Crumpler plays the long game

Wilkinson describes Crumpler’s design process as “quite a detailed, hands-on, almost artisan approach.”

When three Melbourne blokes decided on a handshake to start selling bags to bike couriers in the ’90s, little did they know that 25 years later, their business would grow into a global company. Here, CEO Adam Wilkinson shares the story behind the evolution of Crumpler – and how it’s reviving iconic swimwear brand Tigerlily.

This year is Crumpler’s 25th anniversary! Are you guys doing anything to celebrate?

Covid-19 put a dampener on some of the ideas we had. One of the key things we wanted to do was celebrate by rereleasing the iconic Barney bag, the original messenger bag that came in bright colours. The design team has worked on an update of the Barney bag and we’ve released a 25-year range, which looks fantastic. It’s a hybrid of the existing bag with the old logo and stick-on badges you can put on various spots. You can customise it to your preference, depending on whether you want something modern or retro.

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We’ve got a loyal customer base that we think will be excited to see the rerelease – we get asked for it all the time! It’s also a whole new market for us. Recently, we’ve been seeing a lot of teenage kids who are into ’90s fashion and asking for the Barney bag that was floating around back then.

Behind the scenes, we’ve put together video content to share the brand story over the last 25 years, and we’re looking to do key interviews with people who have been instrumental with the brand. Even in this difficult environment, we want to acknowledge an Australian brand that’s been around for 25 years and is sold globally and has survived this long. It’s not just my journey, it’s the founders’ journey and it’s the journey of everyone who’s been involved to celebrate what they’ve achieved. Crumpler definitely flies under the radar to some extent, but we want to celebrate it – and we think the best way to do that is by giving our old-school customers some of the product they want to see.

Tell me a bit about the Crumpler story and how it all began.

Crumpler was founded in Melbourne in 1995 by three guys – Dave Roper, Will Miller and Stuart Crumpler. Dave and Will were running a bike courier company at the time and one of their employees, Stuart, was delivering all these packages but his bag wasn’t quite big enough for them. He also wanted a bag big enough to carry a slab of beer as well, so he designed a prototype made from parachute material.

All of a sudden, some of the other bike couriers and bike courier companies asked him to make bags for them and the business took off organically. Dave, Will and Stuart then decided it would be a good idea to go into partnership – it was all done on a handshake – and they started selling bags. They started wholesaling, but they first opened their store in 1998 and it’s still there to this day on the corner of Smith and Gertrude in Fitzroy. They built the brand from there and credit to them – they did it themselves for 20 years and built it into the global brand it is today.

There aren’t many brands that have been around in Australia for that long and are still successful. I think for some, the pandemic is the final nail in the coffin. Where do you see retail going in the future?

I think it’s going to be tough for the next 18 months to two years and I think we’re seeing a lot of brands that are trying to rationalise their store portfolio. It’s difficult when you have multiple stores and for them to all be profitable in the current environment, so I think a lot of them will be reducing their portfolio. 

For someone like Crumpler, we’re not quite as exposed because we have 17 stores – less can sometimes be more. But there’s no doubt it’s going to be difficult. I guess every business at the moment is looking at how they can potentially fill that gap over the next couple of years. 

Like a lot of businesses, over the last few months, our online sales have exploded, even though our customers haven’t been able to commute or travel much [online sales for FY20 Crumpler grew at over 40 per cent on FY19]. That digital space is something that we’re going to push more into in the next couple of years, as well as other things like emerging marketplaces. If the traditional wholesale model drops off, we’ll be moving more into the marketplace dropship model to customers, where we can control the brand.

It’s an opportunity for businesses to evolve. Maybe the focus won’t be in retail as much, but I’m sure the better businesses will adapt and find business elsewhere. If the brand is strong and the product is desirable, consumers will find it. It’s just a matter of making it easy for them.

Crumpler is really well-known for its good design and high quality. Can you tell me about the design process?

It’s still quite unique. We still have the original pattern maker who worked with the brand when one of the first factories opened in Vietnam and the founders moved him over to work with us here. He’s been with us for 17 or 18 years now. He still makes all the bag prototypes by hand and it’s still a traditional method, where he makes the pattern and all the prototypes are built locally. It’s not a tech pack sent off to a factory.  

We have an industrial designer in the business who looks at all the internals and makes sure they’re millimetre-precise in terms of functionality. Everything starts with the inside of the bag and we work our way out. In this day and age, it’s a lengthy process until we sign off on a sample. A prototype is made locally, it’s tested locally and a lot of work goes into it before it goes across to the factory. Testing our bags – making sure they are absolutely functional and the quality is retained – is a massive part of our business. It’s a credit to our existing team; it’s why the brand has stood firm in 25 years. We’ve never wavered from the ethos that a bag is built for purpose, and functionality and quality is key. 

Over the last couple of years, we’ve elevated the desirability of the bags, because fundamentally, the quality, value proposition and functionality have always been there – nothing’s changed and nothing will. It’s quite a detailed, hands-on, almost artisan approach that we have in the business. 

All the repairs globally are done in Melbourne by our in-house repairs team and we have two machinists doing all repairs by hand. People actually come to our head office, hand their bags back and we’ll repair them. It gives us an amazing insight into our bags in terms of quality control when we get bags back for repairs. Our bags have been known to last a lifetime. Most of them have an eight- to 10-year lifecycle, but people usually update them because they want a newer trend, a new shape or their laptop size has changed, not because they’re falling apart. Knowing why bags might be coming back really gives us a competitive advantage and why we’ve always been known for our quality.

In terms of the next year or so, what are some of the plans you’ve got in store for Crumpler?

We still think we’ve got a lot of opportunity for international expansion for the brand. We’re in the process of signing a new distribution agreement for Indonesia, which has a population of 52 million. We’ve had the product over there through sales agents in the past, but we now have a partner looking to open standalone stores over there in Indonesia and we hope we can have our first store in the next financial year. Then we’ve still got other opportunities through Japan and South Korea.

Since the pandemic, we’ve noticed that we do have growth opportunities for online. Last year, we opened our first micro site specifically for Asia, which currently services customers in Singapore and Malaysia. We’re looking to expand that out to other parts of Southeast Asia. 

By the same token, we’re looking to open a micro site for the American market over the next financial year. There are still a lot of good opportunities for Crumpler. We’ve had some nice growth over the last couple of years, but it really is a global brand now. We’ve met a level of saturation within the Australian market and the opportunity is online, but that international expansion is something we’re very excited about.

I think it’s interesting that you guys are 25 now and finally looking to focus on the US. So many brands have been known to expand internationally too quickly.

Even Crumpler had stores in the States at one stage – we made the decision to focus instead on Asia due to its proximity and growth potential and that has worked well for us.

A lot of Australian brands have gone over to the US and found that it’s difficult to make American retail work remotely from here. American bricks-and-mortar is extremely challenging anyway and has been for a number of years. We will have a slow burn approach to the American market. At the moment, nearly 10 per cent of traffic to Crumpler is from American consumers who know the brand, but we can’t capitalise on that right now simply because of shipping costs and the lead time to get products from Australia to the US. It’s logical for us to set up a micro site and potentially hold stock there, but like our approach in Asia, it won’t be all guns blazing. We’ll build it up organically and try to make it financially feasible.

This year, Crumpler also joined forces with iconic swimwear brand Tigerlily, which went into voluntary administration in March. What’s that process been like for you, now that you’re the CEO of both brands?

It’s been overwhelming to tell you the truth, but it’s been quite exciting. The first thing we wanted to do was get a gauge on the Tigerlily customer. That was the number one priority. We did a lot of research and asked for feedback over the first few months just to hear what customers are looking for and how they felt the brand was going recently. And we got an overwhelming response. We did one survey and we had 16,000 respondents overnight – it was phenomenal. 

A couple of key things came out that our core customers were crying out to see again from the brand. Tigerlily is known for its eclectic, beautiful fabrics, colours and prints – they want to see more of that come back. They also made a clear point that over the last couple of years, the price points had crept up a little bit and they definitely want the brand to continue to be affordable while being of great quality. There were some key shapes customers were keen to see back, like our stretchy pants and maxi dresses. Swimwear was a big one – there was a massive call-out to get back into swimwear.

The logo had changed over the last year, but people loved the heritage logo. It had a bohemian feel to it, so there were a lot of customers asking us to show a sense of fun and enjoyment, especially in the current environment. 

So, we really took all the feedback on board. The first three months the key was getting an understanding of the customer and communicating with them what we plan to do very quickly with the brand. They had been in limbo in the last six months in the change of direction and the administration process. Our first priority was really just to get the trust back from our customers.

The other key thing for us was building the right team as we were building offices and changing and working out what the team looks like.

How has the transition been for the team?

We obviously moved head offices from Sydney down to Melbourne because we had the space with Crumpler. We had a beautiful office space in CBD, but we were only using 50 per cent capacity under Crumpler, so it made sense to bring Tigerlily down here for economic reasons. 

We had a look at the Tigerlily store network; we have a strong, passionate retail team who love the brand and wanted to continue to see it flourish, so we’ve retained all the existing retail team for Tigerlily, but it was more difficult for head office with staff not willing to move from Sydney to Melbourne.

We wanted to make sure that, for Tigerlily in particular, the team members we brought in live and breathe the lifestyle and embody the brand. It was key for us to bring in people who understand Tigerlily and what it should stand for. 

Our design team has come from a few different areas. We have some designers based in Melbourne, others in Sydney; we’ve got designers based between Byron Bay and Melbourne, and fabric and textile design is based in Byron Bay. We have a good mix of people who are familiar with the brand, some who had worked on it previously. I think they’ve got a very clear vision of where the brand needs to go in the next 12 months, along with the customer feedback.

Under the two separate businesses and shared resources with Crumpler, we did have some expertise in logistics, finance, some online capabilities, some merch planning and buying expertise that we’re able to utilise across Tigerlily as well. But what we really wanted to make unique about the Tigerlily team we brought on board was that it had a clear aesthetic, so we ensure the design, marketing, customer service and retail teams are purely focused on Tigerlily – and that it can grow and flourish under its own handwriting.

Some people might be surprised by the new relationship between Crumpler and Tigerlily. Why does it make sense to you?

In the current environment, the first thing is the financial opportunity and the economies of scale. We had a few things going for Crumpler that make sense for Tigerlily. 

Back to the future: Crumpler has re-released its iconic Barney messenger bag.

We had head office space available that we could use and share those costs. But probably one of the more important things is the warehouse Crumpler was using previously. We have our own fully operated warehouse based in Footscray in Melbourne, which again, we were only using at 50 per cent capacity. That gives us a lot of flexibility as a business as we’re not relying on 3PL, so it gives us the opportunity to bring Tigerlily into the warehouse and be able to expand into things like the marketplace dropship experience and get our product out quickly to online customers. It gives the brand a lot of flexibility it may not have had previously. We’re excited about that opportunity – obviously the omnichannel experience for customers is key. 

The other thing that Crumpler has is a satellite office in Singapore. Without being able to open up physical stores right now, we see an opportunity for Tigerlily to open up with key online retailers in Asia. Having warehousing and a sales office in Singapore gives the brand the opportunity to do that at a low cost and utilise the work that’s gone into building up Crumpler in the last few years.

From a brand perspective, a number of our team members actually had more experience in apparel than bags, to tell you the truth. My background is apparel – bags were actually new to me three years ago –so, we felt that within our team here, we had a good handle on running apparel. But we definitely needed to get the right marketing and design teams that lived and breathed that brand. We were comfortable that we could make Tigerlily successful.

Like Tigerlily, Crumpler went through its own major brand transformation a couple of years ago, which you led. How do you take such a well-loved brand into the future without alienating loyal customers? 

Crumpler went through a rebrand where we elevated the product, but ultimately, both the brands have been built because they have a strong core customer base and that’s why they’ve been around for as long as they have. As the custodian of both brands, it’s important we listen to the customer base and we’re not moving too far away from its true essence. In terms of growing it into new markets, you can look at product extensions.

A prime example at Crumpler was when the current design team took over, 70 per cent of customers were male. We saw an opportunity there. There were a lot of females who loved it, but felt the product size was too big and bulky and the colours weren’t feminine enough. It wasn’t serving all purposes and could be used for.

We had a look at Crumpler as a business with its core customer base, and we thought, ‘How do we introduce a new customer to the brand and bring in younger consumers?’  There was a way that we could do that without alienating the core. We kept the core product range the customers wanted with a small tweak, but we brought in new customers from incremental business through new shapes and designs the brand hadn’t done in the past. 

I don’t think it’s dissimilar to Tigerlily. Here’s a strong customer base that’s been vocal, with dedicated Facebook and Instagram groups, there’s even a second-hand Tigerlily Facebook group. Last week, we talked about the rebrand [on social media] and we got 500 posts. The amount of feedback we get from them is invaluable, so we’re going to serve that base and tell them what the brand stands for and what we want to do. 

There will be opportunities through different markets. If we move into Asia, we might find that customers are looking for different shapes or the size curve changes. It’s going to evolve as we move into a true global brand, but fundamentally, the core customer base is who we want to service.

This story appeared in the August 2020 issue of Inside Retail Magazine. To receive a print copy, click here.

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