Boutique owner Carmel Brennan on changing careers after 40

Boutique owner Carmel Brennan shares the secret to successfully changing careers after 40. 


It’s not too late to start a business in your early forties.

My career first began in banking, included a short stint in teaching, then 24 years working as an air hostess and in operations with Aer Lingus. The irregular hours became difficult as I grew older, and I reached a point where I wanted to do something different. I’d always loved fashion, so when myself and a friend found a shoe shop for sale in 2002, we took a leap of faith and opened a boutique. It was an opportunity to embrace something new. In 2004, we opened a second in Malahide.  

The best advice I ever received was to inform myself, then go with my gut. 

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I developed strong people skills working as an air hostess and I was exposed to luxury fashion in major cities I flew to, such as New York and Rome, which gave me a keen eye for buying. Most days I’m analysing figures and examining financial spreadsheets, but it’s so important to visit both stores almost every day, connect with customers and staff, and watch what’s moving off the shop floor. 

For an independent boutique to survive, it needs a point of difference.

I’ve put a lot of thought into the brands I stock, and I’m always conscious of introducing new labels; the correct buy is essential. I manage the buying side of the business by knowing my customer and assessing her lifestyle. What’s selling in a high-end store in London might not work as well for a small boutique in Dublin. Being tough is crucial. You must be able to walk away from brands if their collections aren’t consistently fresh.

A well-prepared business plan is imperative when starting up.

I’m lucky my husband was a tax partner in Deloitte, so he had a lot of experience and gave me great guidelines, but I learned on my feet. I’m much more confident and experienced now than I was when I first started out. 

Trends come and go, but quality is most important. 

The brands stocked in Ellen B provide women with key pieces each season that they can build into their wardrobes. There’s a constant demand for puffa jackets and quilted coats from Herno, Fabiana Filippi, Max & Moi knitwear, tailored trousers from HIGH and Annette Görtz, and beautiful dresses from Paule Ka and Goat. Rucoline trainers and Kennel & Schmenger boots are huge sellers too. Ellen B is essentially about delivering comfortable chic.  

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When I’m on buying trips in London and Paris, I’m on my feet constantly, so I’m usually wearing Max Mara Leisure trousers and Rucoline runners, or a HIGH skirt and Luca Grossi ankle boots. For special occasions, I love wearing Dorothee Schumacher dresses, and Goat, a new label in store for this season. For good-quality cashmere, Annette Görtz is a classic favourite. 

Style and beauty hacks I live by… 

  1. Finishing an outfit with Alberto Zago, Ash or Jeannot brogues, and a large tote bag from Tissa Fontaneda. 
  2. Every woman should hold onto key items. Check your wardrobe at the start of each season to identify the gaps and figure out what you need; it’s about building up a couple of capsule collections, and mixing pieces to complete new, fresh looks.
  3. I’m neurotic about my hair, so a regular haircut is important to me. I go to my daughter’s hair salon, The Gym Howth (thegymhowth.com). I also have my nails manicured there. I opt for Shellac because I don’t have the patience to wait for them to dry.
  4. A monthly facial does my skin a power of good. The Guinot facial at The Gym always makes me feel refreshed.

This article was originally published in the March 2019 issue of IMAGE magazine. 

Ellen B, Mount Prospect House, Clontarf Road, Clontarf, Dublin

Maurice Mahon House, Main Street, Malahide, Co Dublin

ellenb.ie.

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