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Leona Edmiston

07 May 2012

Who am I? The rise and rise of a fashion icon.

She studied fashion design at East Sydney Technical College and began her first label in 1982 with a co-student. The two designed and successfully ran the popular label for around 14 years (lasting longer than many marriages). 

In 1996, realising their paths had diverged and they wanted different things, they decided to split. Following a short-lived venture with her then boyfriend and then a short break, where she pondered her future, she returned to the Australian fashion scene with her solo label in 2001. 

She is…

Leona Edmiston was born in Brisbane. Her father is an architect. Her brother is one too. Having your own business was the norm in the Edmiston family. In fact, it has never occurred to Leona to do anything differently. Not that she had any idea what to do when she finished school. It was her parents who saw her talent for design and interiors.

“I was always playing dress-ups, making something or putting things together, building little cubby houses. I didn’t have a plan or an idea about what I wanted to do. It was my parents who encouraged me to enroll in the year design course at East Sydney [Technical College] and it was there that I met Peter Morrissey,” explains Leona of her fashion roots, sitting in the showroom of her eponymously named solo design label one warm autumn afternoon recently.

The rest, as they say, is a bit of Australian fashion history. 

Morrissey and Edmiston was begun in 1982 because “we were fearless back then. Business was a less scary place than it is now and I never gave having anything but having my own business a second thought. We lasted 14 years but eventually found ourselves wanting different things.”

Leona Edmiston is a survivor in an industry that is often portrayed as fickle; a place where the fan base can love you one day and abandon you the next; where the work is hard – the deadlines punishing; where the effects of a wet summer, the GFC and online buying continue to challenge.

Her inner-city Sydney, Surry Hills headquarters are white minimal, refurbished warehouse industrial with floor-to-ceiling glass doors and walls. The interiors are hung with chandeliers to catch the light and fresh flowers in vases on wooden plinths add to a displaced feeling of Ancien Regime splendour. (Something about John Malkovich and Glenn Close springs to mind.) The extravagantly long rack of Leona’s signature style frocks, made up in a never-ending stream of coloured and patterned and graphic fabrics, standing beside a set of small glass shelves set into the wall displaying her Pins range of fine hosiery, scented boudoir style candles and classic shaped perfume bottles, complete the feel in an oddly appropriate way.

Leona’s personal style offers another angle on the skewed interior. Softly spoken and very calm, there is nothing about her presence that is forgettable and there’s certainly nothing about her vision and goals that waver. 

“We have stuck to one thing. We only do frocks. It’s the same now as when we began 11 years ago and that was a risky decisions back then but one that has worked for us,” says Leona of the fashion retail business she began with her husband, Jeremy Ducker.

The business has standalone boutiques, concessions in Myer, a vintage consignment program where customers can sell and buy stock from past seasons and there’s an online store: “it’s doing 3 to 4 times the business of the best store and is our best performer”. There’s a children’s line, Little Leona, a diffusion label at a lower price point called Ruby, accessories, handbags, heels, etc. 

“I am about the detail, the design, the day to day and the products. Jeremy is the strategist. I’m more of a planner and much more considered in my approach to business now, and in comparison to when I was younger. Back then it was very fluid, more organic,” Leona says.

According to Leona, if a business is to work everyone has to have one vision and be charging toward it. They must acknowledge that different skills, diversity of personality and approach are part of what makes it all work, and that having the right team members is important.

“When we look for people we want to work with, enthusiasm is the key factor. We can work on their skills base, but I refuse to work with anyone who is not nice. One wrong person can cause an avalanche and destroy a whole team, a business,” explains Leona, adamantly. She admits she’s made a poor choice or two in her career, and has learned her lesson.

I get the impression if Leona is not happy with something in her business she will tell you – in the most polite way and with a sincerely sweet smile – what she is unhappy about and how it’s going to be fixed. In business as in life: confronting and communicating with calm authority and knowing what counts have proved the best strategies.

Cash flow in her business, she says, is crucial: “Income comes from always selling and I have always self-funded that was very important for my autonomy. The GFC [Global Financial Crisis] coupled with what’s happening to traditional retail because of the online revolution have been challenging for us.” 

The past summer has also caused its own set of headaches and has had an impact on sales. The weather, Leona believes, reduced the amount of events to which people were going. Customers also chose not to go out as much and have cut back on their spending; it was cooler than usual, too, so there were fewer purchases when it came to shopping for summer weight fabrics and fashions.

There are 13 locations, including her Myer concessions and a store in Shanghai, where you can find Leona Edmiston. The all-important online store, which she began as part of her strategy 5 years ago, has had the time to develop and bed itself down into the company culture. That online establishment has left them in a very good position to cope with the explosion, or what Leona calls “revolution”, in online shopping in Australia.

“We are a brand that relies on me,” says Leona, “and I make myself available, forming relationships with customers either directly or via social media. The reach is so much greater and people love the feeling that they know you. For me, meeting the women who purchase what I design is really important because I get to know what it is they like, what it is they wear, and why they buy my products.”

The Leona customer, believes the designer, is style driven rather than trend driven. She’s urban and loves having fun with fashion and her look. The corporate and business customer is a very strong component, but what it all comes down to in the end, believes Leona, is that a woman wants to wear clothes that make her feel fabulous and that engage others in that emotion.

“At the time Jeremy and I took the step, dresses had vanished from the day to day wardrobe. It was all about separates: pants and shirts and skirts. To do my favourite thing, which is frocks, when there really wasn’t anyone doing it was a risk, but one worth taking,” admits Leona of her unwavering vision for a user-friendly, adaptable and versatile product at a great price point for time poor women. 

On the very cusp of the Marc Jacobs ladylike look, Leona’s gut instinct told her to establish the niche idea. Her immediate success was a “huge relief”. Focussing on the one product also meant she could start with a small team: three people, and from there she has been able to build and build.

There are 20 people working in head office where the technical team is based, some of them have been with Leona since she began. Once you get to the stores the business has well over 100 staff. 

“The dress is hugely popular now,” says Leona, whose expansion and growth are solid proof of the validity of this observation. She also believes if she was trying to get into the market now she probably wouldn’t even get a look in and her considered advice to anyone starting out in business is “pinpoint an area or something that’s not covered already or locked off by the big internationals which are already here or coming into the market. Have something unique and at a great price point, because everything now is about value for money, and you must have your own strong signature. People have to fall in love with anything they’re going to buy.”