By Britney Grover
Shelly Watts’ mother had never seen a horse when she agreed to sign Shelly up for riding lessons, but that wasn’t a problem. When Shelly began riding again with her daughter after a 20-year break, Shelly didn’t see any equestrians of color in magazines or featured as models on clothing websites and ads. That was a problem.
“There was a dismal amount of racial diversity and size inclusivity in horse magazines, websites and shows,” Shelly said.
Despite having absolutely no fashion, design or manufacturing experience, Shelly set out to make everyone feel welcome in horse sports. She founded Muirneen Equestrian from where she lives in Metro Detroit, Michigan, with a mission to promote diversity and inclusion in horse sports. Muirneen features equestrians of color, plus-size riders and para-athletes as their models.
How did you become part of the horse world?
I started taking riding lessons as a pre-teen because my best friend owned horses growing up. I don’t think my Asian mom had any clue what she was agreeing to when I started taking lessons. It probably was the first time that my mom had seen a horse before. I took a 20-year hiatus and started riding again with my daughter when she turned 8.
What do you do with horses now and what are your goals?
I take English flat lessons and have dabbled in dressage. I train at the most wonderful barn, Fox Pointe Equestrian. My riding goals: riding with an endurance team (check), driving a cart (check), mounted archery, vaulting, fox chasing and playing polo.
When did you start Muirneen and what gave you the idea?
I completed several half-marathons in college and saw runners of all colors in magazines. When I started riding again with my daughter, I was really disappointed that I did not see equestrians of color featured in magazines or clothing websites. I knew I needed to do something to change that paradigm.
What does the name Muirneen mean?
Muirneen was the name of my first horse. She was a sweet, silly and amazing OTTB mare.
What part does your company play in the horse world?
Our company challenges the status quo and pushes the diversity, equity and inclusion agenda in the horse community. We host regular town halls around topics of racial diversity, body inclusivity and kindness in horse sports.
What’s the best part about having a fashion company?
The best part about having a fashion company is that I get to select the models that grace our website and social media. We recently pulled off the most diverse and inclusive photoshoot in the history of horse sports! I get to help change the norms of the fashion industry by showcasing BIPOC and plus-sized models. Our sizes are usually four or five sizes above most equestrian brands. I also love that I get to wear all of my own designs!
What’s the best-kept secret about what you do?
We make 100% of our clothing and accessories in the United States. I work with seven wonderful, amazing, women-owned businesses to design and create our apparel.
What challenges do you face?
People are well-meaning and they want to support small minority-owned and women-owned businesses. However, it’s hard to compete with the big-box brands, Amazon and fast fashion. We want to ensure people are paid a fair wage. We recently negotiated for our garment makers to not work an extra weekend on our behalf to meet a deadline. That would not have been possible if we did not make all of our goods in the USA.
When clothing is inexpensive, and the fabric cost is fixed, the people making the clothing often lose in that equation. We focus on producing high-end riding clothing built to last, so people can purchase less often to break the fast-fashion cycle. We will never be a fast-fashion brand.
What great things have happened because of your business?
I have met the most wonderful equestrians since starting my business. It’s such a joy to talk with my customers and learn the impact that the mission of Muirneen has made on them personally, like this from Nik T: “I suddenly feel like I’m maybe not so alone in the world. Representation really does matter. Thank you for posting photos of para-athletes as Muirneen models.”
What are your goals for yourself and your business?
My goal is to become a global equestrian brand. We already have customers around the world and retailers in different countries that carry our brand. However, I want everyone to join in the mission of Muirneen.
What advice would you give to others considering entering the world of fashion?
You have to really love design, fashion and your customers! Find your niche and become the best at it. No one can live your dream for you. I started with zero fashion, manufacturing or design experience. I learned everything that I could—and continue to learn—to design amazing clothing for the best customers in the world.
What’s the best thing about your life?
God has blessed me with such an incredible life and family. I have a wonderfully supportive husband. My life would be completely different without his support. He is the strong, silent type, but his support for me never wavers. He never complains about finances when he very well knows it’s all invested into this business. He has sacrificed his dream car, lifestyle and sanity and replaced them with unending hours of stress as he supports me in building the company of my dreams!
For more information, visit muirneen.com or follow Muirneen on Facebook and Instagram