Property: Good Buy, Bad Buy
Leonie Lee-Whittle, owner of Snap Dragon
Saturday 05 September 1998
Leonie was inspired to give up her stockbroking job when she bought a very beautiful 18th-century Chinese wedding cabinet for pounds 2,000 in 1990. "This was the first piece of furniture I bought for myself," she explains. "I was inspired by its beautiful proportions, its simplicity and its patina. It was very important for me in learning how to appreciate the quality of a piece."
In fact, Leonie fell so in love with her cabinet that she spent the next year investigating the possibility of setting up an export business. She travelled around China building up contacts, buying stock and getting to know families who now buy on her behalf. "I was young, and the worst- case scenario I could think of was that I would be left with a container load of amazing wedding presents. As it turns out, the business grew faster than I could ever have dreamed."
Initially Leonie spent five months of every year buying in China, but the desire to have a direct link with her customers led her to set up her London shop. She remains enthusiastic about her stock: "I am completely obsessed. There is not a single piece of furniture in my shop that I don't love."
Although her own home is wall-to-wall Chinese, with "lots of wood and bamboo", Leonie wanted her customers to be attracted to the minimalist purity of line which characterises her stock, and so her shop is quite different to her home. However, she confesses, there was a day when she completely lost her sense of judgment. "Someone said to me: `Oh, wouldn't it be nice if you all wore button-up Mao jackets?' I went and spent a fortune in a shop in Hong Kong. I got completely carried away and bought two to three outfits for everyone, and spent pounds 800." These "cheesy" Chinese costumes were made of rough silk and came in garish colours. "As soon as I got on the plane to come back to London, I thought: `What am I doing? This is ridiculous.' The one thing I had wanted was to get away from the archetypal Chinese element, the stereotype that goes through people's heads. I thought: `Do you really want people to come in the shop and see people swaggering around in Mao jackets? No.'"
Leonie has always been a compulsive collector and hoarder and when she lived in Hong Kong she used to gather old chicken hatches to turn into cupboards. The Mao jackets and "flappy" trousers remain tucked away in storage, still wrapped in tissue paper, gathering dust. Leonie offers: "If anyone wants them, they are up for grabs."
Snap Dragon is at 247 Fulham Road, Chelsea, London SW3 (0171-376 8889).
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