How One Ugly Shirt Launched a Global Fashion Line
Companies are launched as a response to all sorts of questions. In the case of ZANEROBE, the question was, "How did that guy, in that horrible shirt, get that girl?"
The question arose one night in 2001 as Jonathon Yeo and Leith Testoni sat over beers and commiserated about their jobs. Both, at the time, earned good money working in IT for large financial companies, but they found their jobs lacked challenge and inspiration. They decided that night to go into business together. "I didn't care what business it was, but Leith had a personal interest in style and fashion," says Yeo.
And then that guy walked by "in a really horrible, colorful, multi-striped shirt," with a "really attractive young lady" on his arm. "That was the precursor to everything we wanted to do. We wanted to create inspirational pieces of fashion that made a guy come out of his comfort zone a bit and be more fashionable rather than just playing in the normal cavalcade of throwaway design that you get a lot of in our strip malls and department stores."
From Fashion Police to Fashion Promoters
Their initial goal was to design clothing that they'd want to wear rather than "what we thought was substandard kind of fashion," Yeo says. "It was definitely righting some wrongs that were all over Sydney at that stage."
He calls the duo's early work "very Australian in character and culture" and describes the initial ZANEROBE style as "vintage sports." From there, "we completely evolved to a more contemporary street wear fashion clothing company. So what started out as printed t-shirts is now a full fashion collection."
That evolution created some challenges. "It takes a lot of effort to change perceptions," Yeo says. "It makes it very difficult to evolve and change direction. People wouldn't accept that we were anything other than a t-shirt brand. So you're kind of a victim of your own success in that regard."
But more success lay ahead as Testoni and Yeo stuck to their long-term goals for the company and the fashion sense they wanted to promote. In the beginning, they continued to work their day jobs and moonlighted at ZANEROBE. This allowed the company to grow organically and gave them a source of capital to finance that growth.
"When we were starting to get some runs on the board, get some revenue in the door, and stock at least one or two majors, that's when we kind of decided, OK, this is going to work," Yeo says. In 2004, the company was invited to participate in Australia's Fashion Week, which led to the line's being picked up by David Jones and, later, Glue Store. "Those two stores were instrumental in starting us off and exposing us to a broader market," he says.
With that success came the need to collaborate with department store buyers, but the partners have never felt pressured to move away from their fashion vision. In fact, they give buyers credit for input that has fueled some of their most successful seasons. "We come to the table with 90 percent of the vision, and we work closely with our majors to fill in the other 10 percent of their needs," Yeo says. "That's just a basic business and commercial decision."
Australian Sensibility and Global Profitability
Today, the ZANEROBE collection has expanded to stores in the U.S., Canada, and Japan. The company's international roll-out has presented new challenges that keep the duo mindful of their roots, particularly where cash flow is concerned.
"I think that start-up mentality, that organic growth, should be prevalent through every phase, even if you're a conglomerate," Yeo says. "I don’t think anybody should abandon those fundamental principles of business and the responsibility that we have to our staff, to our community, to ourselves, to do the right thing, and that includes responsibly raising money, raising capital, and building strong relationships with suppliers."
That mindset has also kept the partners from growing complacent about having "made it."
"That's the exciting part of growing a business--the 'how big is this going to get' question is always thrown around. And it's only going to be as big as the driving force behind it, the economic conditions we're playing in, and maybe there's a little bit of luck on your side. We know we've got a very promising, established business with a lot of potential growth, and it's really up to us where we take it."