The F – Word | The Vintage Drawer

Deborah Thomson. Photo: Naomi Gall

Can you tell us a bit about The Vintage Drawer and how you got started?

The Vintage Drawer specialises in quality authentic vintage clothes for women with a focus on the 40s and 50s in particular. I do also stock other eras from the early 1900s-70s as long as I like the piece.

Each piece is chosen with great passion, discernment and integrity, sourced locally and overseas. I also stock vintage style accessories such as sunglasses, lipsticks and hosiery to add to the look.

The Vintage Drawer started in November 2011.

Unhappy in my job at the time, I went to an antique centre one day and was admiring an old shop counter. I was wearing a 1950s vintage dress. The assistant came up to me and asked me where my shop was. I said ‘I don’t have a shop, I just love this little shop counter’. He then said ‘Well, if you did have a shop, what would you have?’ Without hesitation, I said ‘a vintage clothing shop’. At that moment, I had a true epiphany! I floated on air out of the antique centre and started to make it happen. Four months later, I opened The Vintage Drawer. I started in a very small space at the Sydney Antique Centre with just one rack, about 20 dresses and a few accessories. I just started and slowly built the business from there.

What is it about your work that you love?

I would have to say, the interaction with customers and styling them. Sharing my passion with like minded people and particularly educating those customers who are discovering the world of vintage. I love meeting the interesting people that come into the shop from all over the world and hearing their stories. I also love learning about vintage which is an everyday occurrence. The learning never stops and I have learnt so much since I opened. I started from scratch, having passion for vintage but not really knowing much about it.

My biggest love is finding the perfect home for a piece, seeing the smile and joy on a customers face when they have found the perfect dress. It’s very exciting and rewarding.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to start their own business?

Only start a business that you are passionate about. If you start it for money only, it won’t work. Grow your business slowly but surely. This comes from attention to detail and immaculate customer service.

Ask for help in areas that are not your strong points. For example, I’m not good at the business/financial side so have had to get help with that. I just want to sell dresses!

Stick to your vision and don’t EVER waver from that. You need to be very clear of what it is that you are offering.

Allow yourself some work/life balance. No matter how much you love what you do, you need some personal time out to switch off otherwise it will be a 24/7 business. You will burn out.

Be generous and gracious with other similar businesses by sharing the love. There is no need to compete. For example, if I don’t have what the customer is looking for, I will happily suggest other shops to have a look at. At the end of the day, I want them to find the right dress. That’s true customer service. They will be so grateful that they will come back to you and maybe the next dress they find will be at your shop.

Embrace social media. It really works and grows a business.

Know that customers can let you down in many ways. Be generous where you can but politely and professionally stand your ground when you have to. Know your rights and obligations. Always be honest with the customer. I will never tell someone that they look great in a dress if they don’t.

Admit fault if you have to. If there is a problem, address and fix the problem immediately.

Schedule in an annual holiday.

What has been the biggest learning curve about working for yourself?

Learning not to stress about things that you have no control over like having a day where you don’t have a sale or when there is a quiet trade period. It is not a personal reflection on you or what you are doing.

Realising that I need time out and try not to answer emails or messages late at night. Know that it can wait and be ok with that. When you are a one-man show, you need to limit the burden on yourself.

Understanding and recognising many different personality types and knowing how to deal with them all.

Can you recall a time when something you set out to do has failed – how did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?

I think everyone fails many times in a lifetime in varying degrees. I failed certain subjects at school and failed in a career choice at one point. I tried working in a bank which was a huge mistake! I’ve never been able to read music which seemed like a failure at the time.

I overcame it by talking about why it was a failure with my parents, teachers, mentors and friends. Usually, the simple answer was a realisation that my natural talents or gifts were not aligned with those areas. However, on the positive side, my talents were highlighted and I came to realise what I needed to focus on. So, I learnt that the so called failures are not really failures. They are messages that guide you to the right path in career, interests, life and love.

Why do you think we are so reluctant to talk about our failures?

The word ‘fail’ is a strong word that I don’t like. I would prefer to use the term ‘didn’t go to plan’, ‘didn’t work out as I’d hoped’ even though I gave it my best shot.

There is too much negativity associated to the word. Also, social media and glamorous celebrities make us feel inadequate if we confess anything but happiness or exude perfection.

We should celebrate the word and learn from it.

What inspires you?

People who are interesting and interested.

Passion but not fanaticism.

Open minds and a courage to express ones self through art, music and theatre.

Beautiful old homes and buildings.

Personal life stories that you could never dream up.

Other cities and countries. Travel. Not that I get to do that much anymore!

Biggest misconception about women who dress in vintage style?

That we are not real, that we somehow live in the past in social terms as well.

That we all must have a tattoo. I don’t have any!

That we are wearing a costume. That vintage is a costume. I always tell someone new to wearing vintage that they must not think of it as a costume but to think of it as just a lovely dress and that they can put modern elements into the mix.

That we are weird and attention seeking.

What has been your greatest challenge?

Work/life balance in the initial stages of the business and giving myself permission to have a holiday.

I’m also a very generous person in life and business so it’s sometimes been challenging to say ‘no’ or to stand my ground for fear of upsetting someone. Sadly, people can take advantage of generosity. I’m getting better at it though.

How do you deal with feelings of self-doubt?

I read the positive emails and reviews on my Facebook page and remember the lovely compliments I get about myself and my business.

I look realistically at all of the reasons I am doubting. For example, when it is really quiet for weeks on end, I take into account the season, the weather, school holidays etc. I also look back on the previous year’s figures. Analysis is always good. Politics, especially elections can have a huge impact on spending as can the economy in general.

Share my concerns with another business owner, family member or friend who can often see more clearly from the outside.

How do you switch off? What’s your favourite way to relax?

I do swing dancing and rock ’n roll classes and regular social dancing.

Singing lessons, playing my ukelele, theatre, movies, live music, eating out and cooking. A quiet night in with my own company is also great.

And finally – where can people find you?

488 King Street, Newtown in Sydney (Southern end), which the locals tell me, is the more interesting end of King Street.


Check out other interviews in The F – Word Series


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