Len Grant visits Wigs Up North, the Ancoats-based winners of New East Manchester’s All Stars EnterPrize award.
I’ve been looking forward to doing this story, not just because the company I am visiting sounds wonderfully bizarre, but also because they are based in one of my favourite Ancoats buildings, Royal Mills.
For three years between 2003 and 2006, I would impersonate a construction worker with yellow vest, hard hat and ‘rigger’ boots and photograph the renovation of this magnificent mill. Its central atrium, now glazed, is the focal point of the apartment block and is slowly becoming home to an eclectic bunch of independent traders. There’s a fashion wholesaler, an outdoor and snow sports retailer and soon a café. But it’s Wigs Up North I’ve come to see and Jackie Sweeney, one of the three partners, is happy to tell me about the rise and rise of their specialist business.
She and Liz Armstrong met whilst studying at the London College of Fashion. “I was lucky,” says Jackie, “One of the students ahead of me put me forward for a job at Phantom of the Opera and my tutor recommended me to a specialist wig company… and that was while I was still at college! So my second year was mad: I was setting wigs for Phantom in the mornings, catching a couple of lectures, popping over to the wig company and then, in the evening, going back to do the Phantom show. I was loving it.”
When the Phantom production team needed a replacement make-up artist Jackie was able to suggest Liz. “Her first love has always been theatre,” she says.
Aware that the wig and theatrical make-up business was predominately London-based, the two friends, both from the North West, saw a gap in the market. “I asked Liz one day whether she fancied giving it a go and she said yes, and that was it, we’ve never looked back.”
‘Wigs’ began trading from a start-up unit near Manchester city centre before moving to Royal Mills. Now they work with northern companies like the Royal Northern College of Music and the Buxton Festival, designing wigs or supplying their own stock, as well as being a regional supplier of make-up (their other specialism) for touring companies. “We know how difficult it can be for production companies to get the right supplies when and where they need it, so we work with shows like The Sound of Music, Starlight Express and Chicago.”
Liz and Jackie were joined in 2005 by Vicky Holmes, another wig and make-up expert who’s fitted wigs to hundreds of heads on numerous West End productions.
I ask Jackie what is it about wigs that she and her partners find so compelling. “It’s the whole transformation thing,” she says. “With actors you’ll notice how their demeanour changes as they are being made up. You’re helping them transform into their character and that’s very rewarding.” The ‘wig women’ made six wigs for Peter Kay including the one for his Geraldine persona. “Once he put that red one on with the blond streaks, he was immediately in character. But it’s not all glitz and glamour. An elderly lady came in this morning and bought a ready-made wig and that, for me, means just as much.”
Having moved to Ancoats, ‘Wigs’ were in New East Manchester’s patch and eligible, then, to have a stab at the EnterPrize award. Jackie says they didn’t think they stood much of a chance – the competition was so tough – and went to the awards ceremony in December content to have a good night out at the fabulous Gorton Monastery. But they’d clearly impressed the judges with their business plans and came away with the £10,000 top prize. “We were astounded,” recalls Jackie, “it was such a great night and then to come out on top…”.
Jackie tells me they are using their winnings to beef up their e-commerce operation using something called the EPOS system. I just nod.
Since my visit to Royal Mills, ‘Wigs’ have been to yet another ceremony and can now add runners-up in the North West Women in Business Awards to their trophy cabinet. Congratulations!