Mambo changes track, gets McNaughtyIn the 1990s licensing agreements - wherein manufacturers would pay a fee to create and sell products in alignment with a particular bigger, well known brand - were huge. Burberry was almost brought down by the number it made, and has spent the past several years, and a considerable amount of money, buying them back. Pierre Cardin is notorious for them, with the designer's name appearing on everything from moderately priced suitcases to tins of sardines. Since their heyday the view of these arrangements as a 'license' for a brand to print money has rapidly changed. There are, however, some brands for whom this business model spells flourishing, rather than failure.
This has been the recent revelation of Australian stalwarts Mambo who last year went from clothing manufacturers to populist art dealers in a move that's seeing them expand quickly into overseas markets. The brand is now retailing in 275 US department stores while Mambo branded backpacks and luggage sells in over 400 Canadian shops. They're rapidly invading South America and are on the verge of cracking retail deals in both the UK and Asia and are currently experiencing their widest distribution, and biggest growth, in the brand's whole 23 year history.
CEO Angus Kingsmill explains that it's been a return to the brand's core ethos of "delivering great art and marketing… without being encumbered by cash flow, capital raising or the stresses of manufacturing timelines". Kingsmill says the Mambo team have worked hard to forge the right kind of manufacturing and retailing partnerships. This total shift and fat trim from manufacturer to licenser has seen the brand able to move their focus more towards finding and collaborating with great new artists "and some Mambo legends", while working on what he sees as Mambo's image DNA: "Surf, art, music, humour, free beer, complimentary tickets and Mambo Goddesses", rather than fussing over the figures of an in-house manufacturing programme.
This "machine washable art at a great price" strategy has made stars of Mambo's in-house artists Brent Smith and Luke Okay, unearthed new talents like the girly Chrissy Lau, generated collaborations with the likes of The Chaser, and, perhaps most excitingly of all, has seen return to some of the classic artists the brand abandoned in the earlier part of last decade like Reg Mombassa and Richard "Farting Dog" Allan. It also helps line the pockets of talented illustrators and humorists, two professions which aren't by nature particularly well paid.
Mambo's strategy is the opposite of a rebranding. After a turbulent period it's a realisation that the brand's biggest strength is its irreverence, and that larrikinism and meeting manufacturing deliveries are perhaps not the best collaboration.
So now Mambo's team are in a position where they don't have to deal with the drama of clothing creation, and can instead focus on things like tracking down the best people to make art - and front up - the label.
Last season Mambo's womenswear department found their ultimate Mambo Goddess in former Miss Australia Erin McNaught, whose cheeky, good time gal image makes her perfect in Kingsmill's eyes. So perfect in fact that they've signed the "healthy Aussie woman with a bit of ‘tude" again to rep the brand this Summer. "It’s looking like it’ll be a big year," McNaught comments, adding with a laugh that she's been "trying to gear up" a bit of travel with the brand to follow their international expansion.
"I grew up in Queensland and spent half my life at the beach, and now I live in Bondi and I'm down there every day," McNaught tells me over the phone. "Mambo is a brand that’s synonymous with Australian beach culture, and that’s me as well." The model confesses that her style "never really changes". "I don't put much thought into it, you know… just really cute cut off denim shorts, cropped teeshirts - Mambo are doing great ones - that are really cool this season, or a floaty summer dress… That’s why Mambo are so good: they make really cute little basics."
McNaught's partner in crime for this year's Mambo campaign, which will be shot in August ("a really tight turn around… I have no idea about the details but I'm sure it will be somewhere beautiful… you know those guys!"), is surfer and 'Mambassador' Luke Cheadle, who Kingsmill suggests got the gig through sheer determination. "He wouldn’t stop hassling me… In all seriousness that is true. He wouldn’t go away. In the end I offered him a job as well a surfing sponsorship!"
Perhaps Cheadle's persistence was because "as a kid my life revolved around Mambo. I wouldn't let my mum buy me anything else. I had the tees, books, anything I could get my hands on." His experience with the brand since then has been equally good. "Every time the team gets together something crazy seems to happen which keeps things interesting," he pauses. "It helps that there's always a stacked beer fridge to raid as well!" Cheadle also gushes about his co-model McNaught ("How many models can claim to be Australian Champion Mountain bikers?! "She's freakishly hot and so down to earth!"), sentiments Kingsmill's echos when he praises McNaught's combination of intelligence and a carefree attitude.
Chatting to the CEO and two faces of Mambo about how the brand has changed over the years and what it means to each of them, one gets the impression that Mambo is, in a lot of ways, just like McNaught. It looks good in a way that doesn't take itself seriously at all. It's clever enough to be funny, but there's a strong sense of the party there (Kingsmill and Cheadle's constant reiterations show they like to play as much as McNaught's once headline grabbing antics did). There's a sense that a life encumbered is not worth living.
In other words, Mambo feels exactly like a brand better suited to making art and letting well picked partners take care of the rest than it is to making clothes. And their success since starting down that path is a goddess-honest proof.
Top image by Edwina Pickle
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