Bull trend: How Marnie Goding created multi-million dollar fashion label Elk

Bull trend: How Marnie Goding created multi-million dollar fashion label Elk

It’s a long way from managing events at Melbourne Zoo to running a globally successful jewellery and clothing label. But Elk Accessories co-founder and creative director Marnie Goding feels incredibly lucky to do what she does each day.

The 38-year-old Melburnian founded Elk with her husband Adam Koniaras in 2004. At the time, Adam was running his own small jewellery retail store but as their Scandinavian-inspired designs took off, the duo had to make a choice. Just over 10 years later, Elk’s signature wooden jewellery, ethereal clothing and classic leather bags are sold by more than 1000 stockists around the globe and the multi-million dollar business employs 45 people.

My career started in the event and marketing industry. My first full-time job was at the National Gallery and from there I was poached by my former boss to work at Melbourne Zoo. I was there for five years, working in marketing and events.

At the same time, my husband Adam was running his own small business, a bespoke fine jewellery store. It was going well but he didn’t have the time to work on growing the business.

I left my job to help Adam find new models to expand the business.

I realised there were new opportunities to be had in the business. It was also a creative outlet. I started silversmithing and we produced our own range of silver jewellery.

It snowballed pretty quickly. We sold one piece, then a few pieces and then it became this juggernaut.

We sold our own jewellery for about two years before we knew the business had legs and we established the Elk brand.

Coming from a marketing background, I knew we needed to choose a good brand name that was short and easy to remember. We wanted a name that didn’t have a gender or ethnicity but represented strength and the natural world.

We are influenced greatly by a Scandinavian, northern aesthetic and that translated into the work. We were gravitating towards monochromatic palettes and natural displays using silver birch. The name Elk made sense.

In hindsight, we probably wouldn’t have called the brand Elk. It was a very hard name to trademark. We spent a lot of money and time fighting to trademark the name.

We now have the Elk trademark in all markets we export to, except Europe. The US market was the hardest as there are some very established companies with the same name, but we had a massive win the US last year. It was a real feather in our cap.

Elk has been self-funded from the beginning. Initially, we funded the business through Adam’s existing business.

Like any new business there were times when we had just 20 cents in the bank account but we were able to leverage off the other business by combining trips to find new manufacturers and materials.

Within two years, things were moving quickly, mostly on our home turf. We have a lot of friends in the fashion industry so we were able to learn about the market quickly. But we knew in order to get some runs on the board we would need to sell more products.

We brought an agent on board who looked after sales in Victoria and we went to boutique trade events with some of the best retailers around. It was about exposing and building the brand.

We ran the two businesses at the same time for about five years before we got to a point where we were both flat out. We have two really good businesses but we had to make a decision about which was most scalable in the long run.

The revolution of the internet was happening at that time and online shopping had just come into the market. At the same time, the fine jewellery market changed very quickly as the diamond market was torn apart and many manufacturers were killed off. Consumers’ attitudes to fine jewellery were changing and no one wanted to pay the same prices.

We knew we had a real battle ahead to continue to make a good income from the jewellery store, whereas Elk was born at a boom time. Consumers were turning to independent retailers and there was a big boho trend at the time. It was really good timing.

Elk products are now stocked by 1000 stockists around the globe. Our main regions are Australia and New Zealand, the US and Canada, and Scandinavia. We have a few outlying stockists in places like Singapore and Japan.

We are a family business from Melbourne, an ethical business that uses sustainable timber, and our stockists love that story. That’s the voice we have and our independent traders have an appreciation for that story because they are also working on and in their businesses themselves.

I think they are naturally drawn to different products and brands that have sustenance to them.

We had the opportunity to be stocked by David Jones for a while; it’s a good example of how things didn’t work. They chased us for a long time and we held off before we finally relented and said we would try it.

Elk products were stocked in 10 David Jones stores as part of a trial but everything we knew would happen did happen. We sent mystery shoppers in to see how the products were being sold and presented and what staff were saying about the products but it just did not meet our standards. The products sold through very well but we pulled out quickly. It just wasn’t our business model.

Women wear Elk's clothing and jewellery

We try wherever possible to use sustainable materials. In an ideal world, every company would use organic, fair trade materials to make a better product for a better world. But that is a really hard thing to do in practice.

It is very difficult to understand a supply chain 100% but we ask the questions. The reality is you are working very quickly but we try not to compromise what we’re doing.

And we only work with manufacturers that we can go and visit to watch things being made on the shop floor and understand the conditions people are working in. It’s a very transparent way of working.

The timber we use comes from the Philippines. Our manufacturer there is on the board that oversees the harvesting so they see it firsthand. It is a very vertical process and we know that is the origin of the material.

We’re part of a global village and it’s important to give back a little.

Over the past few years we’ve had a partnership with UNICEF and we’re now the largest small business contributor to UNICEF in Australia. We’re raised over $150,000 by asking for a non-compulsory donation at the end of each order on the Elk website. We match every donation.

We had been looking for charities to quietly put some money into and we chose UNICEF because they are active in the regions where our manufacturers are, the Philippines and India. UNICEF has been blown away by the donation and they are looking to roll-out the model to other businesses.

When we first started Elk, we would hang out in stores to see who was picking up our products. It was a nice way to learn who our customer was.

It is much easier to interact with customers now with social media but it’s harder to get an in-depth interaction through social. It’s a feedback or comment, but not a conversation.

Our relationship with customers comes down to communication and information. We’re very lucky to have a unique relationship with customers, both wholesale and retail, who have grown with the brand and who tell us what they want.

When we are designing we talk a lot about who is going to wear the item. Who she is, would she be comfortable in this. We have a ‘would we wear it policy’. Sometimes we say ‘oh, someone could wear this to the races’ but if we wouldn’t wear it ourselves, it invariably flops.

We’re not creating couture or $400 gowns; Elk items are made to be worn more than once. Australians are practical. We like value for money and to know we are going to wear something.

You have to be willing to evolve your product offering or consumers get bored. But if you have a natural style or affinity for a style, it will flow naturally into your products.

We are anticipating around 20% growth in the domestic market through an increased commitment to have more stock in stores as well as increased product categories.

But the biggest growth will be international. We’ve recently participated in a trade show in New York and will be in London soon.

We’re just one piece of plankton in a massive sea. We are so small and there is so much work to do.

We’re really lucky because we love what we do. I can’t imagine doing anything else; we’re too busy to consume anything else. We’re lucky because we have a business that is working and we’re not struggling to figure out how to make it better.

It can be difficult for Adam and me to find time together. As the business gets bigger, we have both become more stretched. But I love it. I get to spend the whole day with my husband, how lucky am I?

Finding balance is what keeps me up at night. Balance between my personal and business life and balance between getting work done and being the captain of the ship at the same time.

I want to be there for my team for them to ask every question they have, but I can’t always be. I don’t like feeling like people are waiting for me, but they are.

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