WHEN Tracie Beardsley was at a function where a woman walked in wearing the same dress, an idea for a business was born.

Tracie was women’s editor for the Southern Daily Echo when she had that experience.

“I had to go everywhere to find a dress. I’d been told nobody needs dresses unless it’s Christmas,” she says.

The experience set Tracie on the road to setting up her own shop, Fab Frocks, inWestbourne. It was named the county’s best retailer at the latest Dorset Business Awards and a finalist at the Bournemouth Tourism Awards and the Dorset Wedding Supplier Awards.

SUCCESS: Fab Frocks co-directors Steve Taylor and Tracie Beardsley with employee Maggie Winzar (right). Picture: Andrew Plant Photography

It claims to be the best-stocked occasion wear in shop in the south.

“One of the things that was important to us from the beginning is customer service. I would walk into a place and the customer service was so poor,” said Tracie.

“Our remit from the outset was to provide labels that nobody else had and excellent service.

“We offer a personal service to everyone, whether they’re buying a £50 party dress to go clubbing in or spending £1,000 on a mother of the bride outfit.”

The business got an early boost from the burgeoning popularity of American-style school proms. “We started out just as the school prom market started,” says Tracie.

Now, it sells hundreds of royal blue bridesmaid dresses a year. “We keep a prom pledge so we won’t sell the same dress to two girls at the same school,” she says.

Her business partner is Steve Taylor, chairman of Westbourne Business Association, who brought experience with national retailers including WHSmith and Superdrug, as well as expertise with e-commerce.

“He was fed up with working in London and wanted a change. We’ve been friends a long time and I went to him and said I didn’t want do run it on my own,” said Tracie.

The pair recently took on their first retail apprentice, Kiera Bradley, who joined from the Grange School in Christchurch.

“She’s only 16 and she’s doing so well. She’s brilliant,” says Tracie.

“It’s been great to start with someone and be able to mould her and give her the training that she needs.”

She urged other small retailers to look at apprenticeships. “You get a lot of value out of doing it,” she adds.

The business has thrived along with Westbourne, where imaginative promotional activities and a mix of independent and national retailers have helped defy the trend of decline affecting many high streets. It has also seen occasion wear come back into vogue, boosted, says Tracie, by the Duchess of Cambridge.

“The occasion wear market was quite staid. We feel we’ve moved with the times,” she says.

“It’s been interesting to see how the frock has come back into fashion. The word frock has come back into fashion. Our name anticipated that. It’s a really good word.

“Women are wearing unusual wedding dresses. There was a time when women weren’t. I went to lunch the other day and 95 per cent of the women there were in dresses.”