Zoe Cairns and Mallory Robinson don’t put up with average. And they don’t want the rest of us to either. Fed up of their gardens lacking any kind of glamour, and perennially preoccupied with parasols, the Dubai-based childhood best friends decided to start making the very things they lusted after for their own homes – impossibly gorgeous garden parasols that were as practical as they were pretty. Little more than a month into their fledgling business launch, The Gaggler met the brains behind Pretty Shady Parasols to talk pandemic, making the world a prettier place, and why staying local will always be the focus of their fabulous business practice…
HOW DID YOU MEET?
ZOE: We’ve known each other FOREVER, literally, since the day Mal came home from the hospital. We were the only kids on our street in London with expat mums. Best mates from day dot. We lived opposite each other and had walkie-talkies in bed, wore the same clothes, went on holiday together, were bridesmaids for each other – you get the picture. I’ve been in Dubai for 16 years and Mal has been here now for not even a year. It was a dream come true when she made the move over from Malta pre-Covid. We haven’t stopped laughing since.
WHAT’S YOUR CAREER BACKGROUND?
ZOE: Mal was in ad sales, business development and fundraising. I was working in magazines as a graphic designer.
EXPLAIN YOUR BUSINESS IN A NUTSHELL
MAL: There really weren’t any utterly beautiful and different garden umbrellas or fun umbrella stands in the UAE. So Pretty Shady Parasols began with the vision of creating glamorous garden umbrellas and outdoor accessories in bold, fabulous fabrics. We’re all about high-end garden gorgeousness.
WHAT’S THE STORY BEHIND PRETTY SHADY PARASOLS?
ZOE: We were watching a very highbrow dating show on TV, and one of the dates introduced herself as ‘The Parasol Lady.’ Mal and I both love parasols, so we decided that we would like to be ‘Parasol Ladies’ too. Then we thought about how hard it was to come by any garden umbrellas that weren’t the usual boring brown or green and how they did nothing to help get your garden looking glam. We both had sludgy green ones at the time. It seemed like a no-brainer.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO LAUNCH A BUSINESS THIS YEAR? IN THE MIDDLE OF A GLOBAL PANDEMIC?
MAL: Magazines were all going online which left Zoe out of work, and we both needed something that really engaged us and that we could make flexible around parenting. Especially with the joys of home-schooling this year….
WHAT ARE THE BIG FOCUS POINTS OF YOUR BUSINESS?
ZOE: With so many people spending so much more time at home and in the garden, we wanted to make sure their outdoor space are the most gorgeous they can be so they can get the most pleasure from spending their time there.
WHO IS THE PRETTY SHADY CUSTOMER?
ZOE: Us! People who love the sunshine and living an outdoorsy lifestyle that like having pretty things in their homes.
Blue Cranes Parasol, PRP AED 5500, available at prettyshadeparasols.com
HOW DO YOU DECIDE UPON WHAT YOU BUY OR CREATE?
MAL: We are 100 per cent involved in the design and creation process. Everything we sell comes into being once we have answered just one question. Would we buy it? If not, we won’t make it.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU WHEN CREATING YOUR PRODUCTS?
ZOE: How do we want our gardens to look? What are the prints that stop us in our tracks and make us go ‘Wow! That’s gorgeous, and I want it in my house immediately’?
WHERE ARE YOU SOURCING YOUR PRODUCTS?
ZOE: We have to source from all over the place, such is the nature of the textile business, but the parasols, cushions, deckchairs and picnic rugs are all made here in the UAE. And wherever possible, the component parts of the parasols, like the bases and steel poles, are manufactured here in Dubai.
IS SUSTAINABILITY A BIG CONSIDERATION FOR YOU?
MAL: Absolutely. We do and will do whatever we can to make sure our products are sustainable. That’s why the bases, steel poles and canopies are made here in Dubai.
HOW IMPORTANT IS SUPPORTING LOCAL BUSINESS TO YOU?
ZOE: Very. If we can do it, we will do it. We all need to support one another right now. We make sure our component parts are made by small businesses within Dubai. Our bases are 3D printed locally. Our steel poles are manufactured locally. Our canopies and other fabric items are stitched locally. Our embroidery is done further afield… in Umm Al Quwain. We really are as local as we possibly can be.
WHY DO YOU THINK SO MANY PEOPLE LAUNCHED SMALL BUSINESSES IN 2020?
MAL: There are so many reasons. For some it will be as simple as the need for their job to be flexible. For others it will be the ‘heck, life is short, let’s do it’ motivation. Some people have probably wanted to do it for donkey’s years and have now got the opportunity to do so – losing your job and turning it into a positive being one of those opportunities.
DO YOU THINK THE BUSINESS LANDSCAPE IN THE UAE HAS CHANGED BECAUSE OF THE PANDEMIC?
ZOE: Definitely. There’s even more of an entrepreneurial spirit. The UAE has always been a place that fosters new businesses and start-ups, but it seems to encourage it even more so now. And people seem even more willing to support local businesses. It’s seen as a really positive and smart thing to do.
WHAT DOES A SMALL BUSINESS OFFER A CUSTOMER THAT A LARGER BRAND CAN’T?
MAL: Personal customer service. A huge amount of care and attention. And lots of individuality.
WHO IS YOUR BUSINESS IDOL?
ZOE: Gosh there isn’t one person. It’s a tough old game starting a business, so anyone doing that and going for it is a business idol to us!
HAVE YOU RECEIVED ANY MENTORING?
MAL: Not as such. We’ve had helpful titbits from people. Support and help is always greatly appreciated.
WHAT CHALLENGES HAVE YOU FACED IN LAUNCHING YOUR BUSINESS?
ZOE: Well…sourcing the fabric; having fabric colours differ in the middle of a run of orders; hideously tight deadlines; moving 50kg concrete parasol bases on a skateboard; learning how to do e-commerce from scratch; suddenly having to home-school the week before launch; financing the whole thing… there’s been a few challenges to say the least!
Birds Of Paradise Cushion, PRP AED 300, available at prettyshadyparsols.com
WHAT DO YOU KNOW NOW THAT YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN AT THE START OF LAUNCHING THE BUSINESS?
MAL: How to use Instagram and social media. We still have a lot to learn but we’re getting there!
WHY KIND OF FEEDBACK HAVE YOU HAD ON YOUR PRODUCT?
MAL: We’re extremely grateful for all of the very lovely feedback we have received. So many people have commented that there’s nothing like our collections available in the UAE. We also have some very happy and already repeat customers which is pretty much the best feedback you could want. We’re very open to advice, so it’s easy to adapt to recommendations. We’d be very silly not to listen to the pearls of wisdom being offered to us right now.
HOW DO YOU INTEND TO MAKE YOUR BUSINESS SUCCEED?
ZOE: Coffee. We can’t function without it. We drink lots of locally-roasted SOB from Nightjar. Almost nothing else will do.
WHAT IS YOUR PERSONAL BUSINESS MANTRA?
MAL: Laugh. A lot.
For more information, visit prettyshadyparasols.com