Kookai’s $100M-plus clothing empire

Rob Cromb has presided over the evolution of Kookai in Australia, from its early years as a Parisian label imported on consignment to its current incarnation as a local designer, manufacturer and retailer.

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Rob Cromb has presided over the evolution of Kookai in Australia, from its early years as a Parisian label imported on consignment to its current incarnation as a local designer, manufacturer and retailer. Two decades after deciding to dabble in the rag trade, he’s at the helm of a $100 million-plus business with 38 stores across Australia and New Zealand.

Were you born to be a rag trader?

No, it was probably the last thing on my mind. I thought my career would head in a more corporate direction, and I was very interested in becoming a stockbroker. Just by chance, I went to Paris for a holiday, and that’s where I got the idea. I met the person who had started Kookai and simply called him and asked if I could bring the label to Australia. I’d already begun a little trading company buying and selling things like reflective tape, bicycle products, homewares, watches … I had a knack for picking things people wanted to buy so when I came across Kookai I thought, clothing’s not so different from the other things I’ve been selling, I’ll give it a go. And I loved the idea of travelling to Paris for business!

What was the biggest challenge you faced in the early days?

There were learning curves on all fronts. Figuring out where women were shopping and what our demographic was. Translating what they were wearing in Paris into something that worked for Australian tastes. Another challenge was making a success of a retail business in an industry that wasn’t very professional or mature in Australia at that time. There was no real poster boy or girl we could emulate, aside from the Just Group – it was learn as you go and become a successful business with the right structures, or fade away to nothing.

You began manufacturing locally, shortly after setting up shop – what prompted that move?

My thinking about textiles and the retail market was influenced by my interest in share trading, where the focus is on buying and selling quickly. I thought a vertical solution would give us the flexibility to be able to create the products we needed at short notice, get them into stores and turn them over fast.

Kookai employs around 1000 staff in its three factories in Fiji. Why did you choose that location?

One of the things we did as a business in the early days was look at our social and environmental footprint. Whenever a woman bought one of our products, I wanted to feel comfortable I could stand behind all the “ingredients” that went into it. That meant making sure we used the best-quality threads and fabrics we could find and making sure that the people producing the clothes were looked after. My mother’s Fijian so I wanted to see if there was a way I could help the community thereby creating employment. I saw it as an opportunity for my retail business to make a social contribution.

Your co-founder and business partner in Kookai Australia is your ex-wife Danielle Vagner. How have you managed to separate the professional and the personal amicably?

Danielle and I have been friends since we were 14, and we remain friends. Both of us were disappointed that we couldn’t make the relationship work and, to be honest, working together was a big part of that. There was no balance in our life given we were building a business of reasonable size. We still manage to work well together, probably better than we did before because it’s not mixed up with our personal life anymore.

This article was first published in Business View magazine (Issue 21).

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