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Danielle Vagner: Kookai

KOOKAÏ’s success story starts in the brand’s ability to stick to a niche- and finding one that cannot be replicated! The business has thrived season to season through its boutique fabric, variety in design and fit that keep the brand a step ahead of competitors. We sat down and spoke with glamorous Creative Director and Owner Danielle Vagner.

What an interesting start to the business- originally beginning as a company that imported clothes from France! Where did the change occur from sourcing to designing?

The change from importing clothes from France to designing them in Australia came about for a couple of reasons. Firstly, one of the original founders, who was a friend of ours and who designed much of the collection, sold KOOKAÏ. KOOKAÏ changed almost overnight as our friend was the driving force behind the brand and was responsible for much of its originality and point of difference in Europe and throughout the world.

Secondly, the import costs into Australia made the product in our KOOKAÏ  boutiques in Australia very expensive. It was Rob, my partner in KOOKAÏ, who felt if we began designing and producing our own clothes we would not be a season behind and could anticipate the needs of our Australian customer much better. And so we began making our own basic t-shirts and have evolved to a point where we now design and manufacture the entire collections our KOOKAÏ woman buys in both Australia and New Zealand.

Can you tell us about the challenges of building a business from the ground up? Was there ever a time that you thought KOOKAÏ might close its doors?

The challenges of building a new business really did begin when we became vertically integrated through owning and running our own manufacturing facility. Overnight, we went from being retailers to being retailers and manufacturers. Balancing the two, at times, was challenging because we were learning everything as we went and, as young idealistic entrepreneurs, had not anticipated how tricky retailing and manufacturing could be.

I always say KOOKAÏ’s success comes not only from its extraordinary staff, their loyalty and love of the brand,  but from our courage to fly by the seat of our pants.  We wanted to be leaders not followers and were determined to create a retail experience for our KOOKAÏ woman she had never experienced before in any other retail environment . We opened our first retail store on Chapel Street in the recession of 1992 and have faced many challenges and hurdles along the way. A few years ago we did lose some direction, as our company was going through a stage of rapid growth, but we re-evaluated and recreated the brand, made some structuring changes, and managed to elevate the business to become even more creative and better retailers than we were before.

Can you explain your process and approach to visual merchandising and styling through your campaigns?

Firstly, as a visual merchandiser, I never studied it at Uni, so to me there were no real rules of how to do things when merchandising my KOOKAÏ stores. We have more styles, colours and fabrications  than, quite possibly, any other retailer in Australia. In a way, I am happy I never learnt a rigid way of expressing the KOOKAÏ  brand in one look that made the product too constructed .I want the customer to feel excited when she walks through our stores because of the front window displays, and for the styled modules to ebb and flow like pieces of art with colour, crazy prints and textures. I want my KOOKAÏettes to see KOOKAÏ  through my eyes, with its quirky designs and styling by virtue of my merchandising. She should be able to see looks that can be worn together and be unable to resist buying a whole KOOKAÏ outfit, rather than just one piece.

Do you think your eye for fashion came from your modelling days? Is there any lesson relative to ‘selling a brand’ that experience has taught you?

Styling and merchandising go hand in hand for me.  Once a new collection has been designed, it has always been important for me to theme it into a particular look for the season so that we can create amazing catalogues that take a customer through a journey.  For instance one year, to celebrate our 20 year anniversary of the brand in Australia, we went to Morocco to shoot our campaign.  This was the perfect backdrop to showcase the amazing printed aztecs in our maxi dresses and the rich and vibrant colours of our collection. Each season we try to recreate a look so that looking through our catalogue feels like a moving picture of our whole collection that our customer can be a part of. This summer I chose St Tropez to shoot our catalogue. I’ve been going to this beautiful, magical village for 15 years and love its charm as well as its mix of glamour, iconic beaches and cobblestone streets. With its magenta bougainvilleas and pastel painted window shutters, its well known cafés overlooking the famous Quai and dotted with millionaires yachts, I knew in my heart it was the perfect place to showcase this collection. I wanted to incorporate all the things within this small town that have made it such an iconic place since Bridget Bardot shot in  “And God Created Woman ” in 1955 and put St Tropez on the map.

Do you have a different outlook on the fashion industry as a business owner, than in your earlier life as a model?

I come from a long line of women who were models, stylists and actresses so I think my eye for fashion was always in my gene pool. As a model, I was exposed to varying parts of the fashion world – photography, movement and how the way a model stood and looked in an outfit could change an entire feel in a shoot. At the end of the day I simply wore clothes to help sell them, but I loved the adventure of travel and meeting new people in the different countries I travelled.  That was the most exciting part of the job for me. I also learnt about makeup and hair, and always loved dressing up. To play that role for a few years in my life seemed fun and exciting when I was a young woman. Modelling introduced me to many facets of the fashion world that have definitely helped me understand KOOKAÏ more so than if I had not been exposed to it.

Today, many years later, I am a retailer and responsible for selling KOOKAÏ  in our own unique way. So, although I love wearing the product, I am now a part of a business that sells one particular brand’s essence. Over the years I’ve helped more in a creative role to build up a fashion business and, in doing so, have become a part of its entire evolution from choosing colours and prints for the range, to helping design our accessory range, designing store concepts and teaching our KOOKAÏ staff about the styling of the product so they better understand how to sell it back to our customer. Selling KOOKAÏ and its brand essence, for me, was very much influenced through spending so much time in Paris watching not what the women wore, but how they wore their clothes with such savoir faire and elegance. I admired their culture in the way they took pride in what they wore and how they wore it with an effortlessness that I wanted for my brand. So I see KOOKAÏ as an Australian brand, but with a very strong Parisian stylishness!

You are heavily involved in the social promotion of KOOKAÏ, can you tell us how you think social media presence correlates to sales?

Actually I only became involved in the social media aspect of KOOKAÏ a year or so back when, as a joke, I began Instagram (I only joined Facebook about 6 months ago) and began outfitting and styling KOOKAÏ staff in our product, instagramming our new shop fit outs, instagramming myself if I was dressed in the product for a launch and taking photos of our campaign models at our runway shows etc.  I quickly discovered not only how much I loved taking photos, but how effective the concept of allowing a part of our KOOKAÏ world to be shared directly to the KOOKAÏ  customer and followers was. I had actually gotten them so excited about the product that it began to correlate into sales .

My KOOKAÏ staff say each time I Instagram an outfit, or one of my staff wearing it, a customer will come in with their phone, show them my Instagram and say “I want that whole look”. And so what started off as a little fun became more of a serious means of making money and educating, if you will, the customer on how to wear the varying different looks of KOOKAÏ that are delivered into store on a weekly basis.

And finally, is there anything you wish you knew when you started out?

I think we have grown as a company over the past 22 years and have learnt so much about retailing along the way. It’s been exciting and inspiring, not only for us but for our amazing staff. Because we had no rules when we started, we made up a lot of things along the way that seemed to work because we were so young, full of hope and so very, very idealistic that anything was possible.

We took chances and experimented, as only the young do, because we had a sense of freedom and a knowledge that if it didn’t work it was a labour of love. Perhaps we needed to make those mistakes in order to become the successful retailers we are today. So the simple answer to your question is, personally, no I wouldn’t change a thing as our determination to succeed, even in the face of all the challenges we have faced, has made us as a company strive harder to be the best retailer in the country! We are passionate about our family business, it has heart and soul and you only ever attain that with a history laced with many highs and lows.  Life is always throwing you a curve ball, so you must duck and weave and hope that at the end you have learnt enough about not only yourself but your business to make it a stronger, more powerful place to be.


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