“WHEN I first started giving dressmaking classes in Mallow, some people thought it was like going to the moon — now, 30 years later, I’ve a student who comes every week from Tuam.”
That memory of Mary Cashman just about sums up the success story of Mallow College of Design and Tailoring, which she founded 30 years ago this year.
Offering full and part time courses in fashion and design, dress making, pattern drafting and millinery, the college has more than 100 pupils and a solid reputation as being one of the best of its kind in the country.
A trained nurse from Kenmare, Mary recalls it was a compliment from a Midleton priest that originally prompted her radical career change.
“I did the bridesmaid dresses for my sister-in-law’s wedding and the priest said that’s what I should be doing!” she remembers.
So, taking him at his word, Mary, who was married with two children, did a course in fashion design in the Cork College of Fashion on Anglesea Street.
She acknowledges that her own mother was very gifted in this area, and after completing the course, she took a leap of faith and started running sewing classes initially for 20 part time students in a premises in Mallow in 1988.
There was clearly an appetite for what she was offering and in a short space of time she was employing five staff and running City and Guilds courses. By the early 1990s she had relocated to her current premises in West End.
“I decided to go big or not at all,” she said. “I just never expected to go this big!”
Having said that, she admits she didn’t set out with any ‘plans’.
“I just really enjoyed doing what I was doing. I don’t know where the last 30 years have gone,” she said.
On the staff with Mary are tutors Jess Lucas, a former student herself, who previously designed under the label Kozae and Sue Pearce of Sue Pearce Couture.
As well as being principal, Mary also teaches and in fact it’s her love of teaching, she says, that keeps her going: “I love education — it can give people such a boost. For me this is less about fashion and more about giving my students a skill, something they can earn a living from and a confidence.”
Over the past three decades, her students have taken some of the top industry awards for their work, and while Mary honestly admits that they “may not be the next John Rocha or Vivienne Westwood”, many are making a good living in the industry.
“My students are people who want to get on in life, or who want a career change and we give them the skills to do that,” said Mary.
And that’s the whole ethos of the college, where fees are kept deliberately low (around €375 per term) to encourage inclusivity.
Jess, who has been teaching in the college for the past eight years, agrees and speaks of the great ‘sense of achievement’ students have when they realise what they can create with the right skills, and how in turn that can earn them a living.
Their emphasis is on that, as opposed to becoming rich and famous, she says.
“We have a huge diversity of people, ages and backgrounds, but they all share the one passion and it’s great to see that dynamic at work here in the college,” said Jess.
As their courses are part-time, they attract those working and thinking of a career change, or with children, and Jess says their students show incredible commitment, travelling to Mallow after a day’s work or having to arrange childcare, etc.
“We’ve a wealth of life experience in the college and lots of friendships are made here,” she says.
Mary speaks lovingly of all the students who have passed through her doors, lots of whom didn’t even know how to sew a button before they started.
“I’ve never had day’s trouble with any of them,” she says with genuine warmth.
Mary, who will shortly celebrate her 61st birthday, still makes bits and pieces for her grandchildren — she has three and one on the way.
“I used to make clothes for son Andrew and daughter Karen when they were small — to their horror! Andrew still talks about a particular orange suit I made him which I can’t remember but he does!”
Her husband Pat, a Teagasc advisor, has retired but Mary has no plans to follow.
“I’m not tempted,” she said, which is surely good news for her beloved students.
The c30 yeaollege marks its 30th anniversary with a fashion show on May 30, at 8pm, in the Clayton Silversprings Hotel. Past pupils are welcome. As a 30th anniversary is traditionally a ‘pearl’ anniversary, everyone is encouraged to wear them on the night. Tickets cost €20.