Spending time with two of the nicest, most normal guys in fashion, there are two themes that continuously crop up. One is constant improvement and the other is food. We’ll get to food later.
“I know it’s a bit wanky, but we use the term kaizen, a Japanese word for constant improvement,” says Brian, explaining that Japanese companies used the same term heavily in the 80s to encourage their workers to acknowledge that only through constant improvement do we achieve greatness. Pretty smart stuff. And when the philosophy is working for you – now six stores deep with their women’s boutique in Melbourne’s QV and the Incu Presents series, which is currently housing their Marc by Marc Jacobs retail experience – why change a thing?
And that’s Incu, a brand with a clear understanding that the act of just throwing some clothes on a rack and waiting for customers – the old retail model – is over. What brothers Brian and Vincent Wu implicitly understand is that you need to give your customers an experience, something to latch on to. Retail isn’t just about the clothes anymore. It’s about offering a lifestyle and an experience that is an extension of both the business’s and the customer’s philosophies.
“We try to make sure we understand our customer’s lifestyle,” says Vincent. “So when they walk into our store it feels like part of their lives, that they say ‘this is my store’.”
It's not so much selling clothes as gaining a part of themselves, a part they want or wish to have. “We ask ourselves how would we see Incu if we were just customers? We’re never happy with Incu; I walk in the store and I find things that aren’t perfect for me. It’s always about pushing the boundaries,” says Vincent. “The stores are an extension of Brian and myself. The most exciting thing about our job is the fact that we just make sure we keep pushing and it still reflects our taste level. That’s the trust our customer has with us. They trust that we move on and that we’ll guide them along.”
Brian talks about dropping labels from the roster despite good sales and otherwise good product. The Incu brand, you see, must be preserved. “It’s quite hard to drop a label that’s doing well,” says Vincent, but “as soon as the customer starts thinking something is over or they start seeing it everywhere or it’s not exciting anymore, they’ll just stop buying it. It’s not like they’ll buy it for two more seasons, they’ll just stop and they’ll move on.”
So if there’s a brand that doesn’t suit Incu anymore, the brothers “have to make that call”. Both boys acknowledge the fickle nature of the industry, but understand that it’s also part of the world they operate in.
The beauty is that they’ve managed to make this world work for them. When they started, people would tell them that “this is the way you should do this, these are the labels and the mark up you should have.” But now, they make the rules for themselves. “Everything is up in the air, it’s coming up with the new retail model – no one’s completely done it yet it’s really exciting for us.”
“There isn’t a real formula these days, no one correct formula anyway,” Brian muses.
Their position and size differentiates them from the big business models of the department stores, which translates to the ability to forge their own template with its own set of characteristics, experience and lifestyle approach.
The Wu brothers’ ability to recognise this, roll with the punches and act on their impulses has placed Incu in a unique position in the Australian market. They are influential, no doubt, but they have been able to use this position to team up with some of the biggest and brightest stars of the global fashion industry. Their Incu Presents series has hosted Top Shop and Opening Ceremony collaborations and most recently the Marc by Marc Jacobs collection. Few local outfits have managed to collect such luminaries, but via their good management and their firm belief that doing something of quality trumps all else, they have managed to grow, and in their own way. Let’s not go crazy here – business is business. But if treat your customer with respect, if you trust them to trust you, give back every once in while and provide the experience they’re looking for, then you’ll win every time.
That doesn’t mean they haven’t made mistakes. “I had a thing for sleeveless hoodies and sleeveless puffer jackets. They never sell," laughs Vincent. "I bought a lot of them, but I never wear them. We make mistakes all the time. First two years was all about learning and we probably made every mistake possible.”
Incu wants to be great and understands that it’s a goal that is essentially a dangling carrot – it will never be achieved, but it’s the search that is the inspiration.
Going back, the brothers had an unlikely introduction to the fashion industry. Both had very respectable IT marketing jobs, but left in 2002, dissatisfied with the corporate experience. “We didn’t really like our jobs and we wanted something we were passionate about, something smaller,” says Vincent. So they went to Hong Kong, where their family is from, soon noticing that the shopping experience was “totally different” to what they had come across before. “We saw a gap in the market for a clothing store, something we had no experience with, but plenty of shopping experience,” he laughs.
While a unique approach to product was obviously a crucial part of their plans, it was the want of a difference kind of experience that really drove their thinking on Incu. “Walking into boutiques in Sydney, we felt very intimidated, so we wanted a store that was accessible, even though we would be selling high-end things,” says Vincent.
But there was another vital element to the Wu vision – community, and the understanding that merely selling clothes isn’t enough. What the brothers so deftly understood was that you had to sell the holistic package and that you had to have people around you, meet new people and learn as much as possible and all the time. Their mergence of the physical and the burgeoning online communities at the time was a stroke of genius. Remember, in 2002 Facebook, Twitter and the like didn’t exist. “We don’t really love just being in the fashion industry,” says Brian. “It’s more about what we can come up with, what we can create, what can come out of partnerships and being able to build a community where we can start creating new experiences for people.” Cue the collaborations, the magazine, the podcasts and music.
Incu will celebrate 10 years in the industry next year and have garnered the trust of their customers and how it allows them to push the brand further, especially in their hometown of Sydney. That said, Melburnians aren’t far behind. “In Melbourne, there’s a lot more curiosity about the brands, where they’re from, what they’ve been doing. Information gathering.”
They agree that nothing is exclusive these days. Indeed, 95 per cent of brands can be bought online or in another store else and the customer is educated and knows what’s out there, but this isn’t to be seen as a negative. “We have just the same access to this world and through our buying we can represent Incu and the customer in a curatorial fashion, we can tell our story through what we buy and how we present it.”
Incu’s most recent community-building exercise is a magazine that not only highlights their collections, but their passions. The theme for the first issue was food. At the mere mention of it, they both jump to explain why.
“Food is something we love and there’s loads near the office. But that doesn’t stop us from driving,” says Brian. “We love it – we have lunch at 11:30am. We’ll be having lunch and we’ll be talking about where we’re going to have lunch the next day. We’re obsessed.”
Despite their very fashion-centric headquarters in Surry Hills, there’s no doubt they have their feet firmly on the ground. On the weekend, Brian tells me he’s in daggy clothes with his kids down the park. “We get out of here as much as possible. If I were in here seven days a week, I don’t think I could handle it. We’re in a bit of a bubble in Surry Hills; it’s a very different life to what we have.
“I keep reminding the guys in the office that we are in a bubble here and there is life outside of fashion, which is great, because the staff that we hire, we don’t really hire people that are obsessed with fashion because I couldn’t talk fashion all day every day.”
It’s a lovely sentiment – one that points to not just a healthy work and creative ethic, but rich experience of life. It only cements that the quality of what they do. In the Wu family, if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.