The business of being elk
Co-founder of accessories label elk with husband Adam Koniaras
Having met many new start-ups through the Journal, we wanted to speak to an entrepreneur with some extra years under their belt to see what advice they had for giving a new idea commercial longevity. Marnie Goding of ‘elk’ was well placed to answer our queries as the accessories label that she started with husband Adam Koniaras in 2004 has gone from strength to strength and is a reputable player in the Australian fashion industry.
From small beginnings here in Melbourne, elk has developed a loyal following across Australia and abroad with its unique and affordable statement jewellery, daywear and homewares. All items are simple, stylish and made using raw materials sourced from across the globe by the pair and their team.
Setting elk apart is the way that the label hasn’t played by the rules and has written its own story to the top. Choosing to avoid larger chain stores, Marnie and Adam have focussed on building relationships with smaller boutiques to ensure that the end-consumer is as informed as possible about their products. This focus on relationships also doubles back to the way that Marnie and Adam work with their suppliers – opting to collaborate with small, family-owned factories and seeking out specialists in their field such as wood workers in the Philippines, silversmiths in Thailand and tanneries in India. Inspired by their focus on people and a quality product as opposed to dollars and quantity, we caught up with Marnie to chat about the business ethos at elk and why it works.
Where did you get the idea to start elk?
I met my husband when I was quite young and we always wanted to work together. He is a very talented fine jeweller and ran a successful bespoke jewellery business. His first studio was in the northern suburbs where he was focused on making high end product. To increase repeat sales we started hand making a lower price pointed range of jewellery and selling it to retail stores and from our own small shop front. It started with a small collection of hand cut silver - which we still sell today under the Seedlings title.
With the popularity of this line and through feedback from friends in the fashion industry we identified a gap in the Australian retail market for affordable, statement jewellery. It’s an exciting industry and a series of successful sales events and media support kept driving us to design more and diversify product lines.
The growth has been impressive for such a difficult industry – how has the brand grown into what it is today? Has the success surprised you or was it always a part of the plan?
We run our business on a slowly but surely ethos. Along the way we have tried to sit back and take stock of where we are at and where we are going. You have to adapt in business or you risk becoming stale or being left behind. So the growth has always been planned. What has surprised me is the total one eyed loyalty of our customers. We have loyal ‘elkaholics’ all over the world and our customers are very vocal and love feeling a part of our family. This loyalty has helped to spread the word as customers travel and visit great stores and tell them about our brand which is one growth strategy we had never foreseen as being possible.
I think part of the loyalty comes from the fact that the products are identifiably ‘elk’ but the range is also very diverse – how do you keep consistency in your brand when developing new products?
Life before elk saw me in the world of marketing and events and my first full time role was with the National Gallery of Victoria working in their events department. I was then head hunted and moved to Melbourne Zoo where I stayed for around six years. It was an amazing time and taught me a lot about how to - and how not to - run a business. I learnt on someone else’s time and they were the most fantastic years giving me a great understanding of so many aspects of small business.
With this background in marketing I have always tried to understand who our customer is. Over time as the business grows and pressure and external influences impact on designs, we always go back to consider who the end user is - we design for ourselves and for them. We always ask ourselves how practical or wearable a design is and how it fits into our aesthetic - when you live and breathe a creative role, design decisions become innate. This ensures consistency but the diversity comes through our curiosity and need to challenge ourselves because we always believe we can do better. Whether it’s in design, production or service we always look to what’s next, what’s better and what’s more exciting.
There is also a real team environment at elk and we actively encourage input and opinions from staff. We recruit carefully and whilst we encourage new ideas, we look for people who understand our brand and have an affinity for similar design so unifying ideas isn’t usually a problem as mostly we are on the same page. Also, through having access to production rooms we can see how our products are made and we can be inspired to create new designs using traditional techniques. So this access to the makers is imperative - without it we cannot experiment and trial new ideas.
On this relationship with the makers, how do you ensure that the production is ethical?
Our suppliers are all family owned and operated businesses and we never commence trading with a factory until we have visited their facilities and had time with them to understand their processes. We are proud to still be working with some of the same factories that we started with ten years ago and we have an open and honest relationship with all of them - we know we can ask the hard questions and challenge them to be transparent. Working ethically is, for us, the most important way to work.
We also feel that by working with like-minded suppliers who have a vested interest in really caring about who, how and where they make their products that we have a more collaborative relationship. Therefore they are more open with us and discussing issues like sustainable practices comes more naturally.
Whilst there is a push from consumers for products that are produced ethically and sustainably I imagine it’s not always easy to do that – what are some of the challenges for designers in Australia today?
Access to raw materials and manufacturers is tough – and the market is competitive. The consumer’s appetite for cheap and fast fashion is sated by the arrival of big international players like H&M which Australians have wanted here for so long.
Whilst there is definitely room for new talent to take a foothold in the Australian market - advertising, editorial and publicity campaigns are dominated by these big players. They are driving prices down and create unrealistic expectations amongst the general population. Small businesses and even larger home grown brands like elk simply cannot compete.
At the end of the day designers need to sell product and with the novelty of these international giants still fresh it makes business very tough; especially for start-ups. We choose to focus on producing good quality product and using unusual materials or techniques.
Do you have any advice for designers or start-ups that are finding it tough out there?
You have to create commercially viable product to make a business successful. So if you are designing a product you always need to look at it critically and ask yourself “would I actually wear this or would I use this?” Also, talk to as many people around you as possible and find people who share a passion for the same product or style and sound them out.
Also, business is business. If you have friends or family running a successful business don’t be afraid to ask for advice or help. Most young designers know everything about their product but the best thing I did was to work for someone else first, learn as much as you can about business. Good product and a good business head is a winning combination!