Its been 12 years of adventure, in and out of the home, for Fenton & Fenton – this is the story of growing an idea born from a whim into an Australian homewares and interiors icon. We sat down with Lucy Fenton to talk about the brand’s birth and how twelve years later, they’re coming full circle.
In the wake of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the freedom and reward of building a great company might not have been high on the agenda for up and coming entrepreneurs, or was it? Global brands like Uber and Whatsapp were born out of a recession and the general sentiment that carries through their trajectory to success is grounded in the desire to be bold enough to take a risk.
“Looking back now it’s hard to explain exactly what triggered the idea. It was a case of timing – part whim, part curiosity, partly a love for travelling and exploring new things,” says Lucy Fenton on her journey to founding Fenton & Fenton.
It was during a trip to India, where in the bustling markets of the city, she was struck by the realisation that she wanted to immerse herself in this inspiring-assault-on-the-senses on a daily basis. She was determined to find a way to turn her love for travel into a business. Lucy said to herself, “You know what, I’m going to do it.”
Six months later she gutted a once-was restaurant and turned it into a unique destination for shopping homegrown and global interiors. It was a tiny store filled with one-off furniture pieces, home décor, artworks and the Fenton & Fenton signature call to styling: colour and texture.
“The plan was never to create a big showroom. The space worked really well, the location was ideal – it was right next door to an iconic Melbourne flower shop and their customers would just wander in for a look – and a look became a purchase. That’s how we grew,” she says.
Growing into a national retailer with a loyal customer base and huge following is what you might call iconic status, but Lucy is humbled in her view, “I was naïve and that helped! I wasn’t bound by the worry of pieces flying off the shelves (or the floor), or plans, or sales forecasts. I just thought I’m going to open the store, put things in there that I love and sell them. It was really organic; I just wanted to do my own thing,”
The store launched well before curated social feeds and a tech-driven era, “People were just strolling down streets and looking through shop windows; I think I’d be overwhelmed launching a business like this today with so much out there, just a click away, to compare ourselves to,”
With a trademark for mixing a little vintage, with a little retro, and a jolt of contemporary art, the store became a destination for it’s eccentric-eclectic feel that no large retailers could reproduce – it wasn’t scalable. In the early days, the store sold many antiques and one-off pieces, “Customers were loving the colour and our distinct curation – it felt like we were offering something different.”
“Eventually we needed to develop our own designs, but with pieces that are still exclusive to us, like our homewares and bone inlay furniture. It was important to grow, and when we became bigger, we wanted to stay true to our authentic style, so we started creating our own ranges. With social media the world became smaller and it was important to keep our identity alive,” says Lucy.
Today Fenton & Fenton produce their own lines as well as stock globally and locally sourced interiors in a showroom in Prahran, “One Sunday I saw the for-lease sign and I said to my husband Josh, that’s my dream building! I thought wow, I’m only a year into business, I can’t afford it – and he said, I know you’re going to take it. When you’ve got your mind set on something, you’ll make it happen,” says Lucy, reminiscing on how opportunity prevailed, as the economic climate at the time meant she could move into her dream showroom, affordably. The couple lived above the showroom for four years until their daughter Pepa was born.
Along with a growing brand, comes a growing team; casual employees that kept the business alive in the early days turned into full-timers, categories grew, and departments were born, “It got to a point where we needed experienced people to manage different parts of the business. Now twelve years on we’re into full-blown structures and organisational charts, and the team is developing at a rapid pace – too fast to keep up with!”
“Navigating that in the beginning was hard; my skillset was buying and selling, and I knew I needed a whole team of talented people to help the business grow and succeed. It was a big change for me too, personally. Now my role revolves around the vision and guiding a team; it’s very different to what I first started doing and what I believed I was good at. I’d had little experience in management, but I knew that I loved working with people; and I grew every day. I’ve got such a great team now – it makes all the difference,” she says.
With the homewares industry growing at Lucy attributes the high-demand for zhuzhed-up interiors to a buffet of do-it-yourself shows, like The Block, and media giants like The Design Files, “The home is becoming more of a category and it appeals to younger generations now too. People are becoming house proud. They’re creating their own style rather than following a cookie-cutter approach. There are no rules! It’s about individual style – not following trends, but starting them,”
“You can have everything from Fenton & Fenton, but not one house will look the same, because of how you tie it all together. Looking back at the houses we’ve styled, even up to twelve years ago, the furniture still looks great. I believe that these pieces are timeless. We still sell some of these products today, and that reassures me. When it comes to the home, you might move the pieces around over time – but you still love them, it’s not like you’re throwing them out. Colour palettes can work in trends, but how you place it all together can change and still stand the test of time,”
The global pandemic that is COVID-19 has been unbelievably tough on businesses – and while the stressors of shifting gears and becoming more agile are very real, and very demanding (suffice to say ecommerce is vital), the shift in spending more time at home has seen people making the effort to surround themselves with beautiful things. “Creating a space at home that you love has never been more important – we don’t know what tomorrow will look like, we just know that we need to stay true to our roots and continue to offer people inspiration to create beautiful spaces,”
“Twelve months ago we were in New York and we were developing a homewares range, but COVID has changed our direction entirely, and really made me want to get back to my roots: focusing on the Melbourne showroom, working in the store with the customers, which I love to do and always optimising the online experience to match the store experience,” says Lucy.
It’s safe to say that with all that’s going on in the world, our interpretation of perfection is a reflection of the sum of its very imperfect parts, and Lucy believes that right now is a time to get back to basics, “In a way, it’s refreshing. I think you realise in times like this that you don’t need to conquer the world. You just need to focus on what you do well and make the experience right for your customer.”