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An inner-city apartment is the ideal urban retreat

Boutique owner Marilyn McLaughlan swapped her large designer home for a compact inner-city apartment – and she couldn’t be happier with her metropolitan move.

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Marilyn McLaughlan has a work schedule that would leave many a 25-year-old gasping for downtime. Dividing her life between Auckland, Christchurch, Hong Kong, the US, Europe and Bali might sound fabulously jet set, but for the most part it’s all business for the energetic owner of the Kimberleys chain of fashion boutiques and designer behind the Episode and Marilyn Seyb labels. Which is why, when it came to finding an Auckland base to be near family, an inner-city apartment made perfect sense.

“When I became a grandmother I knew I wanted to be hands-on and be a real part of my granddaughter’s life,” says McLaughlan. “I was in between business trips and I literally had just one day to stop in Auckland and buy a house before heading off again. I never thought I’d be able to do it, but when I walked into this place, even though I’d never lived in an apartment before, everything just seemed so right.”

It was basically a shell, but I knew I could make something out of it and that it would take the really big furniture I wanted to keep

With floor-to-ceiling harbour views, three generous bedrooms, a large living and dining space – complete with a cook’s kitchen – and a fantastic location, the downtown Auckland property definitely had a lot to like, but it had some negatives too. “It was very sterile with no character at all and it had a horrible sort of industrial carpet on the floor,” says McLaughlan.

Not so long ago, the thought of downsizing would never have occurred to McLaughlan. Life with husband and business partner John McLaughlan in her newly built and rather extensive Ian Athfield-designed home in Christchurch was ticking along very nicely and everything seemed rosy. “It was one of the last projects Athfield did and it had a huge garden and tennis court and all of these fantastic features, but just after the work was completed our marriage ended,” she says. Then the earthquakes came. “I was really fortunate to be overseas at the time, so I didn’t experience the big earthquake first-hand like so many friends and family did, thank goodness,” she says. Her furniture was tossed about and a lot of debris spilled into the house and across the property, but McLaughlan says she was lucky that her house wasn’t damaged too badly.

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She lived in her bespoke Christchurch home for six years then, when she discovered a grandchild was on the way, made the decision to move to Auckland and commute to the South Island for work. “The earthquakes were awful but they brought everyone together and really reinforced for me that people are the most important part of my life, not possessions,” she says. With that in mind, she let go of her once dream home. “I’d been so looking forward to being a grandmother so finding a home in Auckland, even though I’m only here a third of the time, was an absolute priority,” she says.

Once she had bought the apartment, the first thing she did was pull up the carpet and replace it with a wooden floor to add warmth and character. Then she had to decide which of her possessions to keep, what to give away and what to sell. “That’s where my design skills came in handy,” she says. “In my work I constantly have to edit and visualise what goes with what, so the process of deciding what I had to hang on to and what had to go was really quite easy for me.”

Many of the pieces she kept were large items specifically designed for her former home, however McLaughlan has positioned them carefully so they don’t dominate the space. A large teak side table from Bali rests against the wall in the open-plan living and dining area and cleverly balances the proportion of the eight-seater table nearby. Above it hangs an opulent black glass Murano chandelier from Venice that miraculously survived the earthquakes. A little further along is a bench made from a whole tree trunk that took a team of removers to haul up the stairs. “A lot of my pieces have dings and dents on them from the quakes, but I don’t mind that,” she says. “It reminds me of what we’ve been through.”

To offset the neutral walls, McLaughlan added colour and texture with zebra hides and stripes combined with burnt orange chairs, a plush cerise sofa and bright floral cushions in the living room. The guest bedroom blends lime and mauve with the walls acting as a backdrop for some of her favourite art works. Much of the furniture was custom-made in Bali, where she keeps a holiday home, and this lends the apartment a wonderfully relaxed resort vibe. Flowers are important too and almost every room has its own tropical orchid.

McLaughlan selected a moodier, more romantic palette for her own bedroom. “A lot of people wonder why I don’t sleep in the bedroom with the best sea views, but I wanted to have a little cocoon environment, somewhere I could tuck myself up and read and rest. The other room was just far too bright,” she explains. To create her boudoir, McLaughlan covered the window with a deep aubergine velvet curtain and chose a dark gold baroque paper for her walls. Silk lanterns are strung up alongside the antique-style bed and her side table is strewn with scented candles.

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Next door is the apartment’s showstopper room and many a girl’s dream come true. One of the occupational hazards of being a fashion designer is having too many clothes and not enough space to store them. As a solution, McLaughlan converted one of the three bedrooms into a huge walk-in wardrobe with an entire wall dedicated to her shoe and boot collection. “I have far too many clothes,” she says. “I could be accused of being a bit of a hoarder, but a lot of these things have memories for me and I wear them over and over again, so I needed space to hang and store them properly.” Having everything so neatly displayed also makes packing easy, a necessity when she is so frequently in and out of the country.

To house her vast array of cosmetics, McLaughlan designed a vanity unit that wouldn’t look out of place in the beauty hall of any upmarket department store. In fact, it’s so well conceived that a contact who owns a make-up school has requested a copy of the plans to use in her studio.

While friends have asked McLaughlan if she misses her big house, she says she hardly thinks about it at all. “I’ve surprised myself by how much I enjoy living here. It’s a big step to move to a new city, especially at my age, and it might sound funny, but I do feel like I’m quite grown up now. I feel really in control of my life and like there are lots of positive things to look forward to. I don’t feel as though I’ve left anything behind and I’m loving every minute with my granddaughter.”

Words by: Nicole Curin-Birch
Photography by: Helen Bankers
Hair and make-up: Anna Savelieva

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