Dare Jennings: No Dickhead Policy
« I was kind of a less doing student at Sydney University, but I had great fun. I just didn’t do very much for a while. When I was in my 20s, in the 1970s, I was pretty lazy, went surfing, and I didn’t work. After having a very quiet 20s, I started to get moving in my 30s. » Born in 1950 in Griffith, New South Wales, that’s how Dare Jennings, founder of two hugely successful modern-day brands, describes himself. With Mambo, entrepreneur Jennings established an Australian iconic clothing label in 1984 and sold it in 2000 (for a $20-million sale). Six years later, the creative Australian founded a custom motorcycle brand Deus ex Machina, a business inspired by a time where there was no cultural distinction between motorbikes and surfing. We sat down with Dare Jennings to discuss how he’d used his wisdom to turn his hobbies - surfing, rock, music, motorcycles- into two multi-million dollar businesses.
Tell us more about the very beginning of Australian surf- culture icon Mambo clothing?
I had a printing business, I was interested in that term into Mambo which turned into a world successful business, much to my surprise! But at the same time I also had an independent record label called Phantom Records, where we released independently local bands in Sydney. Those two things tended to work together. Music, art, rock and roll and all of the things that I was interested in sort of worked together. I’m very good at starting things. Then, Mambo got very big. I get bored very quickly, especially when things grow and it just becomes about management and all sorts of things. I have the attention span of a two-year old.
Mambo’s growth in the 80s was truly dramatic, you became recognized around the world. How would you explain such a success with Mambo?
The thing about Mambo was it was only about things that me and my friends enjoyed doing. It was music, art, surfing and having fun. It began to represent the Australia of that era. Which again, rather than the intention, was just the way it turned out: the way we expressed ourselves and the way we saw the world. Mambo became a very Australian way to express yourself and then it just kept growing and growing. Being included in the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, to be honest, it was probably the height of it all. It’s just become too big and too obvious. We were too expected, I think. So at that point in 2000, I decided to sell it. But I had this other idea bubbling away in my head, mainly from going to Tokyo and seeing all these cool motorbikes. At this stage, I’m in my 60s so I’m not a youngster anymore, but what I was seeing in Tokyo was a reference. The reference was classic, it was vintage, but the way it was expressed was very contemporary. I thought this was cool. Because Mambo was being in the surf industry, I really disliked the Surf industry, even though we were in the business. To me, there was no fun, there was no humour in that, they considered things incredibly seriously. The surf industry was dominated by the big brands. So there were all these things that I didn’t like, but I still liked the activity of surfing. So what I thought I could do was to combine the things that I enjoyed and create another brand. In fact, sort of take on the surf industry in a different way. So, that was the way Mambo started to appear to me.
In 2000, at the age of 50, you sold Mambo, pocketing $20millions just before things got ugly in surfwear. In 2006, you founded Deus. Where did your vision come from exactly?
From the beginning, I never wanted to be a motorcycle company. As much as I love motorcycles, as I said before, I have a very slow attention span. I like a lot of things. I also like when different things work together and create a more interesting new idea. We then worked with what we call the sum of the parts. The sum of the parts ends up creating a more interesting whole. When we’ve started, because it was motorbikes we were doing, everyone said that it couldn’t work. When bicycles had become popular, we started to do bicycles and everyone said: « No you can’t do motorbikes and bicycles ». But that’s what we do! I have a motorbike, I have a bicycle. I’m sure they can operate together. Then, because Australians are very enthusiastic surfers, I started to bring surfing into that. People were really shocked to see surfboards and motorcycles together. But then, everyone went ‘Well, I guess it’s okay!’. Now it’s very common to see surfing and motorcycling coexisting. So that was the fun years, being contrary. To me, whenever someone tells you ‘You shouldn’t do something’, it’s a good time to start to do it.
Is being a crossover business a key component to success?
Exactly, I think if there was just one thing, I’d get bored with it. The fact that people can find things in it. It’s important to remember that a 20- year old isn’t going to be as enthusiastic as a 60- year old. Otherwise, you get locked into a demographic. And Deus wasn’t just two worlds, it was about 6 worlds. I wanted to bring worlds that had always been close to my heart, so I wanted to bring art into it. There was food, there was clothing, etc. I wanted to have them all. To be honest, I’ve always found people who are really narrow-minded very boring. Good for them, but it’s better to have a rich and varied life than to be obsessed with one thing. Again, just because this is what I do doesn’t make me correct. Some people I know are obsessed with one thing and their obsession is interesting. But, for me, I like to see different things. And the great thing about Deus was in attracting interesting people. If you do something interesting, interesting people will come. There was something fresh and interesting going on.
Deus ex Machina is bigger than a brand: You celebrate a culture of creativity. Can you talk about the Deus community?
I’d like to say there was some sort of plan that I had, but I’m just so happy that it turned out like that. What I found incredible was this idea we had in Sydney. The atmosphere was completely appropriate in pretty much any country around the world. I found that really interesting that French people love surfing, they love motorcycles, they love food, they love all these things and are happy to see them come together. One of the most amazing things was when Federico Minoli, who was the CEO Ducati for ten Years, flew to Sydney to see us because he was interested in what we were doing. He’s like a psych to the motorcycle world. Which is incredible for us, that he came down to see us. He said ‘There’s something going on here’. He went back to Italy and then started the Deus place in Milan, that’s been very successful. Through that, suddenly we were talking to an Italian motorcycle population, cycling people, fashion people. So, it went in different places.
Today, you have stores in Venice Beach, Milan, Sydney and Bali. Was it the idea from the beginning to take Deus international?
No, because of Mambo, I knew about that, then we got spinning that it could work. But we were mainly approached by people. Bali was interesting because, as Australians, we go to Bali. Dustin (Humphrey), who is a very well known surf photographer, wanted to do something. So it seemed like a good idea! Then, we’ve met Julian (Heppekausen), an Australian guy living in Venice, in California. He loves motorcycling, he loves the way we think, so he wanted to do that. It’s like when Federico came to see us from Milan and wanted to do something in Milan. Minoli decided that Italy wasn’t covered and we thought northern Italy, in particular Milano, because of its combination of coolness and love of anything that runs on two wheels. But it has never been a 10-year plan. If it seems like a good idea, then we can do it. That’s how it works.
Deus is all about inclusiveness, authenticity and enthusiasm. How will you manage to protect this DNA in the future?
There’s an expression that we have, it’s a No Dickheads Policy. So we have to try to deal with nice people who understand the idea of what we’re doing, of what’s important. That’s the easiest thing we’ve done, but we do try very hard to stick with people who understand the point of what we’re doing. And, to be honest, after 10 years, we have to evolve, we have to keep moving and keeping it fresh. I think that’s been a problem that we’ve seen, especially with custom motorcycling. People start out, and they do it, and it sort of doesn’t move on. There’re so many people who started doing custom motorcycling, but it’s very hard to make it progress. It’s a problem with the industry.
Is keeping evolving the basement of your success?
Yes, that is the idea. Not change for change’s sake, just to try to keep the ideas kind of rolling along. And remember that it is a philosophy. And this philosophy can apply in so many different ways. I think that’s probably the most essential element to it. When we first started, it was easy to shock people and get people angry, happy or whatever in what we were doing. Today, we are kind of more predictable in that way, so that’s become a different deal.