THE AUSTRALIAN PAIR BEHIND VENROY’S PERFECT SWIMWEAR AND RELAXED LINENS WORKED THEIR BOARDSHORTS OFF TO GET INTO THE BIG AMERICAN DEPARTMENT STORES – THEN BROKE AWAY TO GO IT ALONE.
It began with fireworks, bought over the fax machine with a borrowed credit card when Theo Smallbone and Sean Venturi were just 10 years old. The entrepreneurial relationship that started on that day is still going strong two decades later, but is now focused on building a leisurewear brand rather than importing contraband from Canberra.
“I have still got some of them,” says Venturi, laughing, about the long-ago-purchased fireworks. “We bought so much, we probably bought about 50. I still remember unpacking them.” “We lit about half of them,” adds Smallbone. “It was just the thrill of having something we weren’t allowed.”
They are talking to WISH at their newly renovated and expanded flagship store in Bondi, which they opened in 2015 after years of selling their wares in department stores around the world. The boys – Venturi is now 29 and Smallbone is 28 – started Venroy in 2010, with absolutely no experience in the worlds of fashion or design, only the desire to make a really good pair of “boardies”, because they couldn’t find any they liked.
“Throughout school when our friends were collecting sneakers, we had a bit of a competition as to who had the best boardshorts collection,” recalls Venturi. “It got to a point in 2010 when there was one pair of boardies that we both wanted to buy; literally there was nothing else so we were both arguing over these light blue Polo Ralph Lauren boardies with a pink horse. I got them. But we just started talking and thought maybe we should make our own boardshorts.”
Smallbone was studying design at the University of NSW and Venturi was studying business. They had no idea how to go about making boardshorts so they approached Smallbone’s sister, Ruby, who at that time had her own label. She told them they needed a pattern – “we were like, ‘what is that?’” – and so she sent them to her patternmaker.
“We took in all of our boardshorts that we liked and we put together all the best features so we could create this ultimate super-short,” recalls Smallbone. “It wasn’t the normal way she worked,” adds Venturi, recalling the bewilderment that met their proposal. “We still have that effect on people. We didn’t really know what we were doing but we just wanted to put together these shorts.”
They were both pretty happy with their first sample, and the discussion progressed from making them just for themselves to making boardshorts to sell to others. The problem was the profit margin: these perfect shorts would cost them $43 to make and they were selling them to stores for $45. They also had no idea where to sell them, so they would walk into high-end stores in Sydney, uninvited and unexpected.
“We would gee ourselves up in the car,” Venturi says. “It was hard work. We would pretend we were looking around and shopping and then we would say, ‘By the way, here are our samples, are you interested in our boardies?’” This approach wasn’t always successful, like that time they went into a store called Tuchuzy in Bondi, run by well-respected retailer Daria Sakic. “She
didn’t take it well. She was like, ‘Is this a sell? Are you trying to sell me something?’”
Despite this dispiriting encounter, they were not deterred from selling their boardshorts or cold-calling retailers. A holiday in the US in between university and labouring on a residential building site led to the decision that Venturi should stay for a few weeks to see if he could get a few American stores to take their product. After all, they needed to sell their boardshorts in the northern hemisphere if they wanted trade all year around. Again, Venturi hit a brick wall, this time at LA store Lisa Klein, run by a very successful retailer of the same name.
“Lisa said to me, ‘I am just going to save you a whole lot of heartache: just don’t bother, you are not going to sell a single pair of trunks’ – as they call them in LA – ‘as they are too short’,” Venturi recalls. “That was a big dent [in our confidence] so I came back to Sydney a bit disheartened, and started another degree, which was law.” But Venturi lasted only a few weeks before dropping out of law to give the US another crack. This time he went over for six months and continued the door-knocking and coldcalling as well as heading to industry trade shows in places like Las Vegas.
And it finally paid off. The pair signed up highprofile store Fred Segal in Los Angeles in 2011 and W Hotels a few months later, then landed a national rollout in David Jones across Australia. Even Tuchuzy came around to Venroy – the boardshorts became the store’s best-selling menswear item.
Next stop was New York and the big players of the department store world, such as Nordstrom. Venturi and Smallbone continued to turn up unannounced with their wares, but this routine was complicated by the fact that the people they needed to see were usually many floors up in sky-high city buildings with elaborate security. The pair could not just wander in with their boardshorts pretending to be browsing; they had to have appointments and be granted security passes. Armed with the names of receptionists they had been cold-calling for months, they managed to talk their way into the headquarters of quite a few stores.
“We got up to Barneys, up to level 11, and we walked over to the receptionist, saying we were here to meet Brian Levine, who was the buyer we needed to see,” recalls Venturi of one such endeavour. “The receptionist asked ‘do you have a meeting?’ and we were, ‘yes, course we do’, and she came back five minutes later after finding out we didn’t have a meeting and escorted us to out to the lift and pressed the button.” The next year they finally did get a meeting with a buyer and won over Barneys. And then it was Nordstrom, and soon enough they were in 200 stores around the world.
But unfortunately what followed was not the success that Smallbone and Venturi had envisaged. They had no control over how their product was displayed at these stores, meaning that sometimes their boardshorts were shoved on a rack so packed you couldn’t see them at all and other times Venroy wares didn’t even make it on the floor as the stock was left in boxes in the loading dock. The boys also wanted to expand their line beyond swimwear, but there was no interest from buyers, who had incredibly specific job descriptions (the buyer they dealt with at Nordstrom, for example, was the “buyer for men’s contemporary sportswear: bottoms”).
“It was a nightmare,” says Venturi. “We were done, especially with these big accounts. You just had no control: basically, they buy when they want to buy, they tell you the price point and when they are going to pay you. So we pulled out of all of them and decided to focus on 100 per cent direct to consumer.”
That did not go down very well and they were
“Lisa Klein said to me, ‘just don’t bother, you are not going to sell a single pair of trunks – they are too short’.”
warned against this very risky move. “I don’t think anyone had ever told Barneys that they didn’t want them to sell their products,” says Venturi. But being told not to do something had not stopped the pair in the past and it did not deter them this time either. So they went ahead, pulled all their stock out and ploughed all their resources into opening their first retail store and expanding Venroy to include a full menswear offering, including chinos and shirts, with a heavy focus on linen.
“The business essentially started again,” says Venturi. “Our revenue was gone because our accounts were gone.” They opened a pop-up store in Bondi on the October long weekend in 2015, setting up on Saturday and opening on the Sunday. Smallbone was off working on their website and left Venturi to deal with what they thought would be a smallish crowd on their opening day. They were very wrong. “Everything went,” says Smallbone. “From then until probably even now, we have struggled to keep up with stock.”
They opened a store in Paddington the following October and then in Mosman in the year after that. Smallbone and Venturi have just finished revamping and expanding the Bondi store, have signed the lease on a store in Brisbane and are aiming to open another two more this year. “We are actively hunting outside Sydney,” says Smallbone. But don’t expect to see them in a major shopping centre any time soon as the pair doesn’t want to surrender any control of their brand – or their customer’s experience – after being seriously “burned” as an international wholesaler. Being in a large suburban shopping centre also does not fit with Venroy being a leisure brand.
“So much about Venroy is escapism. A lot of our main demographic are young professionals and everyone is so busy, has crazy work schedules and are never switching off thanks to technology,” explains Smallbone. “Being able to come into a space like this, being able to generate a sense of the emotion you may feel on holidays. It is teleportive; it is a bit of an escape.” The pair want their stores in locations that fit that feeling, from being near the beach like Bondi or in the inner city where people meander on the weekends while out for brunch.
Aside from retail expansion, Smallbone and Venturi have also ventured into China to manage their manufacturing process, purchasing a sample room and hiring 14 exclusive tailors to make their clothes. This has enabled them to begin to offer womenswear as they can do small runs with, say, 60 pieces in six styles. “Controlling that end as well is really important to us,” says Smallbone. Venroy only began stocking womenswear in October last year; by December it was already accounting for 30 per cent of their overall business and by January it was 40 per cent. “The reason we did it is because over 50 per cent of foot traffic in our stores is female – they are buying for significant others or sons or brothers,” says Venturi. “And they were actually buying for themselves as well, so the demand was there as they were wearing our stuff already.”
And so after many years in wholesale and spending all their energy getting the attention of buyers who consistently said no (whether it be at trade shows or cold-calling or talking their way around security), the pair really enjoy actually focusing on customers and seeing them purchase their wares.
“We sold tens of thousands of garments and [until the store in Bondi] I had only witnessed two or three times them actually being sold in store,” recalls Venturi. “We had never seen it and that was the whole problem with wholesale – you are designing for buyers, you are not designing for the customer. Now all we care about is the end consumer. It is liberating.”
“Being able to generate a sense of the emotion you may feel on holidays – it is a bit of an escape.”
The expanded Venroy store in Bondi