surname of her husband David, who also works in the business – two years ago.

Dr Foster star Suranne Jones was recently photographed in one of Sara's biker jackets while UTV presenter Pamela Ballantine is one of a number of well-dressed ladies who like to wear Sara's tweed capes to the races.

After a career in PR and advertising at home and abroad, Sara (35) admits that her start in fashion was accidental.

"It was completely accidental. I got a cape for my eldest daughter in a thrift store in Vancouver where I worked and I couldn't find another one to fit her when she grew out of it, so I started to make them and it was literally only about five capes. Then the mums of the children who bought them wanted to have their own and everything just blew up from there. It really happened overnight as I haven't formal design training."

She uses fine Donegal tweed from Molloy and Sons, Ardara, for a lot of her designs, along with some Harris Tweed, which she absolutely loves to wear herself.

"Sands & Hall is slow fashion – not fast fashion, which you see everywhere online at the moment," she tells me. "It takes four to five months to develop a design to sampling point, at least three months for our mills in the UK and Ireland to sow the tweed for each colour, then three to four months for our boutique factory to make our pieces."

While she's New York bound for May 14-18, Sara readily acknowledges that running and growing her fashion business is a challenge, particularly when she's also a mother and wife.

"Trying to juggle being a mum to two incredible girls, a wife, a home-maker, friend, daughter, sister and an owner of a fashion business – well, let's just say the last two years have been a juggling act trying to make it all work.

"It's been nearly four years since the adventure began with my Cocoon days, pre-Sands & Hall, and only towards the end of last year did I start paying myself a wage of £500 per month.

"I won't lie. There have been quite a few times where I have thought in the middle of the night, 'This can't go on; it needs to stop; I need a break; this won't work next year; people won't love the new collection'."

However, with the hope of making connections in New York, Sara has her eye firmly on the next five to 10 years.

"I would love to see the brand continue to grow the way it's doing at the moment but I would like it to be more of a worldwide-known brand. To break into the American market would be huge for us as they love Ireland and the Irish and they love tweed, so we are a bit of a mix of everything for them. And one day it would be great have our own flagship store."

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