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The inside word with Lucy Fenton on her first 10 years in business - Fenton & Fenton

The inside word with Lucy Fenton on her first 10 years in business

We sit down with our founder, Lucy Fenton to share her colourful and courageous journey of the past ten years of fenton & fenton. Yep, it’s been ten years since Lucy first opened shop. And here, Lucy shares her personal story of the evolution of the business, the brand and the retail experience so many have grown to love.

fenton & fenton was first named ‘fenton', which the team now affectionally refer to as ‘Little Fenton’. Because, that’s exactly what it was. A little interiors boutique filled with treasures that Lucy collected from near and far, located about 1km from the current High Street store on Malvern Rd, South Yarra. Depending how you look at things a lot has changed, but not much has changed at all over the past ten years.

Whilst the business has grown up and expanded in all sorts of directions, now employing a team of 25 and operating on a global scale; the heart and soul of fenton & fenton remains true to that of its early days. Renowned for bringing colour, texture, pattern, energy and flair into homes and bringing spaces to life, it’s our mission to help others live a colourful, expressive life and create homes that they love.

Meet Lucy Fenton - the face behind the treasure trove that has become fenton & fenton. Lucy has developed an eye for aesthetic innovation and has become renowned for her unique sense of global style. Wearing many hats - product designer, interior decorator, boss lady and mama, it’s Lucy’s devotion and commitment to a strong vision that has got the business to where it is today. Inspired from Lucy’s experiences travelling the globe, the shopping experience is unique and expresses a style that dares to mix to the max.

Read on for Lucy’s tale of travel, business, family life, the juggle and to learn what’s in-store for the next chapter of fenton & fenton.

What did you want to do when you were a child?

I’m actually not sure and being the 3rd out of 4 kids my parents also can’t remember! However, what I do recall is my little brother and I spending hours on end playing ‘shop’ when we were little. I was always the shopkeeper and he was the customer!

When did your passion for interiors and art begin?

It was a love for travel that came first, that was from a very young age. We travelled to Europe when I was about 8 years old and I was hooked from then on. I remember throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain, visiting countless galleries, exploring the Cinque Terre and indulging in amazing food! Art and interiors grew from the travel. Being exposed to so many interesting places, artefacts and colours while exploring the globe led to my desire to open the store and surround myself with a collection that celebrated my memories of adventure!

What inspired you to start fenton & fenton?

fenton & fenton was born over a Kingfisher beer in India. I was employed at Borders at the time, working in a mundane job. I strongly felt an aspiration to do my own thing, I just didn't really know what or how to go about it. I randomly found myself on this last-minute trip to India and it kind of just hit me. I was so inspired by the amazing craftsmanship and unique wares that we spent days on end exploring every nook and cranny of the markets. Then, one night after a huge day fossicking around the bazaars and buying way too much I just thought "I'm going to open a shop!" and the rest is history!

What can you share about the early days and how it all started?

The early days were tough because I knew absolutely nothing about importing or retail, so I was totally winging it, but at the same time, I look back at them as such great days because everything was new, exciting and the journey was totally exhilarating. When you start running your own business it's very challenging because the risks are high, and the rewards are not immediately obvious, but they do come! I was on a high from the day I first opened the door to the little shop in Malvern road.

Who bought your first piece of furniture and what was it?

I can't remember the first piece of furniture specifically, but my very first customer was Nellie Castan from Nellie Castan Galleries, I will never forget it. She was one of the first people who walked through the doors and she bought a little vintage Chinese milk cat, it was $80 - I was so excited! Once we started selling furniture the reality of owning a furniture store started to sink in. I was like: "Oh God, I have to restock and remerchandise every day?"!

How can you describe the key challenges way back then?

The main challenge would have been the lack of resources - you really have to be self-sufficient and very quickly learn a whole set of new skills. Financially I couldn't afford to outsource anything so being responsible for all aspects of the business was pretty overwhelming.

I would be working 7 days a week and there were many late nights remerchandising the store, moving furniture from storage units in the back of the car, ironing dresses (yes, we used to sell dresses in the early days) or just trying to teach myself to do the BAS. You have to be 100% committed in the early days as it's very hard to build a business from the ground up and not go crazy along the way! Ten years on, I am still as committed as the day we first opened the doors but luckily now we have a team of awesome people around us helping to keep the wheels in motion!

How would you describe fenton&fenton in three words?

Eclectic (although this word is done to death it really does epitomise F&F, so I am still using it 10 years on), adventurous & colourful!

What would you say you have stayed true to over the 10 years you've been in business?

Buying products that I would have in my own home! The beauty of F&F is that there is no set style, era, or look, there are no boundaries. I believe in mixing eras, styles & if I love it, I buy it. This has allowed us creative freedom when buying, designing and merchandising. It also makes the buying easy! Colour has always been a part of our DNA - you will never visit the store and not be hit with a colour explosion, it's never been a conscious decision, it's innate in my buying decisions, I just gravitate towards colour!

And, what are the things that have really evolved and changed?

The look is always evolving and changing, you really notice this when you look through the image archives, but this is what keeps it fun and interesting. There are always new products, textures, colour palettes and artwork - there is always something different, which I need because I get bored easily!

Over the years we have leaned more towards designing and producing our own products rather than sourcing vintage furniture. This was due to many factors, but mainly it was what our customers wanted. But also, as the demand for fenton&fenton products increased, we couldn't meet it by sourcing one-off products alone.

Having said that we always have vintage one-off pieces and always will, they are just mixed in with our own F&F ranges like the Woodrow range, bone inlay furniture and leather furniture as well as the locally sourced pieces & Australian artwork. Social media and online shopping also exploded over the last decade, so this side of the business has grown significantly and changed the way we trade. The world very quickly became a lot smaller and everything became more accessible, so a large part of our customer base is now Australia wide, whereas in the early days we were very Melbourne orientated.

How many staff did you employ back in 2008?

When we first opened we didn't employ any! In the first year or so we had a couple of casual girls who would help out over the weekends here and there.

And, what about now?

25 today!

Are there any lessons you can share from mistakes you've made throughout your journey?

There is really only one mistake you can make in business and that is to dwell on them! Mistakes are part and parcel of taking risks. A 'mistake' is really just a risk that doesn't pay off, so you're better off to think of it as a learning opportunity and move on!

Your favourite buying destination?

India really resonates with me because it's where the journey all began and every time I am there I always find myself reflecting on where it started and how far we have come, so it's pretty special for me. In particular, because I get very caught up in the day-to-day so it's not often I really take the time to reflect.

We have some incredible suppliers over there who are like family for us now, they have been instrumental in our journey and we wouldn't have the business we have today without them. Many of them took a chance on us when we very small and believed we would grow so they really supported us from our infancy.

Your favourite collection you've produced?

The Woodrow range - it's classic, understated and will stand the test of time. We worked on this range for a few years, and it was not without its challenges (and tears) but it was worth it because it's elegant and very functional. It's also named after our son Woodrow, aka Woody!

Your favourite shoot or set of images you've created?

So many faves! The 'Fall Collection' we shot at my house in 2016 with Armelle Habib was a standout. The rich pink & dark navy walls with our new silk carpets had a really luxe vibe!

Most memorable moment (or moments) of the past 10 years?

Last year, we took F&F on the road and had our first pop up event in Sydney for 10 days. It was such a massive undertaking and the planning was insane, but when we finally got up there and set it all up and opened the doors it was an amazing feeling.
I had a fabulous team who worked tirelessly around the clock to help me bring the vision to life! It was something I had always wanted to do, as we have such a huge client base in Sydney we really wanted to give them a taste of F&F so to finally do it was incredible!

Also, last year the Whitehorse Project at Mt Buller will go down in history!
We headed up to Mt Buller to fit out 4 chalets at the top of Bourke Street - we had less than 4 days to do the entire fit out - so it was a turn key experience for the new owners. Beds made, cutlery, plates, artwork hung... everything had to be perfect!
The truck got snowed in on the way up and the chalets were still under construction when we arrived. There was so much unexpected snow we basically got stuck on the mountain! It was the hardest 4 days I can remember but we pulled it off and to see the chalets come together at the end was remarkable.

And, the moment you are most proud of?

The two 'Peace of Art' exhibitions we have hosted were extremely meaningful. I'm very proud to have been able to use our platform to help people who are far less fortunate than us, giving back to the community is extremely important to us!
In 2014 we launched a biennial fundraiser with School's A Gift, called Peace of Art. The two exhibitions so far have showcased a diverse collection of works from over 100 coveted and emerging Australian artists. Collectively the events raised over $230,000 with 100% of the profits going towards School's A Gift's projects.

The Peace of Art Exhibitions have now almost single-handedly funded School's A Gift's work over the past 5 years, which has enabled over 4,000 children to either begin their educations or return to school after dropping out. This has been achieved through the construction of two brand new schools (one primary, one secondary) and the repair and expansion of three more schools (two primary and one secondary). Stay tuned for our 3rd one which will be held in store in November this year!

What was the best piece of advice you were given when you were starting out? Who was it from?

'Don't try and control things outside your control' - my Mum! And she still has to remind me of this to this day! It's important not to get caught up in what other people are doing, just focus on what you're doing and the things you can control... don't get caught up in the rest, it's counterproductive!

What keeps you up at night?

Lots of things! One of the hardest things for me when it comes to running your own business is that your work is never done… there is always something else I want to do, an email (or 400 emails) I haven't responded to, an order I haven't placed, an idea not acted on. I find that frustrating and it's often what wakes me up at night. I tend to have some of my best ideas at 1am and then I'm awake and buzzing wanting to get onto them!

What inspires and motivates you to keep helping people decorate their homes?

I love seeing how happy people are when they come into the store and find the perfect piece for their home, it's very rewarding! I'm also committed to helping our customers love the homes they live in, it might just be something small like a piece of hand blown glass, or a cushion or a larger item like a dining table or a piece of art. Regardless of its size, you can see how it makes them feel. Our styling services are also really helping people with whole rooms, entire houses - a lot of people want to create a beautiful home, but they just aren't sure how to pull it together and they are time poor, so we visit them in their homes and can help guide them and pull together a space they love. Our clients are overjoyed by the results!

Art has always been a big part of what you do. What's in store in this space moving ahead?

Art is so important to us, we currently represent over 20 Australian artists, they are such a talented bunch and they help bring F&F to life! What's in store? More exhibitions, more often, more artists and more variety! Exhibitions are an opportunity for the artists to showcase a whole body of work and really encompass a theme that transports you to another place when you visit the store.
We have been hosting exhibitions in store for about 8 years now, and we just love the way the store changes and tells a story with each different show.

How do you describe your business to others when you first meet them?

A furniture, homewares, interiors store/gallery/showroom - that's a bit of a mouthful! It is difficult to do it justice in a few words as we see ourselves as more than just a store, we see ourselves as a lifestyle brand!

What is your no-fail go-to when you need inspiration or to get out of a creative rut?

I need to travel, having that white space when you're away always inspires me! Even if it's just getting out of Melbourne and away from the everyday grind for a few days it can do wonders for the mind and really get you inspired again! When I travel for work I often spend many days on my own, travelling across amazing countries on long car or train rides and I always come home bursting with ideas and ready to tackle the next chapter.

How do you juggle family life and your evolving business?

The juggle is real, and it can be challenging to fit the business, family and myself into the week! Having Josh (aka Mr Fenton) also working in the business has probably been our saving grace, he has been able to take a back seat over the last 5 years since Pepa was born and really focus on the kids and giving them what they need when I have been really caught up in the business over a time of extreme growth and change.

We do try and spend the weekends together and take a couple of holidays each year, it's really important for us otherwise life can pass you by and you realise you haven't really stopped to take a breath and appreciate what you have and reflect on why you are doing what you do!

What's something that you haven't done yet that you'd like to?

On a business level, another store in the future is on the cards… to have another bricks and mortar space to showcase our wares in a different location would be pretty cool! On a personal level, I'd love to take an extended trip with the kids - I want them to see how other people live, for them to experience other cultures and appreciate how lucky they are to be born in Australia!

Is there a stand out moment with fenton & fenton that has really propelled you to keep doing what you love?

I can't think of one stand-out moment, more so the overwhelming feeling that there is nothing else I would rather be doing. If you're passionate about what you're doing it drives you to keep going!

Your life looks so colourful, busy and fun form the outside. Is this what it's really like?

It's fun, colourful & VERY BUSY that is for sure, there are lots of fabulous bits but there is also a hell of a lot of hard work and blood, sweat and tears behind the scenes! We always make time for some fun, we've spent many years burning the candle at both ends... kids have mellowed us a bit - which is for the best!

What has motherhood taught you?

Appreciate what you have, when you have it!

What does home mean to you?

Comfort, happiness, family! I'm a bit of a homebody, I absolutely love having no plans for the weekend and bunkering down… not that I actually do it very often!

What do you think is key to a beautiful home?

Buy what you love, surround yourself with things and people you adore and your home will be beautiful! Don't follow trends, stay true to what appeals to you and you will create a place you enjoy spending time in! If you don't know how to pull it all together, then seek help but be a part of the selection process and make sure the colours and pieces resonate with you!