Dare Jennings: OK, well the story started here in Camperdown in 2005. I had sold Mambo a few years before, in 2000. I was very restless. I’d just turned 50, but there were a few more ideas in me yet and I had this idea of combining motorcycling with a whole lot of other cultural things. I wanted to give it a fresh take, that was the most important thing.
One of the great things about Deus is there have been good examples of divine intervention and there was no finer example than when [partner and creative director] Carby Tuckwell came in and threw his lot in with us [from the beginning]. It was a perfect fit. He was a graphic designer and an all-round designer – he designed the stores.
The most important thing I learnt from Mambo was that people gravitate towards authenticity and culture. Things that I care about are customising motorcycles, and making surfboards and single-speed bicycles. The thing that always irritated me was this idea that you had to subscribe to one thing and nothing else. I had this idea that the sum of these parts could make a better idea. Of course, all the hardcore motorocycle people said, “You’re not serious enough.” All that sort of washed away after a while and then people became envious. We were building motorcycles and making surfboards, building bicycles through art and music. That was the idea and that’s what we persevered with – to create these places that literally win people’s hearts and minds.
We found this place here in Camperdown, which was wonderful, because while it’s a pretty horrible retail address [on busy Parramatta Road] – in fact, you couldn’t think of a worse retail address – we had lots of space. For us, space was luxury. We had space to build a garage, a restaurant, and a shop, and to do events. Even though it was a bit of a hassle for customers to get here, it was well worth it once people made the effort. And they came from everywhere.
IR: Deus was a bit ahead of its time, too, because it’s those experiences that retailers are now trying to create, especially since Covid-19 hit. That’s what’s going to lure a lot of customers away from their laptops and into stores.
DJ: It was also in an era when the expression “experiential” was not used very much. And it’s very painful now because you get people saying to you, “You know what, you should do an experiential thing!” And you know what? That’s what we started with and it’s what we’ve been doing forever. That was the point of what we were doing.
IR: Deus’ stores are actually known as Temples of Culture and they’ve each got very romantic names. You guys have just opened up an amazing store in Brazil, known as the Mansion of Munificence. Paint me a picture, tell me what it’s like.
DJ: Well, it’s pretty strange, because we’ve never been there. We’ve spoken to our partners endlessly online and had Zoom chats with them. They’re great guys. They took a three-storey mansion and converted the whole thing into retail, motorcycles, bars, restaurants, and it looks incredible.
Other bits and pieces are going on as we speak. We’ve had a long relationship with a friend in France, and he’s just opened an incredible place on the river in Bordeaux [the Pocket of Tenacity]. These other guys in Korea – they’re very hipster and very cool – they came to us and wanted to do a store in Seoul with a fantastic high-end pastry chef.
People keep coming to us from all over the world, wanting to take this idea that we started 15 years ago, and expand on it in their local culture.
The thing I’ve always tried to get across is that we make it up as we go along. No one’s going to tell us what’s right or wrong.
IR: The thing about your stores is that they’re quite localised, it’s not just a drag-and-drop model. The mansion in Brazil was designed by an iconic local architect called Oswaldo Arthur Bratke in the 1950s and it took the team 12 months to restore.
DJ: The cookie-cutter approach is not what we wanted. And I think the satisfying thing is when I hear customers say, “I saw your place in Bali and then in Tokyo and it was great. I knew it was Deus, but it didn’t look like all the others I’d seen.” Those stores have absorbed the local culture.
Being Australian, we have a very shallow culture here and for me, there was always this fascination with taking our Aussie ideas and making it up as we go along. We can do anything we like in Italy or Spain and in the process, absorb ideas that speak to what we’re doing, so we instinctively know what to do. It sort of builds on the idea bit by bit. If we were to arrive in Italy and say, “Right, here’s your blueprint, don’t change anything,” it wouldn’t work. But the partners get some ownership of it, they take pride in it, it’s their version of Deus.
IR: What I think is interesting is you’ve basically combined two traditionally niche communities that have now permeated the mainstream. In a way, Deus has democratised those concepts and made them more accessible to the general public.
DJ: What happened in the surf industry, and it annoyed me intensely at the time, is they really had this evangelical way of looking at things – like, “Here’s us, we don’t want anyone else.” – and if anyone asked questions, they’d tell you to go away. I always found it bizarre that they would take this really non-inclusive approach.
So here at Deus, we have [struck this balance]: being authentic and real but also making it so people can come and ask questions and maybe get excited about it, too.
IR: What’s it like working within the motorcycle category?
DJ: When I started, one of the original partners here was a guy from Action Motorcycles. I explained to him what I wanted to do and he was really excited about it because he said the standard motorcycle shop operates on very low margins. It’s all about turnover. It’s very competitive.
But we don’t really want to be part of the motorcycle industry. It just goes in a certain direction. I love motorbikes, but I just find the industry itself very predictable and locked into a certain way of doing things, which we didn’t want to do. And by not doing that, we’ve been able to go around the world and be seen as individual and fresh.
People used to laugh at me when I told them I wanted to start this really cool motorcycle customisation store. And now those bastards have to apologise for not believing in me. I used to say that Deus was either a grand folly or an incredibly good idea.
IR: What were some of the most valuable lessons you learned from Mambo that you’ve taken into the Deus business?
DJ: I would like to think that what I learned was to be Australian, be proud of it, and make the most of that, but not in a cringy kind of culturally cliched sort of way. At Mambo, even though we had all those graphics, there were no Harbour Bridges, there were no kangaroos. We opened Mambo stores all over the world, and people were aware that we were Australian without it being shoved down their throats. I think that is probably one of the biggest things I did learn.
When we started Deus, that was the same idea. Dicking around with motorbikes and going surfing are universal ideas, but the fact that we did them together was, I think, a very Australian thing. When we did it, it was revolutionary, because it broke the mould of how it’s supposed to be. We do motorcycles, but we would like to think it’s more than that.
IR: You guys have recently launched on The Iconic, which is a new part of the business. How does that fit in with your plans for the future of Deus?
DJ: The Iconic is a good partner for us and we’ve been doing promotions with them. The thing I learned about this business at an early stage is that it’s not sustainable if you want to just build motorcycles. For me, it was always about building a cultural platform that we all love, where we talk about things that we love and care about and it would then create revenue so we could survive.
IR: You’ve got a few different revenue streams, like the workshop, the fashion, and hospitality.
DJ: Look at us here on Parramatta Road. This is not a prime retail location, but people make the effort to come here.
I remember an interview with a retail expert in the US, where he said the future is that you open seven amazing stores, or temples if you like, where people will come and have an experience and get excited about it. And they’ll go and buy things from you online. Well, that’s what we’re doing. How all those things come together is important.
IR: Now there’s been talk around retailers having fewer but better stores, especially those who had a large store network before Covid.
DJ: Walking into a shop now is pretty dull.
IR: I would be really, really interested to hear what you think of the retail industry at the moment.
DJ: It’s hard. Rents are going up and sometimes it feels like everything is against us, unless you’re offering something that’s really, really good. If you’re just a shop, you’re not really as relevant anymore. Like, “Here’s a rack of clothes, do you want to buy something?”
IR: If we look into the next 12 months for Deus, what are your plans for the business in the future?
DJ: I think to be creative about how we go about collaborations and creating these ideas together. It’s got to have a back story, there’s got to be a reason [for it], we’ve got to give people something to talk about.
We have people coming to us from all over the world and asking us if they can do this here or there. We’ve been pretty lucky because the [collaborations] we’ve done have gone pretty well. The hardest part now is we’re just not there [with them]. Usually we’d be there, get to know everyone and we’d hang out, but with no travel, it’s difficult. Obviously we communicate online, but it’s not the same.