Kath Partner and Amy Morse reveal how Rock the Dragon in South Wales became a UK-wide one-stop destination for dancewear with sparkle and flair
Kath Partner was working as a bank manager when she first got into leotards and Lycra. Frustrated with the lack of choice of gymnastics kit for her young daughter, she went a bit further than most mothers would: she hired a van, drove from South Wales to a factory in Leicester and bought some second-hand industrial sewing machines so she could make her own custom leotards.
Seventeen years later, she and business partner Amy Morse run Rock the Dragon, specialising in garments for dance and the performing arts. “My background was in finance so I had absolutely no idea of the print industry,” Kath admits. “It was just a happy accident – one that I don’t regret as we have a lot of fun here.”
In the beginning, Kath learned from her mum, Christine, who was a seamstress and pattern-maker. Initially focused on gymnastics, the business expanded into dancewear and became Rock the Dragon 10 years ago.
It moved to its current premises in Swansea in 2019, with Amy joining 10 years ago on a work placement funded by government scheme Jobs Growth Wales. She fitted right in – “I loved it like it was my own” – and became an equal partner and director. “If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be where we are now,” Kath states.
Rock the Dragon began locally, but it soon gained customers across the UK.
“We are actually bigger in Scotland and Kent than we are in Wales now,” Kath says. Its website hosts shops for nearly 500 dance and performing arts schools with other customers including schools and colleges, corporates and even a long-running West End musical. It decorates garments for children as young as three up to dance groups for women aged over 70.
Rhinestones and HTV
One reason that Rock the Dragon stands out is its specialism in rhinestones. Kath initially applied them by hand and then used the “brush ‘n’ bake” method, dropping stones into customised stencils. In 2018 the business invested in a Nagel & Hermann Endless Libero C3 hot-fix rhinestone machine, and then a second, the Endless Libero C4, last year. “They’re quite massive lumps of machinery, powered by compressors, but they are a fabulous piece of kit,” Kath adds. The rhinestone designs are created using Adobe Illustrator and Sierra Hotfix software.
Six years ago, Kath and Amy discovered Dae Ha UK’s heat transfer films and now use nearly its whole range, from glitter to holographics. “We are always trying to push the boundaries with designs to try and make things that little bit more sparkly than what we’ve done before,” Kath says. “The quality of Dae
Ha is fantastic so we tend to stick with them as a supplier. We have a good relationship with them.” The company uses a lot of One Flex PU film as well as Dae Ha vinyls for stretch fabrics. “Some designs can be five or six layers where you have different-coloured vinyls, different-coloured glitters, a layer of rhinestone. They can be quite intense.”
Dae Ha’s Holographic film is ideal for creating sparkly spangle-like effects without using actual spangles, says Kath. “We cut the individual circles out of the holographic film and it mimics the sequins on the fabric. It’s like a flat version of rhinestone and works really well.” This is useful for garments for children under four, Amy explains. “From a safety perspective there are no pick hazards with the stones. That is something we have to be quite wary of with what we do because the little ones do love to pick at it.”
Transfers are carried out on Rock the Dragon’s eight heat presses and it also has a Mimaki CJV150 printer/cutter which is “an absolute godsend”, according to Kath. A single-head Ricoma embroidery machine handles logos and the business also has three industrial sewing machines including a Typical overlocker. “We still manufacture from scratch and also do a lot of garment alterations,” Kath explains.
“We’ll buy T-shirts in, crop them, take the necks out to turn them into an off-the-shoulder style. We don’t just keep things standard – we try to mix things up as much as we can.” Amy says that this is an area that they hope to build on, maybe moving into wholesale supply of garments as well as becoming a trade supplier of rhinestone designs.
The impact of Covid in spring 2020 was exacerbated by dance and performing arts schools shutting their doors.
“We went from doing incredibly well and expanding to taking nothing literally overnight,” Kath recalls.
However, Rock the Dragon’s online presence offered opportunities to bounce back, diversifying into leisurewear. Customers snapped up new hoodies carrying the Rock the Dragon name – the first time the company had put its brand on clothing.
For parents cheering on their children at competitions, the company has also introduced the Slogan range with messages such as “dance mum” in rhinestones.
“We are constantly looking for new markets, new ways, to be able to bring the business in,” Kath explains.
Lockdown also led to Amy and Kath developing a new dancewear brand, called DRGN, which was launched over a year ago for sale by retailers.
Currently using pre-made items and embellishing them, it features dance crop tops, leotards, T-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies.
Led by Amy, the brand champions inclusivity and donates 10% of profits to Young Minds, the charity for children’s mental health.
“We see the mental health side of adolescence being massive among our customers,” Amy explains.
“Dance is a hard industry. There are a lot of body image issues. At a convention in March, we had teenage girls crying at our stand because we sold a size large that was actually a size large, not size 10. DRGN is a brand that people feel they can wear with confidence and be part of something.”
Despite the challenges of Covid, Rock the Dragon has continued to grow and has retained all its staff – it now has a team of 12. Last year, it moved into a second building, giving a total of 8,000 square feet, with two warehouses, a studio, production and a shop. The retail space caters to local customers, but it also serves a broader purpose.
“To sell the big dance brands such as Bloch and Capezio, you have to have a high-street premises,” Kath says. “They won’t just supply anybody. We can then also sell those brands online.”
The breadth of Rock the Dragon’s range is reflected in its suppliers, which include Tombo, Finden & Hales, Henbury, Gildan, Just Hoods by AWDis and TriDri sportswear.
The latter, according to Amy, “is the best at the moment for what they offer”.
The one-stop shop also includes footwear from ballet shoes to tap shoes.
However, the breadth of ages can be a challenge, Kath says.
“If it’s a school with a full age range, they want to be able to kit everybody out in the same thing so we need generally from age three to five up to 5XL if we can get it. The suppliers’ reps dread coming down as our first question will be: ‘Can you get it from age three?’.”
Another challenge is the pace of change in garment styles. “We are competing with what people in America are wearing on shows because the kids in the UK want to be dressed like that,” Amy explains.
“Especially with the rise of TikTok, trends keep changing so, so fast. You can invest in stock and within a month, they’re into something else.” The rise of online retailers has also brought pressure for next-day or even same-day delivery. “Some customers don’t understand we make individual clothing: we’re doing designs by hand, there’s a lot of attention to detail,” Kath points out.
The changes triggered by Covid have made running Rock the Dragon less predictable than in the past, especially as the supply chain remains unreliable, Kath reports. With so much heavy equipment, energy costs are also a concern. However, Kath and Amy believe the past few years have made the business ready for anything.
“We are now concentrating on rebuilding our core business,” Amy adds, “and making sure we’re strong and resilient.”