An article printed in the Wentworth Courier on March 10, 2020.
Designer Leona Edmiston has opened up about the surprising strategy behind her success, writes Jo Casamento.
From the moment you set foot into Leona Edmiston’s elegant and lush tree-lined Edwardian home in Bellevue Hill, which she shares with business partner and husband of almost two decades, Jeremy Ducker, and their eight-year-old twin girls, Dylan and Dusty, it’s like entering a giant jewellery box. Intricate treasure troves in every corner take a moment to digest and absorb.
Abundant with items of beauty and heart, filled with prints and pattern, it’s clear this is one woman who knows her style,and allows it to emanate from every pore.
It’s eclectic, impeccably stylish and pure Edmiston. She’s a living, breathing embodiment of her brand – which was built on the back of her versatile and beautiful wrap dresses.
Almost two decades from when she launched her eponymous label in 2001 with her husband, her empire still stands strong. Where many have failed Edmiston has survived them all.
The secret? While her style has not waivered, her business model has.
“You have to adapt. While my style has always been true to myself and what I love, the business has definitely evolved. I could see our industry was changing dramatically and that we had to come up with a business plan to survive,” she says all softly voiced and oozing femininity.
“There was an explosion of e-tail shopping, killer retail rents which were crazy and it didn’t match the declining foot traffic. You could see it was a recipe for disaster. So four years ago we sat down and we made a plan. And it’s just coming to fruition now! To the point I can even have a day off. We can now take a breath.”
Don’t be fooled by her love of beautiful things and her attention to the aesthetic, this pocket dynamo is equally discerning in the detail when it comes to the business side of her brand.
The plan was to reduce the size of each retail store – all 31 of them – and to let go of leases as they came up. The business was also streamlined; homewares, handbags, cat accessories and hosiery disappeared as the focus returned to the famous jersey dress on which the brand was built.
The only brick and mortar stores that remain are in the QVB and Chatswood, the head office in Alexandria and the outlet store in Balmain.
“The industry has changed and we have embraced that change. The Leona brand still exists and is just as strong – but in a more cost effective way. You have to be quick and adjust to new circumstances. We always look ahead, not behind.”
Once perfectly described by her protégé and friend, fellow designer Jayson Brunsden, as “more baritone than soprano” Edmiston is astute when it comes to her business model, not afraid to make quick decisions and change direction.
She has been in the fashion game since she exploded on the scene in the 80s with fellow design student Peter Morrissey, their label Morrissey Edmiston was pure rock’n’roll glam. They dressed Michael Hutchence in pinstriped pants and gave Kylie Minogue her edge. One of the cool kids of that generation, her Audrey Hepburn-esque wispy fringe and black cats-eye sunglasses ruled party circuits and social pages for 14 years until they went separate ways.
“I think my secret is I know and adore my woman and I love what I do, I still enjoy every minute,” she says.
By “woman” Edmiston means her customer; and like a sister she talks of her intimately with fondness. It’s clear she knows her as well as she knows how to cut a good quality wrap dress or select a print that will survive the transience of time.
“I think it’s about keeping it real – keeping in touch with what their mood is and what they want. I try be in tune with my client, for years we’ve had VIP nights from years of instore gatherings and the like, I know the Leona woman well and I have never deviated from my feminine-but-not-fussy style and my customer in turn has remained faithful,” she says.
In a world where brand and loyalty do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, where fickle fashionistas are easily distracted by a new hue, a new trend or a new cut; Edmiston’s faithful are a unique breed.
Like their queen they have never deviated from their style.
“My clothes are not something that are in-and-out of fashion. They are cut well, they are made well, they stand the test of time, and they suit everybody. They are dresses made for real women, women of all ages, all nationalities, all figure types. There is no cookie cutter size in my range. They make a woman feel beautiful, and I love that. Women are very loyal if you are loyal to them,” she says.
Sitting in the black and white checkerboard paved outdoor entertaining area by the pool, it’s clear family, with Ducker and the girls, is her focus.
Although she and Ducker work together, they are conscious of not working longer than eight hours a day and take separate days off.
And while the long views to the Bondi hills can be seen from the ivy-latticed pool area which when they moved in 13 years ago they renovated, you could be anywhere in the world when seated in the lounge room opening onto the charming English-style front garden.
There’s little ruby and crystal sherry glasses sitting in the glass cabinets, while a crystal and brass Marie Antoinette-style chandelier hangs over the dark timber floorboards cosily decorated with colourful Persian rugs. A modern canvas artwork sits juxtaposed with the gold gilt antique mirror opposite.
The vintage mahogany cabinets imported from China were sourced by Ducker and the dining table chairs Edmiston found on the side of a road and had re-upholstered in a floral fabric. Antiques and artworks neatly hung in patterns are interspersed with kids crayons and sneakers.
Calling herself a “hunter and gatherer” by nature, the fashion empress, who has been trawling market places for decades – makes no secret of her obsessions.
“If I see something I love, I get goose bumps and I physically get breathless,” she laughs of the well-known rush, her eyes lighting up.
“I just have to have it, I can’t sleep until I do. They are all treasures to me, often found on our travels. Every single one. I found most of the pieces in the market places in the country and they all have a memory. That’s what makes a home really, isn’t it?”
A bold alternative from bare-roomed minimalism, here individuality is key and ‘more is more’ is the motto.
But there’s a fine line between collecting and clutter, and Edmiston has mastered the art of not overdoing it. “We put things out on the street every few months, they’re gone within hours!”
Her treasures include Cloisonné ceramics, antique manuscripts found in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and a collection of rare seashells in a corner glass cabinet which Ducker has been collecting from Fiji since childhood. Feelings and memories are kept close and in tangible reach. Ducker’s father built a resort on the South Pacific island and he would spend childhood holidays there collecting shells, a tradition he has continued with their own family.
“My daughter Dusty is a mad shell collector, she really loves it, she even asked Santa for some, she’s obsessed!” says Edmiston, assuring me it’s okay to put my glass down without a coaster. It’s home-friendly for kids and clutter, there’s nothing precious ,no places off limits.
The item which sparks the most joy for her, is the wall of art created by her twins. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to trawl global bazaars and local markets for these finds, she just has to provide the colouring pencils and feathers so the girls can unleash their inspirations.
“I love their creativity and what they have done,” she smiles pointing to a cheerfully coloured in family portrait Dusty created. “I think the kids are wonderful artists and these are very special to me, and I think, just as wonderful as the other artworks in the house.”
With family drawings, hilariously some depicting Leona and Jeremy with a cocktail in hand, and always with her trademark brunette top knot always firmly in place – it’s clear this is a home filled with life and love.
Inspired by Singapore’s ‘black and white’ house style – built by British colonial families in the late 19th century – in which modern art, period antiques and an East meets West design is thrown together, books littered around the coffee tables include Beaton’s Scrapbook and Slim Aaron’s photography.
Edmiston admits prints have and always will be her inspiration point. Spots, checks, florals, stripes; she will spend hours endlessly searching for the next one she will use in her collection.
“We buy from archives, artwork that has been sitting in drawers for decades and we give them a new life. I can find a piece of lining a drawer from the 1800s, that’s what still excites me, the same way it did when I was younger.”
And while her happy place is in the Southern Highlands where the couple also own a property, her favourite thing is to host a pool party with her kids and their friends, enjoying themselves here in the backyard.
“The girls loves to swim, they love the beach! Not me though!” she laughs, admitting she has only ever been in her pool twice in the entire time they have lived there. “I’m not really one for getting my hair wet! But I enjoy watching everyone else.
“I was always the girl with the Jane Austen novel sitting in a window. I always have been. I’ve never known to be anything else! I am me!” she says scooping up five month old sausage dog, Daisy, the newest addition to the family after their two previous beloved dachshunds, Archie and Henry passed. The oldest was 18 and died last year.
“We love to sing karaoke on Friday nights,” she explains as I spy a machine in the corner of Ducker’s home office, which also has an exercise bike. “And yes I do that for eight minutes every day!” she laughs to my open mouthed reaction, in disbelief she would ever be caught dead in athleisure wear.
“I swear I even wear jeans and Birkenstocks on weekends!” she insists wide-eyed. “But the lashes never come off”.
True to form, this a woman who won’t let anyone persuade her to be anything but herself.