Iconic business up for sale

ONE of Huntingdonshire s most iconic retail businesses is up for sale, so that its founder can retire after more than half a century in the business. Shirley Mason, whose working life started as a restaurant model for high fashion in West End department s

ONE of Huntingdonshire's most iconic retail businesses is up for sale, so that its founder can retire after more than half a century in the business.

Shirley Mason, whose working life started as a restaurant model for high fashion in West End department stores, founded The Frock Exchange in High Street, Fenstanton, 25 years ago.

It was to be one of a series of initiatives that were copied across the country, but the posh dress sale and hire business is thought still to be unique in the eastern counties.

But Shirley, now in her 70s, wants to hang up her coat hanger - much as her father, Harry Bedford, England international centre-forward in the 1920s, hung up his boots half a century ago.


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It was The Frock Exchange that gave Huntingdonshire, and then the rest of the country, the "school prom", which provides core business for the shop from Cambridgeshire and surrounding counties.

Twenty-two years ago Shirley's daughter Charlotte - now a spectacularly successful executive in Australia - was soon to leave St Ivo School, in St Ives, and protested that the usual end-of-year grunge disco had become old hat. Could not the older pupils do something more sophisticated? she asked then headteacher John Rhodes.

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"Fine," he responded, "so long as you organise it." So they did and a new era of elegance was born, spreading quickly across the nation after St Peter's and Hinchingbrooke Schools adopted the format the following year.

The business is not just about selling and hiring ball gowns and other formal wear. It's about making the wearer feel she's the centre of attention. But, however expensive a dress is, women don't want to wear it time and again. Hence the Frock Exchange, which will sell the nearly-new creation on to make someone else feel special - for a fee.

"Expensive dresses were hanging in the wardrobe, worn only once. That was where The Frock Exchange came in. we have had millionaires' wives among our clients," she told The Hunts Post.

But there is much more to the business than selling or hiring gowns. "The prom dress is the second most important dress in a woman's life. On her wedding day she has no competition. At the prom she has, and she has to look stunning. So they have got grander and grander.

"And, when you have several customers attending the same event, their gowns must be different. I slipped up once - same dress, but different colours. When I realised, I was dreading their return.

"Both mothers noticed, of course, but each said her daughter was the most stunning at the ball, so I got away with it."

Not all customers have the same size 8 figures of many young promenaders. "I pride myself on having flattering styles in bigger sizes. It gives me particular pleasure to be able to make any woman feel the centre of attention," Shirley said.

"When we sell a dress, we rarely hear about it again. But with hiring we hear how the evening went, whether the dress was admired - of course - and if it had the desired effect on friends or enemies.

"We've even had a girl buy a hire dress because her escort proposed on the night and she later wore it for her wedding."

The business even has an international dimension. "The furthest a dress has travelled is to a company do in New York," Shirley said. "And one girl came specially from Düsseldorf for a dress to wear there. But most of our customers live in neighbouring counties."

Her late husband John, who died last December, ran a men's formal dress hire business from the same premises, and she has continued to hire out dinner suits since then.

The sale of the business and £15,000 of stock is being handled by Ellis Winters in St Ives, where partner Mike Ellis said: "It's a business that's needed in the area, and Shirley will make herself available as a consultant to the buyer if necessary."

CONTACT: Mike Ellis at Ellis Winters on 01480 388888 or through www.elliswinters.co.uk

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