Fiona O’Brien speaks to the successful family behind Irish dancing brand Antonio Pacelli
Renowned Irish dance company Antonio Pacelli are introducing their new Wembley headquarters which showcase the hard work and expertise of this successful family business.
Antonio Pacelli was founded by Westmeath native Tom Gavigan in the early 80s, having moved to London at the age of 22.
He is well known among the Irish community and beyond after taking over Design Shoes in Harlesden. There was a very large Irish community in that area at the time and it wasn’t long before customers were asking Tom if he sold Irish dance shoes because of his accent.
Never one to ignore a good business opportunity Tom researched and manufactured a new Irish dance pump and jig shoe and later went on to design what is still the best selling Irish dance sock in the world today.
He called the brand Antonio Pacelli, in tribute to his parents Anthony and Patricia, but also giving it an Italian twist to convey the popular notion at the time that good leather shoes always came from Italy.
Tom built the business from there, but he made the decision to close Design Shoes earlier this year as he approached retirement. However, with his family behind him Tom was never going to be quiet for long.
His sons, Aloysius and Adrian, were always encouraging him to develop the business further and introduce new technologies to improve the service Tom could offer his customers. Adrian had a back ground in art and design and Aloysius had recently finished a business degree at Bath University.
Keeping it in the Family
“We would often sit around the dinner table talking through ideas with dad. I remember on one of those evenings, my brother Adrian came up with the loop pump which improved the fit of Irish ghillies, a design innovation which you will now see on nearly every pump on the market. I had a business background and saw a lot of potential to grow the business,” says Aloysius. In 1999 his sons joined the business and Tom decided to take a back seat.
“I felt like I had taken it as far as I could. The world was changing, the internet was becoming mainstream and my sons were more equipped for this new business world. I wanted to focus on my shoe shop so it was good timing for everyone,” says Tom. The two brothers continued to develop the business, creating the first commercial Irish dance website in a time when it was unheard of for small business to have an online presence.
They moved to a dedicated premises the next year and got their mother Breege on board to help with getting orders ready. Over the next decade Tom focused on Design Shoes, wellknown for its range of wide-fitting shoes, while the brothers grew the business, becoming European distributors for other Irish dance brands and Irish dance musicians. By 2010 Antonio Pacelli products were available in over 40 countries and required another move to a larger warehouse in Wembley. “I was very proud of what they had achieved.
When I made that first Irish dance pump I never dreamed that the business would grow to the size it has. I used to run the business from a cupboard in my shoe shop, now it needed a dedicated warehouse and offices,” says Tom.
Their new premises at Wembley allow Tom to still work with his faithful customers, who Aloysius say travel from all over the country to get their wide-fitting shoes, and he is quick to point out that those used to the Harlesden shop are only a 206 bus ride away.
“We needed to move as we were bursting at the seams in our current location. Dad was looking to close his shoe shop as he was approaching his 70th birthday but he is still an active man and didn’t like the thought of sitting around the house,” says Adrian. “ He liked the idea of keeping the wide shoes side of his business going as he really likes the contact with the customers.
“Aloysius and I were also very keen to open up a dedicated Irish dance shop in North London for the dancers in the area so we started looking around for a premises which could meet all those needs in Wembley and think we’ve found an amazing spot.”
Aloysius says the family are so proud of what they have achieved, no one as much as Tom who continues to enjoy the banter with his customers who enjoy the boutique feel of the area. He also points out the growing popularity of Irish dancing in some unexpected locations. “It’s got huge in Eastern Europe and Russia.
It’s not like GAA where it comes from a growing Irish community, these people just take their sports and hobbies so seriously and after the surge of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, they wanted to take it up themselves. “We have people all over the world contacting us for orders.”
The new premises also has a dedicated museum showcasing the history of Irish dancing with leaflets and posters and memorabilia from historical feiseanna that they worked with renowned Irish dance historian Dr John Cullinane on. “Dr Cullinane is the pre-eminent historian on Irish dance so we were delighted when he agreed to work with us. His collection of Irish dance memorabilia is enormous and it was a great opportunity for dancers visiting or living in London to see some fantastic pieces of Irish dance history.,” says Aloysius.
The new shop also has its own Irish dance TV, so customers can catch the latest videos from dance groups such as Taptronics or historic footage from the 1950s!
Tom explains the influence Riverdance had on his business, stating that it ballooned after the famous 1994 Eurovision performance.
“Until Riverdance, the countries we sent shoes to were the ones you would expect; US, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia – those with an large Irish population. After Riverdance we were getting requests from all around the world. “I remember watching it live with my wife. Terry Wogan was the host and he got quite emotional after the performance.
It was spine tingling to watch and a real moment in television history. “I then remember we wouldhave young people in the shop from Mexico, Russia, Poland and Germany, all looking for dance shoes. It changed Irish dancing forever. Now if you go to a major championship you will see beautiful dancers from around the world.
The increased success has seen the business take over Scottish dance shoes in 2012, a company that made Scottish country dancing and Highland pumps before increased expansion saw them acquire the Hullachan brand.
“It was a huge move for us. Hullachan was a very successful Irish dance brand with a wonderful designer, Craig Coussins, as the owner,” says Aloysius. “Craig had a rich history, designing products for some of the largest brands in dance, including Freed and Gamba, but was getting bogged down in the running of the business.
So we made him an offer, that we would buy the business but he would continue to work with us as a product designer so it suits everyone perfectly. Tom explains why full retirement would not have worked for him.
“Some customers have been coming to me for their shoes for over 30 years. I have a lot of experience of fitting even the most difficult feet and I think my customers appreciate that and depend on me for their shoes.
They think the new shop is very swanky and I am delighted that I can keep going.
It was becoming difficult to keep Design Shoes going as I’m not as young as I used to be but this suits me perfectly. “The boys have helped me design a new website and I am learning new things all the time now. I have become a dab hand at Photoshop and photography. Something I never thought I would learn!”
The company has over 13,000 Facebook followers and their online presence, including an impressive community page, sees the diaries and experiences of dancers all over the world, as well as those from parents, and a particularly humorous father’s blog.
So what next for Antonio Pacelli and the Gavigan family? “We want to focus on the shops in 2016 and make those as good as we can so watch out for more news on that. We also want to get more involved in social media,” says Aloysius.
For anyone looking for Irish dancing shoes or wide fitting shoes visit the new store for a very warm welcome. www.wideshoes.co.uk
The address for both is 14 Hallmark Trading Estate, Fourth Way, Wembley HA9 0LB and they are open from Monday to Friday 9am – 5pm and Saturdays 10am
Check out the Antonio Pacelli website
Follow them on Facebook.com/AntonioPacelliLtd
Find them on Twitter using their handle: @antoniopacelli3