The Leap Stories #56: Lynda Gardener

I first remember spying Lynda Gardner when I was six month pregnant, standing on my stall at Camberwell Market, hocking off a framed pair of illustrated Balinese dancers that my Nan wanted to re-home. With her serious hive of black waves piled high and adorned with a silk flower, there was no mistaking Lynda in a crowd of beige cardigans.

And that’s how I’d describe her. Unmistakable. Whatever Lynda touches, her mark is very distinctly her own. She pulls together seemingly disparate and discarded objects and bring them to life in a new way. Her first leap 23 years ago was to open a small, curated, style vintage store called Empire Vintage, which was well ahead of her time. Since then she has evolved, relaunching the store earlier this month, now called Lynda Gardner : Curated.

Embracing the things that set her heart on fire, and being true to her own aesthetic has taken Lynda has leaped from visual merchandiser for Levi’s to store owner, to stylist, to boutique accommodation provider with four beautiful and unique properties.

Lynda is guided by asking herself the questions ‘What would I love to do?’, ‘What experiences do I want?’, ‘What would I want to feel being in this space?’ Digging into her own desires and beliefs has meant that she has created destinations layered with story and visual feasting.

So sweet kin, what would you love to do? What are you curious about? How can you explore those ideas? What does your personal signature look like? What would you need to do to make the leap possible?

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Beautiful Lynda (right) doing her thing in one of the incredible spaces that The Estate Trentham offers.

What did you want to be when you grew up and why?

From an extremely early age I was always interested in markets, gathering, collecting and curating beautiful things. One of my first big vintage purchases was from a market – a beautiful vintage chest of drawers and I was so proud to drag it home and decorate it in my room. At that time I was also interested in collecting beautiful vintage clothing from the 20s and 30s – my obsession grew from there! Around that time ideas started to form about what I wanted to be… I never had a totally clear picture of what I truly wanted.

I guess I always wanted to work in fashion but had no idea which way I wanted to direct myself. I had a lucky start at Levi Strauss and gained a great solid background in fashion, merchandising, styling and eventually setting up all their concept stores across Australia.

I also worked every Saturday in fashion retail on Chapel Street for almost ten years and learnt a lot from the day-to-day running of a store.

In the background I always wanted my own store to highlight my wonderful collections – I realised at some point that my career at Levi’s (after 12 years) had reached the point which was as far as I wanted to, or could, take it without moving interstate and that was not something I wanted to pursue. I knew my passion for collecting was something that came naturally, as did decorating and styling.

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One of Lynda’s absolutely stunning accommodations, The Estate Trentham. 

What did/do you study?

I only every studied secretarial skills when I left school and, back in the day, I went to a secretarial college to learn on a typewriter with carbon paper… seems funny now. I also learned the skill of shorthand which I can tell you I have never used.

What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?

I have had a few courageous moments and the first one was leaving my cosy comfortable role styling and merchandising for Levi Strauss and deciding I would give my small idea of opening up a shop a go! Initially I was put off by neighbours in the street telling me I had picked the wrong end of the strip, that the shop was too small, that I was crazy and I wouldn’t last.

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23 years on, I am so happy I did not listen to anyone else. To me, in my mind, the worst I could do was lose a year of my life giving it a go and at least never regret it, which of course I never once thought. I had no idea what I was doing but had a good background from my years in retail and merchandising. Of course, at the time it was a big leap, I had no idea what would come of the leap… would I be able to pay the rent, pay myself and so on? I started small and made sure I managed the incomings and outgoings. I noticed very quickly that after a few quiet months to get going, my customers kept coming back, which I knew was a good sign.

I do recall, in the first year, a moment when I was in tears out the back of the shop, wondering what I had done and what was I doing. In the end, my determination always came back to my values of hard work and my deep passion for my store and what I wanted to sell to my customers.

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I basically sold all the things I loved and hoped that people would also appreciate and ‘get’ what I was doing and want what I collected….well, it worked!! Particularly when I opened the store, there were no other styled, curated vintage stores. The only other choices were old antique stores which were usually run by older men and were very heavy old fashioned antiques rather than a collection of edited pieces from the country right through to industrial wares.

The other leap was venturing into the boutique accommodation world, something I knew nothing about. Eight years on and I now own four very bespoke and special accommodations in Melbourne and the countryside. I had never worked in that area but I wanted to create places that I personally would love to stay in. I always ask myself the same questions: what would I love? What would I want to see and feel if I went away for a weekend? How would I expect the service (i.e. customer service which I pride myself on)? How would I want to be treated etc. etc.? I learned from the ground up and have had to deal with 99% lovely guests, and 1% unkind or just unhappy guests that were never going to love or get your aesthetic! From those few, I have learnt to be better again at what I do. I have had tears of frustration, although I always manage to pick myself up and reverse the situation by making sure it’s handled in the most professional manner and by, of course, learning from the experience.

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What were you doing before you made your leap?

I think I covered this in previous comments!

Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?

In the early days, my mother, for taking me to markets and exploring ways to decorate with our finds. My mother always had such great interior style. I always remember my school friends thinking they had walked into a gallery, ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhhing’ and talking about the home to all their friends. We were very lucky to have very forward thinking parents and we moved into a St Kilda Road apartment in the heart of Melbourne from an early age, which to me was very inspiring in my early years.

My dad who is not with us today and passed away many years ago, was very skilled artistically, his handwriting alone was something I always admired.

I admire and love Iris Apfel for doing what she does best and having no one else tell her otherwise. Her dress sense and style is a huge influence. At her age having so much get up and go and attitude to boot, I love it. I am inspired by a positive attitude and confidence in people in general.

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What did you have in place before you made the leap?

I was happy and confident in myself to be able to give it go and just go for it! I knew that I wasn’t risking big amounts of money and that no one would get hurt along the way by giving my dreams a go! I also had my background of working in customer service with a big corporation for many years and face-to-face retail experience prior to launching my own store and taking the next step.

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What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that lead you to the leap?

The role I had gave me nowhere else to go! I was stagnant and needed to do something for myself. I took the leap.

How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?

I had a good year off before I decided to take the leap. At the time I had no idea what I wanted to do. I wanted to keep my mind open and I knew something would lead me in the right direction.

One thing led to another. I was driving through Albert Park where I spotted a tiny store that had a ‘For Lease’ sign and it got me thinking, thinking, thinking, as I had always wanted my own store!

Could I? Should I? Would I? Why not?

My husband at the time was very open and secure in his position, so that helped me take the big leap. It was a case of just saying GO FOR IT. Simple! That was all I needed to know because, of course, I didn’t expect to be paid a wage for some time, so it did make the decision process a little easier.

I chose courage because it was truly all I wanted to do at that time. I knew I would do the best I could and give it all I could to make it work and I would never regret my decision to open that tiny little shop.

A couple of years later, I moved to a shop double the size in the same area (in the same street) as I needed more space. This is where I am today 20 odd years later.

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How did you fund your leap?

I started with a lot of my own personal stock – collections I had at home that I was prepared to let go. Plus, at the time, I had the support of my partner, who was working full-time. It did not take long to cover all my own costs, bills, rent etc, but it was great to know I could lean on him during that time.

What other leaps have you made in the past?

Leapt into the world of accommodation as mentioned. Starting with The White House Daylesford, The White Room Fitzroy, then The Estate Trentham and most recently The Apartment St Kilda.

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I’d like to curl up on this couch with a warm cup of chai and some raw chocolate right now!

What leaps didn’t work out? What did you do about it?

No leaps that have not worked out as yet. In saying this, I always believe you learn from all of your mistakes or trials along the way.

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What are you most fearful of? How do you deal with it?

Perhaps when I was younger I was more fearful of how, what, why and what if? Now I treat it all as experience and won’t let it stop me from trying and doing what I believe is right. However, if I really think about it perhaps I am fearful of having too much on my plate. I am currently balancing a lot. I’m managing but I don’t want to tip over and take it so far that I lose control. I don’t want to grow too big and lose the personality that is my business.

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How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap?
1 being sad, 10 being rad.

10, easy, did not even have to think about it.

What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?

Being proud of what you achieve! Learning so much along the way in small leaps and gaining more knowledge as you go. I’m proud of starting so small and now having such successful businesses that I built from the ground up. Knowing it was all built from the ground up is so important. It’s not just the good easy stuff, it’s the little hard goings-on behind the scenes that are so, so important.

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What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?

The only downside was the first year of not knowing how it will all end up. Thoughts of will I manage, will I be able to pay the rent, and so on. I got through it by adopting a positive attitude and having, at the time, a husband who supported my way of thinking. I always believed if it did not work, it was ok, I would have given it a go and learnt a lot along the way.

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What might be your next leap?

I have already worked out another leap and am on this next journey, which I can’t reveal today – something new for the end of the year!! You just can’t stop me! This time it will be with my partner Mark. I always imagine that will be it for a while, but then another exciting opportunity falls on my lap. Most of the time I’m not looking for it, things just fall into place and it’s meant to be.

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What are your favourite words to live by?

You have heard it all before; believe in yourself and give it a go! There is nothing more simple but it has worked for me.

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Every little detail considered. What a treat to stay (or live!) here.

Who do you admire who also made the leap?

Probably people in my own industry, people who do what they love and just keep rolling on to bigger and better things. All things that are real and simple! Leaps that these people are doing naturally because it’s what they love!

Glen Proebstel for taking himself to New York and doing what he loves best!
Kara Rosenlund for producing such amazing works and now her first book!
Megan Morton for opening The School and doing what she does best worldwide now including books, classes and more.

Personal friends who just do what their heart tells them to do and just grow and grow into successful business owners while being so much fun along the way – Stuart McKenzie and Simon Carver, owners of South of Johnston Cafe, and accommodation properties. They never cease to amaze me and are forever just so inspirational. Just listening to their stories and their passion for their business is such a great insight for me always. They are all so admirable and people I look up to along the way.

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A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?

Go, go, go! You can only ever say that you gave it a go and if it works you will never look back. If it doesn’t, at least you will never say you didn’t try. You also learn so much from making mistakes that it may help you take the next leap! Make sure it’s what you are truly passionate about.

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Right now I’m:

Hearing: Lots of building works going on in my latest project The Apartment St Kilda which has now launched!
Eating: Addicted to venturing out for breakfast as much as possible.
Drinking: Vodka cocktails or caprioscas.
Reading: Never without an interior book or magazine in my hand.
Loving: My new projects right now, together with my partner. We have a new one up our sleeve for later in the year! And always loving my dog, Jack (our cocker spaniel), he is just such a big part of this beautiful family, no matter what we do.

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Lynda’s story reminds me that every single one of us is unique and can creatively craft a working life by combining the things we love, in our own way throughout our whole life. We don’t have to be just one thing. We don’t have to fit one box. We don’t have to conform. We don’t have to be a slave to trends, traditions or timelines. Style your own life, your own way.

Lovingly,

Kylie x

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