An interview with Épatant’s Lachlan Smeeton & Dennis Paphitis

Lachlan Smeeton & Dennis Paphitis (of Aesop fame) had a five-year conversation about what discerning men want before materialising it into Épatant – a backstreet Melbourne store that takes its name and ethos from the French word for ‘splendid’. Vogue Living’s Annemarie Kiely sat down with the duo to learn about the evolution of Épatant and the new retail environment, a world where it seems ideal to sit somewhere ‘between Bunnings and Barneys’.

Annemarie Kiely: What is the back story to Épatant?

Lachlan Smeeton: From the time that I first started at Aesop – as a graduate working in business development – to now, Épatant has been a very long conversation with Dennis.

AK: What did that conversation revolve around?

LS: Dennis has always had a feel for the more sophisticated things – he loves Isaac Reina’s leather ware – and I always liked the idea of building something around umbrellas and other more amusing things. We talked about what was available abroad versus what was available domestically.

Dennis Paphitis: It really fired up when Lach moved to London to look after some key European Aesop accounts. We would visit our accounts in Spain or Italy and always found ourselves hitting on those small interesting stores that appealed to us for their understated, almost invisible, beautifully made product. We were in awe of the lengths people would go to make a really decent t-shirt, umbrella or pair of gloves. If there was a way of integrating what they were doing we did.

There was a time that you would go into Henry Bucks or Georges to buy a decent tie. I remember being 20 and going into their Summer Sale and seeing the same once-a-year selection of ties, but it was a selection with ‘taste’. It’s like taste has become a dirty word and I don’t think there is anything wrong with being discriminating about what you represent. We don’t want to have hundreds of different brands here, maybe only 70 that are done really well and that we respond to. And I think that Lach has a very discriminating but also a very unusual eye. Have you looked at the housewife kits over there [$15 Swiss Army issue packs that contain essential shoe cleaning clobber and emergency sewing bits]?

LS: It’s not the most politically correct name. But it is one of those very affordable items that everybody needs that underscores the more expensive, crafted pieces in here.

DP: I think it’s where people’s heads are at right now and not just men’s; I think people will go out and have a main course each and share a dish so that they can buy a better bottle of wine. Just like we don’t apply a rigid formula to the way that we dress – it’s OK to buy a pair of high street jeans but spend a bit more on a decent t-shirt that’s going to stand the test of time, because stuff adds up and how do you prioritise what’s important at the end of the day. I really like that high/low mix, to me it’s somewhere between Muji and Hermès. Isaac who does the leather for us was with Hermès for eight years and, of course, there’s a whole ritual and floor show that goes with buying his product but in the end it’s really about choosing beautiful skins and making them into seamless bags with internal reinforcements.

LS: There is almost an inverse snob value in having something that is completely unbranded.

AK: But those in the know can read into that non-branding.

DP: Yes, there are little codes and clues, but those codes have to be legitimate as well, they can’t just be marketing, they need to have a purpose and a provenance.

AK: No, traditional demographics don’t describe the current activity of connoisseurship amongst the cash-strapped, but you see it’s pursuit in the unlikeliest of places.

DP: It feels healthier. I think people are buying less but buying better product where they can. I mean the commodity items, like toilet paper and dishwasher detergent, there’s no joy in buying those things, but if you go to a harvest market and pay 20 to 30 percent more for produce with some consideration around waste, sustainability, and quality, then that’s a shift…and that shift in a market like the UK amongst a certain demographic has been brewing for a long time because there is a strong yearning for a time when things were manufactured in the UK.

AK: So this place is about pleasing yourself with product that speaks to? Will it speak to others?

LS: If you are basing product selection around what you like then you are always going to be able to speak with a degree of enthusiasm. You relay information with a personality and passion that is impossible to fake.

AK: Retail is becoming the hybrid creature – the café, cum gallery, cum clothing shop. People want more than an exchange of money for goods, they want an experience.

DP: It is context, I think people need atmospheres and context to understand product or to think about what they are taking in a different way. The food equivalent is maybe not having the silver service and attention to linen tablecloths but being in someone’s kitchen and savouring the theatre of cooking.

AK: It has to be authentic and that has become a much over-used word, but ‘localism’ and a believable expression of it, is now essential to that experience. You’ve gone Collingwood backstreet here which is a step away from the Fitzroy cool.

DP: Yes, there is a daggy suburban sense of community here, we opened the door and they came. We thought, ‘Why have the big opening party?’ Let’s just try and get what we are doing right.

AK: What was this place?

LS: It was an old wire-works, I believe. We haven’t really touched it, just polished it, working with readily sourced materials that were locally available.

AK: And you are targeting the discerning male? Going for all age groups?

LS: Yes.

AK: So what can you buy for the new born baby?

LS: I’d go for one of those blankets – British military green.

DP: And for the seven year old, I’d give the reed horn.

AK: What mother wouldn’t hate you for that?

DP: We’ve tried to do milestone ages, so realistically from 18 to 70 years of age. But the thinking here is somewhere between Bunnings and Barneys [the luxury New York department store]. I think Bunnings is one of the most interesting retailers in Australia. They are incredibly knowledgeable, the staff are well trained – it’s almost old fashioned the level of training they have – and there is choice, it has that general store mind set.

AK: Well for a store that caters for the discerning male, this place is half filled with women.

DP: I think there are certain women who will come here – I mean the diaries, the candles, the colognes, the novels, even some of the men’s underwear.

AK: Why that split?

DP: Because I think particular types of women are drawn to product that is less feminine. If a product presents itself as feminine, well, men just jump back. I spend about an hour a week on the floor in our Fitzroy store just to see what’s happening, and men are much more comfortable shopping now than they were five or 10 years ago. It feels like certain barriers have been broken. But they are still clumsier shoppers: “If I buy a moisturiser and a cleanser, and they cost me about 50 cents a day for however many months, will my wife know the difference?” And I say: “Well, she will if you don’t use it.” Women are much more impulsive and emotional.

AK: So where do you see retail going, what is its future?

DP: I think it’s this [Épatant] or Bunnings. It’s the in-between that people will stop shopping at. I mean what possible reason would you have to go anywhere when you can place an order online and get free delivery and free return without leaving the comfort of your living room? You can come and get a little bit of joy and interaction in a place like this, or you can go to a warehouse environment where there is stock from floor to ceiling. But we have spent a lot of time talking price here – not because we want it to be the proposition that lures people in, but you can buy a Fox umbrella on their website for ₤250 and pay an extra $50 for shipping (by the time you get it to your door it’s the best part of $400) or you can come here. If you go online and check any one of these items out, you will find you are not being overtly penalised for shopping with us.

AK: Well, of course, it’s naïve as a retailer to think that people aren’t cross comparing prices on the likes of Polyvore.

DP: It’s the first thing you’re going to do. If you see this great brand of umbrellas, you’re going to go home and check Fox umbrellas and ask, ‘Why are these guys charging 50% more?’ There is a buffer of maybe 10 per cent for taxes, but it can’t be 30 or 50%.

AK: Could you see the day you might do the female version of this?

DP: Part of the chemistry of this – and I am eternally optimistic in my bleakness – I think part of the reason that this works is that it’s not a violation into what we know and what we like and if we, as men, try to make this into the equivalent for women, unless we were cross-dressing, it’s very hard to get that same, certain thing right. This to me just feels intrinsically right, it’s what I understand. In the last couple of weeks I have realised that there are these personal things that we are selling and I don’t want to be wearing the uniform of what we are selling. I don’t want to be a billboard.

There are more layers to delve into for men. I’d like to do a really cool garden kit, or more stuff for the car or the office. I want to have a bit of fun, too; maybe sell bags of fertiliser out the front. I like the notion that if men don’t have their own shed, or they don’t have a den, they can come to this big shed in Collingwood and hang out.

AK: It does have the civilised shed vibe. But it’s not too slick. You have kept it raw which makes it that much more accessible.

DP: Yes, it’s quite comfortable. That makes a difference. There is that moment where space can easily tip into the over-designed. And that was part of the joy of not working with an architect on this one, we maybe simultaneously suffered – certainly routing out all these cardboard tubes for the lighting – by doing as much of it ourselves as we could, but there is something maybe more stylishly primitive about it because of that. My contribution here will be on Fridays and I think for half of Friday every week, I will need to strip everything back and reassemble it, telling different stories.

AK: You must have retail down pat by now. Is this bit of a playpen for you – somewhere to come and empty the mind, revisualise and rethink?

DP: This is also about not having to make decisions by consensus. Lach and I don’t really argue we just have another drink when we disagree, then we make a decision and it’s kind of done. I began that way and ended up with a much larger group of people around me that I am responsible for – there are feelings and there are contributions – and all of a sudden it’s…

AK: …a machine?

DP: Yes, in here we can be reactive, quick, stack all these housewives kits from floor to ceiling, we don’t have to run through 20 divisions to do it…our lives are complicated enough outside of all this. But right now it’s like moving into a new house, we are feeling our way, not everything is unpacked. But I’m feeling really positive about this place because even though we didn’t market it and make noise about it, people are coming in and behaving in the best possible way in terms of how they walk through and use it. They are not scared to sit, touch, mess things up, eat and walk around with the coffee.

AK: That’s interesting. You are letting its use be defined by the customers.

DP: Yes, and not overanalysing it. We haven’t really asked for any opinions outside our own likes and dislikes.

LS: No we haven’t sat cap in hand and canvassed our customers, but people seem to like what we are doing.

DP: We are not actually giving service right now. I just feel you need to allow for people to absorb a space before you jump in. There are normal people in here too. I was a little bit concerned that we would get all the Ned Kelly beards coming in but there are sprinklings of ordinariness, which is nice. Normal is the new ‘mean’, the new avant-garde.

AK: Jasper Morrison cleverly articulated the super normal some years ago and turned our view around on what constitutes cool – exquisite pieces of everyday design that often get overlooked.

DP: His website is amazing. Do you receive that monthly update? I’m really impressed with those sorts of offers where you could just close your eyes, take one thing and find a use for it. For me it was a real reference point for this, but his is more about a domestic and office environment, and our normality centres on the ‘man’ – I think there is a lot in that.

AK: Normal is trending right now – you think of places like Labour & Wait in Shoreditch in London. Who would have thought buying a scrubbing brush could be so ‘special’?

DP: To their credit, they have done their research well. Though it is a bit ‘ye olde worldy’ – you go in there, buy your ball of twine that might later become a doorstop – but at least they have sourced product that is British and that comes with a back story. All of that matters because you can touch and use it everyday. When I was a Greek kid growing up in Melbourne, my mother had an entire closet filled with stuff that was never used. At 77 years of age, she was still keeping it for best. Labour & Wait flicked that ‘precious’ paradigm over – use the best stuff every day. Life is short; why leave your kids all this stuff that they don’t really want or know what to do with? This place is a bit like sorbet for my brain, but I really want it to be Lach’s thing, his story.

AK: What lessons have you learnt about retail and its design along the way?

DP: I’ve learnt a lot through Ilse [Crawford] from the first job [Aesop store] she did for us in London. I think the something that I took away from her is that masculine wiring is better suited to structures, to buildings, but there is a fine-tuned female sensibility that is suited to internal spaces – a psychological comfort, a maternal instinct – that is not about it being pretty or over-worked, it’s about it being…

AK: Primordial?

DP: Yes, yes, it resonates at a much deeper level. I know it’s only retail at the end of the day, not a movement, not a cult, but these things matter. Because we have so much choice and so many options it just gets boring. In the end, I just want to walk into a restaurant – I don’t want to see menus anymore – and I want the waiter to ask me if I am hungry, starving or famished and do I have any food disorders and then decide for me. Remove all the options, please. It’s kind of an anti-American consumerist to say this but does coffee have to come in 55 variations. I wouldn’t begin to know what to do with 55 variations, with or without milk. I don’t care if the monks who grow the coffee are Albanian virgins, just make me a good coffee. Make the scale right, make it once and make my interface with it comfortable. That’s all!

AK: Yes we need choice filtered down, but by someone you trust to do a good job of it. Sometimes you have to wade through the crap to come to the cream. We live at a time when everyone is a photographer, everyone is a writer, everyone is a food crit, everyone is…

DP: …an art director. I think especially with food, in this city, there are 5,000 restaurants in Melbourne but probably five that you would keep going back to. It’s like a pair of jeans that just happen to fit better than the others.

AK: Lachlan, what is your favourite object for sale at Épatant?

LS: The Fox umbrellas, by virtue of the fact that I have a nice little hickory-handled number sitting at home. It’s the modern day sword that the gentleman carries out into battle. You carry it like it means something to you and it serves a fantastic purpose when you live in a city like Melbourne.

AK: Dennis, your favourite item in here?

DP: It’s the metro-ticket holder, have you seen that? This was made by the Spanish, ex-architect leather-maker [Isaac Reina] who is a bit mad. He was born and bred in Barcelona but moved to Paris about a decade ago. He was with Hermes for about eight years before going out on his own. I saw his prototype for an iPhone holder and all the beautiful product he was making for Margiela and a handful of other people. We started speaking a while ago and I said, “How invisible can you make a product? Can you hide the seams? Can you hide the workings?” And then I saw this little thing and asked, “What is that?” He said, “I made that for myself to put my Metro tickets in.”

I said, “that is too ridiculous, I want one of those – you have to make them for us”. If someone is going to Paris for the first time you give them one of these with five Metro tickets in it.

AK: So you are going to sell them with the Metro tickets inside.

DP: Yes. I think it is the most important product in here. Even if you go to Paris once only, and I’m a little bit superstitious, I think you should always keep a Metro ticket with you in case you end up in Paris.

AK: Mais, bien sûr.

To read more about Épatant see our story on the store here.

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Comments
2 Responses to “An interview with Épatant’s Lachlan Smeeton & Dennis Paphitis”
  1. Kish says:

    An incredible insight into mental workings behind Epatant – aligns to all my (masculine) partner’s philosophies and I feel like we’re on the same page. Had to laugh at the Ned Kelly reference.

    Ta,
    K

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