I first profiled ksubi about 10 years ago for a music publication. It was their second year in existence and admittedly a period when the boys were just hitting their stride. Interviewing co-founder Dan Single at the time, it became apparent that while brimming with creative virtuosity, ksubi (back then known as tsubi) was a collective still figuring things out. “We’re just trying to do the best we can and have a good time while not getting caught up in the seriousness of it all,” Single told me in 2002. A decade later, this free-spirited mentality still echoes some truth.
Founded in 2000 by Single, George Gorrow, Paul Wilson, Oscar Wright and then later Gareth Moody, ksubi was born from a backyard scenario. To put it simply, it was a group of friends from Manly experimenting with art, and seeing what they could get away with. They would sew clothes in Single’s living room, screenprint in Gorrow’s stairway and their first foray into denim would be tearing up jeans on a balcony with an angle grinder. “We were extremely young, arrogant, fearless of failure and free,” Gorrow reminisces. “The clothing was originally never meant be the sole focus. ksubi was more about capturing everything that excited us.”
Inspired by bands like Guitar Wolf and artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, a unique aesthetic soon unravelled. It was a raw sensibility that effortlessly fused art with fashion, capturing the zeitgeist at the time. Starting a label was naturally the next step. “The earliest memory [I have of ksubi] is a list of names we made which were all kind of shit,” Wilson recalls. “We almost called it Robot for a second then George came up with Subi and then Oscar came up with the idea of a silent ‘t’ and it became tsubi. We were all stoked that we finally had a name that didn’t mean anything.”
While not meaning much at the time, ksubi would go on to hold great meaning to a new generation of fashion lovers. As chance would have it, an adventurous punt prompted the boys to vie for a slot at Australian Fashion Week, not knowing that this moment in the spotlight would cement their place in local fashion history. “We weren’t trained and we were just following the lawless beauty of imagination, imagining if we were a fashion brand what we could do,” says Gorrow. “This was the time we were all about shock. So when I was asked about the show late one night (in 2001) and what model we’d like to come out first, I replied ‘I’d rather a swarm of rats came out’.”
The rats made primetime TV. And as Wilson astutely notes; “if only social media existed in those days, (imagine the coverage).” The following years heralded rapid expansion. The boys moved from Manly to offices in Reservoir Street in Surry Hills employing friends to work for them. Whether it was kickabouts running errands or future prodigies working on design (Michelle Janks, Jordy Askill and Jonathan Zawada have all been past alumni) the ksubi office was never short of exciting characters. Evidently the brand had managed to develop into a successful business, convey a distinct identity, all while maintaining that notorious ‘loose’ culture that had become so desirable to the outside world. It was also around this time, that Michael Nolan – ksubi’s current Creative Director – joined the team.
Success soon came on thick and fast. In the following years, ksubi would rise to become one of the most covetable fashion labels in Australia. They would also firmly place their stamp overseas, winning over stockists such as Collette and Selfridges. After the rats came the models jumping into the freezing Sydney harbour, the Death Machine calendar, the infamous show in Melbourne which kept media waiting for an hour only to have all the models walk one finale lap of the runway, and of course the art installation during London Fashion Week in an abandoned tube station which only managed to pull a crowd of Australian friends, as it clashed with Sophia Kokosalaki on the schedule. The boys had spent several weeks prior working on the installation, which comprised of models posing in surrealistic themed stalls. While seeming gimmicky at time, the ksubi team’s harebrained ideas came from a sincere place of experimentation and fervent curiosity, knowing little risks or boundaries. “It was still loose and undisciplined,” says Nolan. “Everything was spontaneous and done for the fun of it. It was a time when we were motivated more by fun than by finance.”
It was around 2007 that I profiled ksubi again, this time for a fashion publication. They had moved offices to Marlborough Street, a warehouse tucked away in the back of Surry Hills only accessible via loading dock. I was there to interview Gorrow and Single about a range of ‘Sad Earth’ T-shirts they were producing with proceeds going towards combating climate change. Ishil Ihtiyar (the Communications Director at the time) led a photographer and myself into a room for the interview. Full of amazing clutter, madcap artworks and rare souvenirs collected from their travels abroad, this room to me signified how much the brand had developed and how much the business had grown, all the while encapsulating their adventures throughout the years.
However much the business had grown, one thing was certain, and that was the fact the ksubi clan knows how to have a good time. It was something inherent in their DNA from inception. And something that was aided by a little club night called Bang Gang. “It was a party that happened every Friday of our lives and I think people will always look back on Bang Gang as something that was irrevocable,” Nolan (a founding member of Bang Gang) recalls. “The party had a good energy. It was hedonistic. It was sexually liberal.” The celebrations also extended abroad with Wilson remembering a time in Tokyo where he “discovered one of my business partners slumped in a chair backstage where he had fallen asleep pen in hand whilst signing a ksubi mix CD for a very patient Japanese fan. Amazingly the kid was just standing there waiting politely for him to wake up. I don’t know how long they’d been there!”
Along with the infamous parties, 2007 also marked the year ksubi showed their trailblazing ‘Said the Rainbow to the Apocalypse’ collection. Undoubtedly one of their most memorable collections to date, it featured cosmic silk prints, mixed with slogan tees and long dark knits. It’s interesting to note that this collection was designed as a true collective. The team didn’t have a head designer then so it was a case of Single, Gorrow, Nolan, Pip Edwards and Ozlem Esen all contributing their ideas and working together. The striking show (as well as the seasons prior to that) was a critical and commercial success with the company turning over nearly $19.7 million. They had struck a chord with the masses and it seemed to be a golden era for this once backyard experiment.
Unfortunately this golden era ended abruptly in 2009. A string of offshore production stuff-ups and a trademark dispute with an American shoe brand buried the company in financial difficulties, pushing ksubi into voluntary administration. “It was an awful thing at the time,” Nolan says. “We had about 70 people working for us and I remember there was one day in November where we had to make 30 redundant. That was really depressing. There was also a day when we were sitting around at work and a guy came to take away our water cooler because we hadn’t paid the bills. That was a real moment that defined that time for me.”
“It was a fall from a 20-foot building onto pavement face first, with absolutely no bounce I tell you,” Gorrow adds. “Just a long, intensive recovery and a shitload of hard work. Without the support we were accustomed to, we had a battle on our hands to become better than we thought possible at our trade. Our team got tighter, tougher and more determined, and we never gave up, even when it seriously looked hopeless.” Subsequently, ksubi was partially bought out by Bleach, the company housing Insight and Something Else. Though this move ensured their survival, it would also conjure up teething problems with certain production limitations enforced on the label. The team would find it challenging, initially having to utilise Bleach’s factories which were more accustomed to producing surfwear rather than what has become expected of ksubi. It was around this time that I met Guy Hastie (head designer) and Apples Ryan (denim designer), who were both brought onboard to work on the label.
With a tighter knit, smaller team, ksubi began rebuilding the foundations of their business. Hastie was entrusted with the task of designing each collection, using the limited resources on hand. While frustrating at first, the collections evolved season after season and under the recent guidance of creative consultant Christine Centenera, ksubi has reclaimed its identity with an exciting new point of view. “It was quite difficult to begin with but Christine helped to get us all on the same page,” Hastie explains. “For me, I want to create a collection that sells well and to make sure the quality is impeccable. I want to create fashion that’s just as good as any brand that I would buy. And also since we have all been in a situation that we didn’t want to be in, we have worked really hard to make it a lot better.”
“The team got their shit together and grew up,” Ryan adds. “Everyone just started getting excited again – we were able to get more hands on with the product and design and not just be desktop designers. And through Christine we were able to keep the concept of each range tighter.” This was most evident in their fashion week show this year. Devoid of any gimmicks, ksubi delivered a cohesive collection of 26 looks, marrying denim and fashion together in a singular sleek, sporty vision. The show was a triumph with increased sales and positive reviews all round. “After we went broke we can admit that we were a little bit lost with what our aesthetic was,” Nolan says. “We got confused as a brand. And then we said well let’s just listen to ourselves and know what we want to be and stick to that. I think we’ve developed a new aesthetic, which we’re really happy with and we want to evolve it.”
Armed with a new vision, the finale of their show at fashion week had the whole ksubi team walk out as a collective. It was a genuine moment, fortifying the fact that ksubi is a brand that has always been built on camaraderie. This ballast allows for more creative collaborations. “We do have so much fun,” Hastie says. “No one is out for themselves. We all just want to see the brand work. We hang out together outside of work and we never really get sick of each other. It’s what makes the brand what it is today.”
“I still think we have a really amazing company culture behind us,” Nolan affirms. “We have a good group, a good design team that has a lot of fun together. Whenever we go away on work trips, we still manage to get up to lots of mischief. Some things never change. However things are going to change with us having more money for marketing budgets so we can do those trips where we suddenly have some crazy idea to drive a fingerless sculpture across the whole of America, haul it out at tourist attractions and take photos of it. We’re desperate to do stuff like that again. We still have the ideas.”
Those crazy ideas coupled with a defiant spirit, appears to be something that will always course through ksubi’s veins. “We never do things the way it is according to timeline,” Ryan says. “When they say left we instead go right. It can be the biggest shit-fight but at the end of day we get it done. I love that we do it this way rather than doing it by the book. It wouldn’t be ksubi otherwise.”
While the future looks bright for this band of misfits, there have admittedly been many key figures and headline-grabbing moments in the past that have helped pave this path. With this in mind, I ask Single – ten years on from our first interview – what has been the highlight.
“The highlight is building a company that inspired people, that changed lives and that ran pretty much from a staff of all friends,” he sums up. “We’re a company that – without trying – started a lot of trends. I am proud that we got to where we are by being true to ourselves and doing what we loved.”