Len Grant visits a new hair and beauty salon in Ancoats catering for the transgender community.
Co-founder Lisa Breakey, left, at Transfixed with receptionist and administrator, NIcola Breakey.
Ancoats was the epicentre of the city’s innovative industrial past and so it seems fitting that Transfixed, a fledgling company at the forefront of its own business sector has set up shop here. I went along to chat to Lisa Breakey who, with co-founder Zara Prior, set up the business 18 months ago. Both have considerable experience in hair and beauty having worked in salons and the theatre for many years. They weave their new business venture in between teaching jobs at The Manchester College. But how did it all start?
“We went out to Sparkle – the transgender festival in Manchester – with some friends a couple of years back and we were both amazed at how many trans people there were with bad wigs and unflattering make-up! We thought there must be a gap in the market here and that was the beginning of it. We began by doing our research: chatting to lots of people and different organisations who support the trans community… and it went from there.”
So why did you choose to set up in Ancoats, and here at Beehive Mill?
“We wanted to be close to the city centre and also to the gay village and, at the same time, have somewhere private and discreet. People say Beehive Mill is quite a bohemian building – there are lots of musicians and artists here – so it felt right for us and comfortable for our clients. Most people who come to us are quite nervous and shy so this is perfect.”
How much did you know about the transgender community before you started Transfixed?
“Not much at all. We thought there were those people who wanted to dress up and those who wanted to a sex change. But it’s much more complicated than that. Transgender is a umbrella name for transsexuals, transvestites, cross-dressers, everyone. You have to imagine a spectrum and everyone is somewhere on that spectrum, but it’s not helpful to try and categorise people. Some are very secretive and others are very open. We’ve had men coming to the salon with their wives, and even with their children.
Lisa: "We treat people as people."
“We get a lot of satisfaction from treating people as people. Everywhere there are barriers and whispered comments – it’s the last taboo really, isn’t it? – but we try our best to instill our clients with confidence. They feel more accepted here than anywhere else and some have even said, ‘You’ve changed my life’ which is wonderful to hear.”
So there is no ‘typical’ client for you?
“There are many other ‘services’ out there for the community that are no more than a front for the ‘seedy’ side of the business. Our clients aren’t looking for that. They want somewhere where they can get a wig professionally fitted, or have a beauty treatment, or get some make-up advice… and that’s it. We talk to our clients just like we’d talk to women clients in a conventional salon. That makes us different and unique.”
And what about the future?
“Our older clients tell us that society is a lot more accepting now than say, 15 or 20 years ago. And, as cities go, Manchester is incredibly tolerant and open. Transgender people feel comfortable here. So it can only get easier for our clients which will mean our business should develop and grow.
“Even now we stay open late on Wednesday and Saturday evenings so clients can come here, get their make-up and hair done, use our dressing rooms and set off to the village for a night out. It’s great to offer that service.”
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.
Jackie Sweeney: "It's not all glitz and glamour."
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.
Wigs Up North in the renovated Royal Mills
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.
Jackie: "We're happy to provide training for those on their way up."
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.”
Jackie, Vicky and Liz with the EnterPrize trophy. Photograph: Karen Wright Photography.
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!
Wigs Up North