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

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