Carla McQuillan is a hairdresser and a native of Dublin.
Last year, she founded The.Space salon in Drumcondra alongside her business partner and best friend, Nadine Quinn. Also a former model, Carla collected numerous trade accolades before kickstarting her own business.
Still just 28, she wants to evolve the hairdressing industry – drawing on time spent in the likes of Paris and New York to in order to bring added extras to the average salon experience.
"I finished my Junior Cert in 2003 and that summer I was desperate to earn my own money. At the time, Transition Year wasn’t compulsory in my school, so I seized the opportunity to get out and work," Carla tells SHEmazing as she reflects on her professional journey.
“The best part of a year and a half later when it came to returning to school for my Leaving Cert I just couldn’t face it – I felt immersed in all things hairdressing by then and didn’t fancy diving into homework, classes, and study," she explains.
“My dad, Patrick, had different views, however. He knew I was smart, a hard worker and good at what I did – but he also felt that getting my Leaving Cert and progressing on to college and all that was the best road to take.”
Determined to make it in the world of hairdressing, Carla found herself confronted with conflicting advice, but insisted on paving her own way.
"I thought I knew everything back then!" she laughs. "And no one, not even my lovely dad, could tell me otherwise. In the end – of course! – I got my own way.”
Hired by House of Colour, Carla recalls: “I was trained in everything and anything; that all still stands to me to this day and at the time it made me a really good all-round hairdresser who could become passionate about all aspects of the trade."
"While there, we were encouraged to take part in competitions and exhibitions; it was something that pushes you outside your comfort zone and truthfully it was invaluable.”
“On one level, competition work is pretty ugly, but it’s also technically brilliant. You hone your skills rapidly because you have to. I soon started picking up awards, and eventually settled on my winning formula."
Carla credits her early days on the salon floor with her ability to navigate potential pitfalls within the industry.
“It was an insanely busy time between working in the salon and all the competition stuff, but being manic even now doesn’t faze me," she tells us.
"It’s something I say to junior staff today; don’t get overwhelmed – just focus on you and the client you have in front of you. And that was me for ten years – during that time I set myself very clear professional goals and made sure I achieved them.”
Having proven herself over the course of a decade, Carla decided she needed to spread her wings, saying “Eventually you do get to the end of the road, and I decided to take the plunge."
"I went freelance, spending time in the likes of New York, and a couple of Australian cities, as well as working with celebrities, on weddings, and fashion shoots."
"I suppose because I was so busy, people kept on telling me that I needed to open my own place – clients were telling me to do it, but so were people I really respect in business circles.”
Recalling the advice she received at the time, Carla remembers: “Johanna Mc Aleese, who owns and founded Starla dresses, told me I was mad not to."
"A couple of years ago she gave me the whole pep talk. She gave me contacts to meet, and reiterated that as rents were so low then, that it was perfect timing.”
“But I did need a business partner – someone to carry the load with me and to complement what I bring to the table. Truthfully, Nadine Quinn was the first and only person I considered," Carla reveals.
"She was working in a freelance capacity at the time too, but I approached her asked if she’d be interested in coming on board – thankfully, she jumped at the chance.”
Embarking on the venture wasn't free of concerns as Carla fended off well-meaning advice against mixing business with friendship.
"Enough people tried to put us off setting up a business with a friend. We’re completely confident in each other, but everyone from our solicitor, to our accountant, to family – all with the very best intentions – tried to say: “Are you sure? Partnerships can go very wrong in this industry.”
“Of course it was scary, but it all also felt right. Actually, initially we kept things very much in check."
"We thought we’d pool our resources, get maybe one more person on board; we just didn’t want to get too overwhelmed. We wanted to build from the ground up and test the waters before taking the plunge.”
“Both Nadine and I are absolute perfectionists too, but we’re savvy enough to celebrate each other’s strengths and talents, as well as our weaknesses."
The turning point in Carla and Nadine's journey came when they found the spot which would soon become The. Space.
“A big milestone for us was finding our salon in Drumcondra. Moving that bit out of the city centre made it more affordable, but – more importantly – we were filling a massive gap in the market."
"There is a really young, hip, vibrant population around there and we quickly realised a modern salon was what they were crying out for.”
“We opened last spring, but a year ago we started getting the show on the road. Not every plan we’ve had, or every concept we’ve explored has panned out, and yes, it is high-pressure stuff, but we’re learning as we grow.”
Giving an insight into the dynamic which exists between the pair, Carla explains: “For our business, we role play and try to think ahead as much as we can – and that’s how we end up with our very best decisions."
Carla maintains that drawing on time spent abroad has done much to strengthen the appeal of the business.
“We try to be as creative as possible in everything we do – we both draw on our experiences travelling and working abroad too so that our clients have something completely fresh when they come into us.”
"That’s actually my mantra: forgot about what everyone is doing in Ireland and let’s kick-off a fresh perspective. So we hold yoga in our salon on Sundays. We hold events too. And everything in The. Space is gorgeous!”
There is little doubt that The. Space has far exceeded the 28-year-old's expectations – a fact she happily celebrates.
“We now offer services we didn’t at the beginning: makeup, and nails, for example. We started with three people and already we’re up to a dozen."
"Truthfully, ambitious as I am, that’s not something I anticipated. We’re open until 9pm a couple of nights a week to deal with demand. On Saturdays we’re out the door.”
And like any astute businesswoman, Carla is reluctant to move too swiftly until she's properly 'perfected' The. Space.
“Of course, we also definitely want to expand but I believe that it’s important not to move onto your second project before you’ve perfected your first."
"And that’s where Nadine and I are at now. I really feel so at home at The. Space – which is just as well as I spend more time there than I do in my house!“