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Island Diaries: Designer Kyla Bidgood of Bidgood and Co

Island Diaries: Designer Kyla Bidgood of Bidgood and Co

On Victoria in the ’90s, favourite retail projects, and the changing design scene in the city.

As told to writer Julia Dilworth. Illustration by Kevin McBride.

There are challenges working here—blessings and challenges. I think if I’d moved from Victoria to a big city, I’d probably be working my way up in a big firm right now. But in a small city, I felt like I was able to branch out on my own. Networking was a bit easier because I grew up here.

My family moved to Vancouver Island when I was in grade four and I grew up in Saanichton. It’s suburban, but it’s very beautiful out there. You’ve got the marina and great access to the ocean in Brentwood, and you’re surrounded by farmland. It was a great place to grow up. As kids, we rode our bikes and rollerbladed everywhere, it was very safe. But yeah—I couldn’t wait to get out of there as a teenager.

I hung around downtown Victoria in the ’90s a lot because I used to dance at a studio on Yates Street six days a week. I’d take the city bus from school in Brentwood Bay to downtown; it was a totally different place than what it is today. The two stores that stand out are the original Still Life, before Matt and Kim Jensen bought it—it had half new, half vintage apparel. It was very cool. It’s still my favorite store in town but it had a totally different vibe back then. And then the other place…I think it was called Off the Cuff or something? They sold body piercings and hair dye, and that was on Lower Johnson where Reunion sits today. Johnson definitely wasn’t the John Fleuvog, higher-end fashion street it is now. It was grittier. But it never felt unsafe.

And then the recession hit and I got laid off. It was shocking, but it was kind of a sign. Like—okay, now I’ve got nothing to lose, so I may as well see what I can do on my own.

I spent a couple of years at Camosun College and lived near downtown, then I went to Vancouver Island University and took interior design at VIU in Nanaimo. One thing I noticed was how quickly I made friends up there. When I was in high school, I worked at Starbucks and I would work at a few different locations, everyone was friendly, but it wasn’t easy hanging out with new people. And when I moved to Nanaimo, on the first day of work and design school, I instantly made friends.

My grandparents had a house in Nanoose Bay, which luckily I was able to live in while going to school. All of my childhood holidays were spent at that house: summer vacations, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, spring break—it was waterfront, and so I spent a lot of time at the beach.

The beach was mostly solid rock with small inlets, little bays with small stones—quiet and private, awesome for swimming. Wall Beach was another one right by my grandma’s. The tide would go far out and then come back in over the hot sand, and it would just be like this warm pool to swim in. It was heavenly. I love it up there. I would retire in Nanoose one day if I could.

Many people are still reluctant to try something new…Whereas, I see things that are being tried in larger cities and think, Why couldn’t that work here? 

We don’t own my grandparents’ house anymore, but I still love driving up to Nanoose and visiting the beach. When we were kids, we were in the water all the time. Now when I go and dip my feet in, I think we must’ve been made of rubber. It’s freezing. But we would tear down to the beach on our own, find a log, roll it into the ocean, jump in with all of our clothes, and sort of row the log down to Wall Beach. Then we’d trudge home in our soaking wet clothes. We were pretty free.

After I finished design school, I stayed working in Nanaimo for a while. I loved living there; I worked at an architectural firm on Gabriola Island and a design firm in town—but I wanted to expand my experience. I came back to Victoria and I got this really cute apartment in an old heritage mansion in Rockland, which I loved—I could walk everywhere. I worked at a firm on Fort Street that specialized in space planning, and I also worked at a design firm in Brentwood Bay. It was full circle because that was my hometown. I think I did that for about three years, then the recession hit in 2008 and I was laid off.

It was shocking, but it was kind of a sign. Like—okay, now I’ve got nothing to lose, so I may as well see what I can do on my own. It was probably the most challenging time to start a business. My partner at the time and I really had to hustle. I had also just bought my first condo six months before. It was in Esquimalt, I loved that place. It was a condo in an old converted heritage home; the founder of St. Michaels University had built it as a home for his family. I lived there for 9 years.

Victoria is still a small city, in that we don’t yet have big city design mentality or budgets. But there is a change happening. Many people are still reluctant to try something new; they like what they’ve seen done before and the reassurance that it “works”. It’s also very expensive to build here, which makes people risk averse. Whereas, I see things that are being tried in larger cities and think, Why couldn’t that work here?  I think people are a bit tentative to push the envelope. But we’re evolving. A lot of people are moving to the Island, which I think is part of what’s changing the design landscape. We also have a new generation building their own homes and business owners that are taking some risks.

I probably never would have foreseen myself staying and living on the Island. I always thought I would move to a big city, like Toronto or New York.

Also, a lot of us have travelled to other places, other cities, and have been inspired, and want to bring a piece of that here. We have such a vibrant culture, especially in our arts and business communities, and I think over the last two years, we’ve had really great opportunities to do some fun projects that are contributing to that change.

One of my favourite retail projects was Citizen Clothing, a men’s clothing store on Lower Johnson Street. It was one of the first collaborations we did with the construction side of the company [with my partner—Chris Strong, the other half of Bidgood and Co. and Strong Construction]—now our two separate businesses have merged. We had four weeks and $10,000 to do the whole store. It was insane. That’s a tight budget and an insanely tight timeframe. But we just went for it because the client trusted us to do whatever we wanted and he knew it would be great. And it was. We won design awards for that project. It’s been published. It’s small and it’s simple, but it’s one we’re really proud of. I think that’s so cool—Victoria is a small enough city that I can walk around and think, Wow, it’s amazing how many spaces we’ve touched. Retail stores and restaurants and offices, Sherwood, Wind Cries Mary, Saint Cecilia, The Livet, Still Life for Her. We do a lot of residential too—hundreds of projects in total—big and small.

I probably never would have foreseen myself staying and living on the Island. I always thought I would move to a big city, like Toronto or New York. When I bought my condo, there was a “no rental” bylaw in my strata, so I kind of got anchored here. But it was actually the best thing that could have happened to me. I don’t think I would have the company that I do if I hadn’t stayed here. My business started with just me working out of my spare room to now 22 people. The support, the word of mouth, the connections and the community that Victoria offers is so unique. So yeah, it worked out. It worked out pretty well.

Check out Bidgood and Co’s work.
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