Irish Women in Business: Aoife Cogan of Form School 8 years ago

Irish Women in Business: Aoife Cogan of Form School

For the latest in our series of editorials focusing on Irish Women in Business, we’re talking to Aoife Cogan, co-founder of Form School.

Form School is a joint venture between top fashion model and artist Aoife Cogan and Irish international rugby player Gordon D'Arcy. The couple have combined their expertise to offer an innovative Reformer Pilates studio, the only studio in Dublin's city centre, that offers a range of workout options set in a unique, welcoming and artistic space.

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Aoife describes why she chose to open the studio, her mentors along the way and what she hopes to achieve for her business.

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What inspired your decision to open Form School?

I think when you’re starting a business it has to be something you’re really passionate about and you believe in so strongly or else it’s not going to work. Gordon has done it [reformer pilates] for years as part of his recovery. Obviously being a model, I had to look healthy and stay in shape, but I really wasn’t a gym person. I just can’t stand it – I’ve just never been able to go, and I'm actually quite shy. I've sometimes felt intimidated going into gyms, but this form of exercise has just been something I've always loved doing. The girls used to always hear me going on about it, and I just think it's a great way of staying healthy while focussing the mind.

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So when I was thinking about it, I’ve loved doing this for years, and I’ve seen the benefits, but there’s really not that many reformer specific spaces. But I wanted more than just a space with some machines in it. We wanted it to be a place people would really enjoy coming to work out and we thought that wasn't something currently being offered in Dublin.

So what was the driving focus behind the design of the space?

Being a model for the past fourteen years, and working around so much aesthetically beautiful set-ups, with fashion and style and an art college background, we really wanted to work on an area that both myself and Gordon would really love to work out in.

We looked at it very closely. It definitely was a labour of love over the past year and a half. We saw first hand how much goes into setting up a restaurant, like obviously you get the best chef, but then there is so much time put into the menus, making your clients comfortable so that they have a nice meal but want to come back, creating an ambience. All of that adds to a restaurant. We saw all of that going into the Exchequer but no-one would ever think of doing all that with a workout space.

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So we worked with such a talented designer, Blaithnaid Hennessy. She’s branched out and has opened an interior design shop Gild & Cage - go onto the site, it's just stunning. She really is just the most amazing woman – she has so many strings to her bow. For a long time I’ve known Bláthnaid and I was just chatting to her and asked her if she ever did commercial spaces and then a beautiful relationship grew!

What was the main theme you were looking to create?

She really helped us with the place, it was literally just a concrete box. What we want to achieve is a space that when you leave work, or the stress of work, or kids or whatever is going on is that we can create this calm and welcoming space so you can feel welcomed, at ease and that you can get an hour here to yourself. And obviously you’re getting a really good workout.

There’s a lot of breathing involved in pilates, and with reformer, so you’re really focussing your mind. We went into meticulous detail. We went for a New York industrial feel. Everything we chose, we looked at the whole place to see if it tied into our vision for the place.

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Actually the brick was used on theatre sets. Everyone thought it was the original structure, but we actually flew the walls in. There are some really nice individual pieces, like this little penny box from an old church where you used to light a candle, that we now use to store our price lists, and it’s just really beautiful. We also like to include a daily inspiration quote, (today's is from Bill Cosby!), but it's all about being relatable and welcoming.

I’m obviously an artist as well, so I’m going to work on putting all my work on the walls – I’ve just had no time! But I’ve started with the Jimmi Hendrix pieces, and I'm going to keep putting pieces up on the walls.

For anyone who might not know, what's the difference between regular pilates and reformer pilates?

Well regular pilates is done on mats, and although can be good for stretches and flexibility, it doesn't offer the same resistance training or muscle elongation that you get with reformer pilates.

The beds are all made with springs that can be increased or decreased in resistance, and this allows for a  full-range motion which increases flexibility while building strength. Reformer pilates is also amazing for muscle elongation and trains the body to sustain that length. We build strength by pushing and pulling with legs or arms against the resistance of the springs, carriage, and body weight.

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As I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of breathing involved in pilates, and especially with reformer, so you’re really focussing your mind as well.

Who would you recommend try reformer pilates?

Obviously when I pull back the door, there’s a bit of ‘what have I let myself in for?’ ‘cause people see the beds and think it’s a torture chamber but thankfully people actually stay and realise they really enjoy it!

Everything comes from your core - every movement in your daily routine. So it's the kind of exercise that can really benefit everybody. We get a lot of referrals from physios, especially with the amount of people in Ireland who suffer back problems.

Then just for us regular girls, this exercise is used by Victoria Secrets models, top trainers - there's a reason it's so popular. It works! Who wouldn't mind looking like a Victoria's Secret model?

Do many men attend the studio?

We tried to target the place not just for women, but for men too. We want more men involved with the sport. We had the Irish rugby team in over the six nations to help open hip flexors and prevent injuries. And it's not just for professional athletes. If you’re playing 5 aside soccer twice a week, you still really need to look after your hamstrings.

We also have a 55+ class, so it really is suitable for everybody. Obviously the class is at a slightly slower pace, or some people may have osteoporosis so they’ll have different needs, but we’ve trainers who can still help them achieve really good results while being mindful of their bodies.

Were you nervous starting up the business, being someone who is in the spotlight?

I think there's a few, even of my friends, who've always had little dreams and then when we started this they were like, "You've done it".

I was nervous on the first morning opening the doors to business, and obviously there were people looking at us because of who Gordon and I are, but we are really just two people opening our company together for the first time. I still felt like it was my 21st birthday party and you're hoping people show up. But you keep going.

Definitely if you look around Dublin now, obviously things came to a standstill and people were nervous, but I think you can really see the city is coming to life again. People are willing to put themselves out there like we did  and take a risk.

And I think you could spend years being held back by The Fear, but I'd just say that it's doable. You really can make it happen. And actually a lot of it is mind over matter.

Another thing, I had never been on Facebook or Twitter, myself or Gordon, so when we started the business we had to get a grasp of so many new things. Everyone told you us had to have a Twitter account, and a Facebook page, but now I'm completely addicted!

What advice best served you starting out the business?

Don't listen to any negativity, anyone telling you "Sure that won't work". Try it, find out for yourself. If you know the product you've got, or you're passionate about something, then I think that passion wins over. Everytime. If it's something you really want to do you've got to be dogmatic and go for it.

There are so many entrepreneurs, really successful business people who have had hiccups along the way. It might not even be their first business that makes their name, but you 100% need to pick yourself up and go again.

That was something I really learnt in modelling. People think you smile and take photos, but you're literally fighting for every job and a lot of times you're not what the clients want. That rejection - and from a very young age - can be really difficult, but it taught me to know who I was and what I wanted and to keep trying. To go through that for years, it definitely makes you strong.

What moment has stuck out to you since opening the studio in December?

I was really proud of what we achieved with the space, especially when you see the reactions of anyone who sees the before and after pictures. But I think the nicest moment for me was when two women took me aside after a class and told me that they'd not only found it really enjoyable and relaxing, but that they had felt comfortable. They told me they hadn't been intimidated coming in and really wanted to come back. That was a real buzz.

For more information on reformer pilates, and the classes available, check out www.formschool.ie, on Facebook/Form School Pilates and on Twitter @formschool