17 November 1995

A swell way to stay in fashion…

One time in a womans life when clothes really do matter is when she is pregnant. Finding something fashionable and flattering without the proportions of a bell tent is very important as mother-of-two Helen Dando knows well. Tessa Gates met this farmers wife who offers maternity-wear for all occasions

HELEN Dando knows what it feels like to be very pregnant with nothing suitable to wear to a special "do". She also knows that many of todays mums-to-be need smart everyday wear for work and comfortable casual wear that is as attractive as the clothes they would buy if they were not pregnant.

With this in mind she has a become a franchisee of Swells Maternity Fashion Specialists. Helen runs the enterprise from her home at Lower Hendreforgan Farm, Blackmill, Mid Glamorgan, where her husband, Steve, runs a 60-cow suckler herd and 470 ewes in partnership with his mother, Tilly Dando.

When Helen was expecting her first child, Hannah (3), she worked for the TSB in its exhibitions department.

"I had to go to meetings when I was pregnant but I couldnt get a business suit to wear for love nor money. I would have loved to have known about Swells then," explains Helen.

When she was expecting her son Lewis, now 14 months old, she found herself two weeks overdue, with a wedding to go to. "I had to go to the wedding in a borrowed navy dress with white spots on and I felt awful. I would have loved to have hired something nice for it but couldnt," she says. Within a few weeks of Lewiss birth she had signed a contract with Swells.

"My mother-in-law had seen the ad for Swells in farmers weekly. I had thought it would be an agency but when I rang Julia Burton, who started the company, and found out it was a franchise, I initially thought it would be over my head.

"Then Julia said she was coming down from Nottingham to see her mother, who only lives 15 minutes away, and when we met I found out more about the franchise. My voluntary redundancy money from the TSB was exactly the amount of capital I needed.

"I had always threatened to start my own maternity wear business and had even been told five years ago by a clairvoyant that I would run a business connected with clothes and children. You know sometimes you can see everything unfolding before you…? I had always wanted to do this and now was my chance," says Helen.

Her husband was not so enthusiastic. "I went through sheer hell with Steve. He has ploughed all his profits back into the farm and when I worked for the TSB we lived on my salary and mortgage subsidy. I felt we could let my redundancy money dwindle away or take a risk with it.

"I said trust me. Have faith. I felt that with my marketing background, business and farming contacts I could make a success of it. If I couldnt, then no one could," says Helen. "My mother-in-law was so supportive, she is the best in the world."

Helen became the first Swells franchisee (there is now another, Helen Smith, in Lancs). She "officially" opened in March but Yellow Pages deadlines meant her advertisement was in the directories earlier, and just before Christmas she had a lot of women ringing up. "I did not intend to start the business until I had everything done professionally: The room ready, changing area built, stock organised. But these women were desperate. I had to say they could come along if they didnt mind sorting through boxes of stock and I told them it was not the way I wanted to do business."

Now when clients make an appointment they find the stock neatly arranged on rails in a comfortable showroom in the bungalow, complete with roomy changing area. Helen allows two hours between appointments so they can take their time and try on as many clothes as they wish.

"I wish I had a fiver for everyone who says I wish I had found you before. We have quite a wide price range and cost a bit more than Dorothy Perkins or Mothercare but all the clothes are a bit different and are made from nice materials. I only stock a few of each design so you are not going to see a lot of people in them," says Helen. She finds the enterprise fits in well with the farm and family.

Customer Mary Jane Bufton, who modelled the clothes for Farmlife, has one son and another due in February. She buys her clothes from Swells because they do not look like maternity wear and likes to hire a complete outfit, for a special occasion.

Helen can supply hats and evening wear too. "We are even having a full length ball gown designed. We are also extending the range of sizes up to 24. Currently we fit from size 8 to 20."

She also stocks maternity bras by the specialist maker Emma Jane. "A proper supportive bra is a necessity as the milk glands are developing. If a bra is ill-fitting it causes pressure points and these can cause mastitis," explains Helen. Her customers come from far and wide, as she is just a short drive from the M4. "London and Buckingham have been the furthest anyone has come from and it is usually a special occasion that draws them. Surprisingly they usually end up buying an outfit rather than hiring. Many of our clothes have adjustable elastic waists so can be worn after the baby has been born.

"I am buying the winter stock with money already earned from the business and I am not in this for pin money. I think it will soon get to the profitable stage.

"Even though Steve was so against me starting the business he has now tarmacked a large parking area beside the house. He said pregnant ladies could not possibly get across it as it was," says Helen.

"People like coming to the farm and I am hoping that when the children are at school I will be open all hours. Really I want to run before I can walk, as I am already thinking where I can put my shop," she says, confidently.

Helen Dando (01443-673143). Swells franchise information (01949-850263).

The Swells collection has clothes to hire and to buy. Clockwise from above:Red taffeta suit, (£40/hire) and black hat (£15/hire). Striped blouse (£63.99) worn over navy jersey skirt (£29.99), matching jacket (£54). Thick blue shirt (£47.99), denim jeans (£33.99). Dress with tulip skirt (£50/hire), Burgundy print blouse (£56.99), black crepe skirt (£42). Soft green trouser suit (£150 – or £50/hire). Chocolate check jacket (£65.99), skirt (£47).

The maternity-wear franchise fits in well with farm and family and Helen Dando (above) finds customers enjoy coming to the farm to shop in comfort by appointment rather than trekking from store to store in town.