IN this week's SME Focus a trained nurse explains how having to undergo traumatic surgery set her on the road to developing specialised forms of lingerie and swimwear.


Nicola Dames.



What is your business called?

Vanilla Blush Ltd.

Where is it based?

Glasgow's revitalised East End at Bridgeton Cross.

What does it produce, what services does it offer?

We are a specialised lingerie, menswear and swimwear company, supplying to people with colostomies, ilieostomies and urostomies - all known as Ostomates - following surgery removing their digestive insides.

Essentially, Vanilla Blush has merged a medical need with a fashion desire. When a person has an ostomy they need physical support in their underwear to give that extra bit of security and comfort. Vanilla Blush underwear is designed to minimise discomfort by allowing the person a place to put their ostomate bag in while wearing the underwear. However, just because there is a medical need for extra support it does not mean there is no desire to also have gorgeous fashionable underwear.

Who does it sell to?

Our underwear and swimwear is mainly, but not exclusively, for Ostomates. We have contracts with the NHS in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. We also have contracts across Europe.

What is its turnover?

We are working towards half a million and growing.

How many employees?

Two co-owners and six employees in the UK with a sales network overseas.

When was it formed?


Why did you take the plunge?

I had my large bowel removed in March 2006. Just before the operation, as an underwear freak - and as a former Intensive Care Nurse, as well as fashion consultant - I realised there was little or no underwear and swimwear for people with stomas that I thought was fashionable. So if I was going to design for myself then why not design for the rest of the world!

Also myself and my husband, Simon, love initiating and standing or falling by our own decisions.

We opened up a successful business in Spain called "Ojo Azul", meaning "Blue eyes". This came after we saw a gap in the fashion market across Europe, purchased out-of-fashion-items in one country and transferred them to Spain where they were soon-to-be-fashion-items.

We really only brought that to an end because I fell badly ill and had to be hospitalised.

Back in Scotland, in March 2006, I had the last-chance-saloon traumatic surgery in Glasgow's Royal Victoria Hospital. Between April 2006 and our launch on ITV in February 2008, I designed the knickers and swimwear, then sourced the material and the manufacturer, though most are set up to produce a standard knicker and swimwear, not the internal pouch.

I visited my first fabrics trade show in 2006 to try and get underwear makers to extend into my ostomate-inclusive underwear - but I was told by the first person I met that they didn't do poo! Eventually I came upon an eastern European contact who immediately saw my vision, and we got to work very quickly.

After nearly two years designing, sourcing and storing, we were ready to sell to the world from our website.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

I worked as a nurse in an intensive treatment unit for people who had neurosurgery. This helped me put my Ostomy into some perspective.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

Borrowed. Re-mortgaged. Credit cards. And sweated blood!

What was your biggest break?

We had a lot of good will from a lot of good people who immediately saw the good-news angle. For example, in 2010 we had Girls Aloud's Nadine Coyle, go big in her support for Vanilla Blush.

Our first NHS contract in 2011 was the moment we realized we were moving into the big time. Although the United Kingdom is one state, and we speak of "the" NHS, we had to gain contracts with Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.

Then we met Ian Manson and his Clyde Gateway-team who helped us find the ideal shop in Glasgow. The launch was April 2014, and we had the pleasure of Bailie Liz Cameron, John Mason MSP and the then Health Minister Alex Neil speak at the opening.

What was your worst moment?

It was that horrendous that I prefer not to discuss it. Or rather, I will save it for my memoirs.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

If I have a fresh idea, I know that the next day I can go in and really see if it could work. And along with this, I love the fact that we can create a culture whereby there is no fear of innovation, successful or not successful.

What do you least enjoy?

Absolutely nothing. Vanilla Blush pre-occupies my mind but in the same way my children pre-occupy my mind. It's the proverbial "labour of love".

What are your ambitions for the firm?

For Vanilla Blush is for it to become the lingerie and swimwear equivalent of Apple.

What are your top priorities?

We are having an ongoing debate on whether or not to get a celeb to help promote the brand. On the one hand, it is understandable that a big celeb immediately grabs people's attention. However, an underlying philosophy of Vanilla Blush is beauty in reality and beauty in normality.

Our showcase store is physically struggling to cope with the market demands. So a decision has to be made whether to physically expand within the area, to consider other outlet possibilities or even to explore the route of franchising.

We are moving towards geographical specialisation, so that our area managers have an ownership of their areas of responsibility, so also increasing the intimacy of relationship between client and company.

What single thing would most help?

Hard cash! We have so many great ideas.

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?

So far the Scottish politicians have been great. We have received support from the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, from John Mason MSP, Alex Neil MSP when he was the Health Minister, from Margaret Curran MP, the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, and from leading Glasgow Council politicians.

More Clyde Gateway-like investment will help regeneration.

Any government should create large-shop front zones in city peripheral areas, in which no rates are required. Where there is business then crime is lowered, and investment in other local shops, such as cafes, increases. On top of this, employment is increased, and so financially active citizens are created leading to more taxes being paid. In short, everyone's a winner!

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?

You only live once. We are only here on this earth a short time. Don't sit waiting for your pension. Courage is a key virtue. Oh, but it is all worthless if all the hard work is not in dedication and service to your loved ones.

How do you relax?

Believe it or not, Vanilla Blush is my relaxation. And then, of course, are our two sons, Joseph and Andrew....