Stitches in Fijian chieftain time

 07/03/2016, Australia

Rob Cromb, managing director of Kookai Australia, is sitting in one of the showrooms of his fashion business talking about love, life and the pursuit of happiness against the background of one of the toughest retail environments in years, including the global financial crisis.

Business is not great in what Cromb describes as a “stormy” environment, but it’s not bad either for a fashion label that established itself in Australia in 1989 on a wing and a prayer – $2  (US$1.50)in the bank – and has seen its share of ups and downs, mostly ups.

In a tough retailing landscape, revenue for the year to June 30 will be up by about 5 per cent, with “bottom line” profitability rising 25 per cent, owing to cost controls that grew out of the GFC.

“We’re probably a bit sheltered because we have our own stores,” Cromb says of his successful label, which targets fashion-conscious women.

Cromb’s story is probably unique, certainly compelling, and for someone in early middle age has some distance yet to travel from his childhood in a village on Fiji’s second island, Vanua Levu, to owning one of Australia’s more successful boutique fashion businesses.

The man in the tailored suit and understated tie and of Melanesian appearance talking about fashion amid racks of garments in his company’s headquarters off Melbourne’s Chapel Street is not simply chief of his own business, he also happens to be a Fijian chieftain or ratu.

This is courtesy of his Fijian mother, a chieftain herself, or an adi, in the case of women.

When Cromb is telling you all this, including relating details of a childhood spent gathering yams, fishing, playing rugby with the other village kids until the age of 12 and conversing in a local dialect, it is hard to reconcile images of a sort of noble savage life in a loincloth and an outrigger canoe with the urbane executive sitting before you.

But life is full of surprises. This has certainly been the case for the son of a Fijian chieftain and Australian engineer father, now deceased, from whom he takes his name.

Cromb is talking philosophically – which he tends to do – about entrepreneurship, the meaning of life, and how anything is possible if you’ve grown up with not much in the first place, apart from being royalty in Fiji.

“I grew up [on the island] with a sense I didn’t need anything because I realised early you could live anywhere in the world without anything. Fiji sort of gave me a sense that I could do whatever I wanted,” he says.

“It liberated me, my way of thinking, rather than think I need to get a job, I must work for a big corporation, I need to get a degree.

“I actually just thought, ‘my gosh, if I don’t do what I exactly want to do in Australia, I can go back and live in Fiji.’

“So I didn’t have any fear about starting my own business, which was really important because fear stops a lot of people doing what they want to do.

“People who are fearful tend not to think clearly.”

It occurs to you at this point that what Cromb says is the purest distillation of the entrepreneurial impulse that you are likely to hear, something that might be dispensed in business schools.

How, then, did the boy in the outrigger make the transition to hip executive of a successful fashion label, who drives a BMW and lives in a smart townhouse in Melbourne’s toney South Yarra, not far from the city’s present garment district, now that many of the Flinders Lane rag trade businesses have withered?

The story begins with his mother’s romance at university in Melbourne with his father, a fellow student, leading to life in her home village until 12, schooling at Melbourne’s Caulfield Grammar and business studies at LaTrobe University before dropping out to return to his Fijian idyll in his early 20s.

Cromb recounts heartache along the way, including his parents’ break-up, and other upheavals that saw him living on the street for a while.

But he doesn’t dwell on these ups and downs, which is probably a good thing for a businessman in a line of business that is both cyclical and fickle.

Back in Australia in the early 1980s after a year “finding himself” in Fiji, Cromb had a series of jobs in investment advising, insurance and stockbroking before becoming a financial controller in a construction company.

Meanwhile, he had married childhood sweetheart Danielle Vagner (the two are now divorced but remain business partners and friends), and started his own business importing homewares from Europe.

The entrepreneurial gene went to work when he found himself in Paris in 1988, meeting up with Danielle, who was staying with a modelling friend named Paola.

Paola’s boyfriend at the time was fashion designer Philippe de Hesdin, who happened to be the founder of the Kookai label in Europe.

The rest is history, it might be said, but it is not quite that simple.

Cromb recalls that because they had little money Danielle had booked them into a cheap hotel that turned out to be not exactly what it seemed.

“We’d booked into a whorehouse,” he says, laughing. “Which explained the large black woman standing at the top of the stairs in a red leather, shiny dress.”

Someone in the fashion business would remember these details.

Cromb recalls that when de Hesdin came to pick them up for lunch he said, “You can’t stay in this hotel,” to which, in their naivety, they had replied, “Why not?”

“It’s not really a hotel you stay at by the day,” the Kookai founder replied before inviting them to his Paris mansion.

By the end of the stay Cromb had persuaded his host to hand over catalogues and samples to take back to Australia and from these (de Hesdin was sceptical about business prospects in Australia) he managed to put together a collection to sell to Myer.

But the problem was that Cromb himself had no idea about fashion, including labelling requirements such as standardised barcoding or numerous other requirements in what is a complex business.

Issues included learning how to navigate government regulations, dutiable taxes and other charges.

Cromb laughs about selling his first Kookai collection to Myer and then panicking over how he was going to raise the money to fill the order, let alone deal with all the complexities of the fashion importing business.

Somehow he managed to satisfy Myer’s requirements in dribs and drabs, initially borrowing $10,000 from his wife’s family and relying on Myer’s prompt payments.

The boy from the island survived various setbacks, including the early 1990s recession Australia “had to have”, in the words of then treasurer Paul Keating, prompting moments when he felt his fashion business would not survive.

Today he maintains 30 stores across Australia and New Zealand, and is looking to expand around the Asia-Pacific region.

He employs nearly 700 people, half of whom work for him in Fiji, where his garments are made up according to Australian designs and from fabric sourced in Australia.

Kookai Australia has been a stand-alone business since 2004, with only tenuous connections to Kookai in Europe.

Cromb would be the first to admit he has been lucky and that serendipity has played its part in his good fortune.

“If I sat here and told you all the instances where I’ve had that break, that moment – not only personally but in business – we’d be talking for a couple of days,” he says.

“My life has taken some funny turns, some for the better, some worse.

“Things don’t always work out the way you hope but at the end of the day it’s a fascinating journey for anyone who wants to throw caution to the wind and give fate a chance, he said.

SOURCE: THE AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW/PACNEWS

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