The setting is very Sydney: minimalist and light-filled, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to Hills Street and the glossy green tiles of the adjacent Beresford Hotel. Ash and aluminum fittings complement the room’s muted palette and monochrome features, from the polished concrete floor to the charcoal cups and saucers.
We’re at The Stables Cafe in Surry Hills, one component of an ambitious new four- storey complex, The Stables Co-op by fashion distribution company We Are The Stables, which is run by co-owners Danny Sekulich, the group’s general manager; Benny Walters who oversees national sales and brand direction; operations and marketing manager Todd Williams; and financial controller, Simon Chalmers. When speaking to this group – all without a hair out of place, yet somehow still casual, dressed in fresh, pressed white t-shirts, and double-cuffed tailored shorts or unusual denim – it doesn’t take long to pick up a palpable air of confidence in their direction and vision.
Their collective self- assurance is warranted, considering the scale of this ambitious undertaking. “We’re looking to offer a different experience to our customers,” says Walters, walking through the space. “A place where you can always expect to leave feeling like you have spent quality time, whether for a coffee, meal or a new wardrobe staple. We hope to achieve an experience that is educational, but not pretentious.”
Two and a half years ago, the team acquired Posto No.19, a neighbourhood cafe in Rushcutters Bay, with the view that it would make a good training ground to test their business ideas. It proved fruitful; and a retail store on Gould Street in Bondi followed. Named The Stables D.S. Co-op, and complete with a coffee bar built into the street-facing window, the store is successful in its duel approach, which is rarely well executed in this city and has been embraced by locals.
Drawn by its urban character and melting pot of creative workers, We Are The Stables looked to Surry Hills for the next phase of their expansion. The Stables Co-op on Bourke Street is a multi-levelled space that incorporates a light and airy cafe on the ground floor, a pared-back, clean retail space also on street level, and is crowned by a rooftop restaurant and bar set to open in the near future, where the focus will be set squarely on offering a menu comprised of locally grown produce and internationally sourced biodynamic and organic wines. Upstairs, the space is shared with partner talent agency London Management. Downstairs, the cafe is separated from the street-facing retail space by a large wooden sliding door; part of the attraction of this Bourke Street building being a floor plan that permitted placing partitions and gates between each business component – creating a sense of privacy in each space.
Sekulich explains that The Stables Co-op is their interpretation of department stores of yesteryear. Inspiration for the store came partly from Sydney institution Gowings, which closed its doors on Market Street in 2006, where staff members in each category, from shoes to suits to shirts, were experts in their field. “Part of the experience of the department store was that service element that you don’t receive these days,” he says. However, as established department stores continue to struggle for relevancy in the toughest retail conditions since the end of World War II, it’s clear that a reinvention of the model is required, and the space created at The Stables Co-op has attempted to break this mould with innovation, while preserving portions of an old-fashioned sentiment. Essentially, it’s a concept store at its core.
So just what distinguishes a concept store from ordinary retail? The group is following a path forged by another innovator in retail: Rei Kawakubo at the dynamic Dover Street Market. Since the Comme de Garçons designer opened the original multilevel store in London, she has successfully taken the shopping- experience-turned-art-installation concept to Tokyo and New York, completely shattering the mould of the traditional consumer space. In the context of The Stables Co-op, things are a little more fluid, and it’s when Sekulich speaks about the possibility of discovery that accompanies each visit to The Stables that we get a true sense of their model.
“We’re trying to discover things on behalf of our customers,” says Sekulich. “There’s an element of intrigue here, and I think they’re responding really well to the element of surprise in the space, finding something that they wouldn’t see anywhere else.” This sentiment applies to all facets of the business, from the cup of Five Senses coffee you order in the cafe, to the Karen Walker knit you try on in the retail space, to the cocktail menu upstairs in the bar.
Fittingly, rather than each facet of the complex operating as an island, each business is linked via a loyalty system, whereby spending money on coffee in the cafe or restaurant will accrue points toward purchases in the retail space and vice versa. “Each space talks to each other,” says Sekulich. “It’s a cohesiveness that flows throughout the building, from top to bottom.”
The environment appears neutral in its design, but upon closer inspection, is carefully curated, from the Henry Wilson- designed ceramic pendant lights in the cafe to the leather, brass and timber décor that features in the rooftop restaurant and bar. The curation of labels featured in-store is aided by the work of buyer Dee Adam, whose background in online retail in the US brings to the group, “a unique take on what the market is missing,” says Sekulich. Adam has sourced pieces from all over the world, linked by a shared abiding commitment to top design and quality.
Scandinavian design is ably represented by a range of impeccably tailored Japanese salvaged denim by Han Kjobenhavn, a label that tempers its clean lines with, as Walters puts it, a little bit of Danish grit. Playful pieces by New Zealand designer Karen Walker are placed around the space, and a selection of niche media publications including Kinfolk and BRACE magazines sit on a central table among jewellery and other accessories. It’s almost a homecoming for Australian heritage label Whillas & Gunn, whose moleskin aviator jackets and Kingsford Smith quilted bomber jackets can be seen hanging on the racks. In a nice tie-in, the Taylor Square site of the original Whillas & Gunn factory sits just metres from the Stables’ Bourke Street store.
Collaboration with talented outside specialists is another ingredient in We Are The Stables’ success. Sydney-based furniture designer Henry Wilson is one such outsider, brought in to design the fit-out for both the Bondi and Surry Hills stores. The brief for the new building was straightforward, says Wilson. “It’s a heritage building lovingly updated, so the less you touch the better. We kept it pretty raw, using ash timber and aluminium.” There’s a lot of interest among the many people in retail Wilson has worked with, he says, to see how The Stables Co- op experiment fares. “Bricks and mortar retail are absolutely essential for a good cosmopolitan lifestyle, so hopefully this can work,” he says.
Another outsider, this time recruited to run the cafe, is experienced barista Tobin Ventham, ex-Shoreditch Grind in London whom Walters and Sekulich enticed to leave England and head back to Sydney to run The Stables Cafe. Together, they’ve created a welcome addition to Sydney’s specialty coffee scene. Despite having a close relationship with Sydney roaster Little Marionette (who supplies beans to Posto No.), you’ll find Five Senses beans in the Stables Cafe grinder.
When considering The Stables Co-op’s chances of success, it’s hard not to be convinced by Sekulich’s confidence. He acknowledges that with ‘pure retail’ comes risk, but clearly believes The Stables’ multi-business platform can work. “There are more stories about restaurants closing down than opening at the moment,” he says, “[but] ...our challenge is trying to get people to support us.”
It’s the lack of loyalty in today’s fractured retail environment that Sekulich sees as the cause of many of the failures. We get the sense that the fickleness of Sydney customers may be the only variable in the Stables’ schema that they can’t control. It’s clear, however, that the Stables’ undaunted plan is to woo customers with quality and integrity; whether that comes through in the standard of the brands they are selling, the coffee they are brewing or the level of customer service they’re delivering.
While they are still securing their place in the Sydney market, both Walters and Sekulich can see a future for The Stables Co-op concept overseas, implying a love of travel and an interest in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Plans for worldwide expansion aside, We Are The Stables remain committed to bringing home the best boutique brands they discover in their travels, and curating beautiful environments for us to spend time in Sydney- siders will always be the real beneficiaries of their vision. While Walters is emphatic that what the group is offering is about “quality and timelessness rather than flash in the pan,” Sekulich admits that “We all kind of fell into this work and pooled our various experience, but after four years in the business, we’ve all discovered our strengths and it’s time for us to really put our heads down and deliver.” And deliver they have.
The Stables Co-op
325 Bourke Street, Surry Hills