Fashion retailer Incu has built a cult following in its native Australia over nearly two decades. From humble beginnings inspired by Hong Kong shopping trips to operating 10 Incu stores, two rag & bone stores, and one A.P.C. store, today Incu is considered a regional leader in fashion and retail. As the company closes in on nearly 20 years of business, I speak to founders Brian and Vincent Wu.
Brian and Vincent Wu have known each other forever. Literally. They’re twins. And like many twins, their life’s work mirrors each other’s, born out of youthful memories. Before launching the mini retail empire they’re now known for, however, the two worked in I.T. Unsatisfied with the work at hand, the two would meet up and throw business ideas back and forth.
Shopping experiences with their mother in their native Hong Kong kept coming up (the family relocated to Australia when Brian and Vincent were children) and the two soon located a gap for an elevated, curated retail experience in the Australian market. By October 2002, the first Incu store was open for business.
Grounded in the inspiration that comes while traveling, international designers and emerging Australian brands, the brothers created a unique retail concept that felt both innovative and personable. Today Incu owns and operates 10 retail stores located across Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast, carrying everything from Acne Studios and Alexander Wang to Nike and The North Face.
In 2014, Brian and Vincent took the business to another level, announcing retail partnerships with A.P.C. and rag & bone. The two now operate a total of two rag & bone, one APC, 10 Incu multi stores + online Australian-first stores throughout Sydney and Melbourne.
Further bolstering its signature curaton, four years later Incu launched its own in-house line, Incu Collection, an accessible mix of products stocked in Incu stores available exclusively at Incu stores and online.
To learn more about the brothers’ journey and the steady, remarkable growth of Incu, I spoke to co-founders Brian and Vincent over Zoom. Read our conversation below.
Hey, Brian and Vincent. Good to connect today. You guys started Incu in 2002 but I understand you don’t come from a retail background. Tell me a bit about what you were doing that led you to Incu.
Brian: Both of us are from totally different industries. We were both marketing majors working in I.T. companies straight out of college. Our parents are from Hong Kong so we used to travel quite a bit there, seeing and growing up with a different retail landscape.
During that quarter-life crisis we were like, “You know what? We love the shopping experience.” We felt like that was a major gap in the Australian market at the time. A lot of people didn’t travel overseas back then so we thought, “Okay, we can bring in some interesting brands and try and create this customer experience.”
What was the Australian retail scene like at that time?
Brian: It was intimidating because it felt like they catered to people that were really into fashion and dressed a certain way. We wanted to get away from that and make a very inclusive environment.
Beyond creating a more inclusive environment, what else did you guys set out to do?
Brian: “Incu” stands for “incubate” or “incubator” so it was about trying to bring in all these unknown brands, whether Australian or from overseas, and to help build these brands here. That’s where it all started with the first Incu store.
We used to work seven days a week and we made a lot of mistakes early on. But we managed to get through it and learn from our mistakes, and we’ve slowly been growing the business since then.
What are some of those early mistakes?
Brian: Inventory has always been one we’ve struggled with, especially at the start when we didn’t have any experience. We were guessing our way through it. Early on we ordered way too little tops…
Vincent: We were basically a denim store for a while.
Brian: It was a real learning experience to get the right balance. Customer experience or the way that people walked into the store and how they felt and were greeted, that was always a work in progress. We got better at adapting to different scenarios where you get different customers coming in and they feel uncomfortable because we’d be too full-on.
Vincent: We knew from early on what kind of experience we wanted. We just didn’t have the experience to execute it. But we always knew we wanted to make sure that people felt welcomed, that they enjoyed the actual experience of walking into a space and learning about things. We just had to learn everything else like merchandising, what brands we should have, price points…
How did you apply learnings from those mistakes towards the experience you were going for?
Brian: When we first opened, we stocked a brand called 2K which had all these T-shirts with artists like Warhol and Basquiat. We put them on a table and had them displayed like an art gallery where there was a description of each artist. It was about educating customers as much as it was selling the product.
This is 2002, a lot of our brands didn’t even have websites. Most of the time it was a sense of discovery coming into our store. I think that’s why we built a following because people wanted to come in and find out about the latest brand we picked up.
“We always knew we wanted to make sure that people felt welcomed, that they enjoyed the actual experience of walking into a space and learning about things.”
The customer today has access to everything and they walk in already so educated. What can a retailer offer now to elevate the shopping experience beyond education?
Brian: You’re right. Customers know what they’re looking at when they come in, they’ve done the research, they’ve gone to the websites. So one thing we try to push is the curation of products. Even though we might stock all the brands you can get online, it’s about our take on those brands and how we style them amongst each other. It’s our point of difference.
The other thing we’ve gotten better at with the rise of eCommerce is knowing so much more about the customer. You can get so much data on everything from where they shop to what they search for. It’s about understanding the customer journey and joining them so they feel special along the way. We try to do that on both the physical and digital side.
We also focus on community building so that our shop staff is connected with our customers. That brings emotional attachment to our brand and they’ll shop with us rather than with someone else.
What’s the red thread that runs through your sense of curation?
Brian: We’ve always looked for brands that have a point of difference, a strong understanding of who they are and the lane that they sit in. We’ve always wanted to select and curate those brands so that they make sense when you put them together.
We also have an in-house brand, Incu Collection, which is an entry point into our business. Some of the brands we stock might be a bit too high-end or expensive for some customers, so Incu Collection gives them the opportunity to walk out with something.
What about the technologies you leverage to deliver that elevated experience?
Brian: WeChat is definitely a big one. We have dedicated WeChat staff at our Melbourne and Sydney stores that service the Chinese customer, which is very big in Australia. It’s invite-only for now, so those customers feel like they’re really looked after on a personal level.
We use Easysize so that customers understand sizing when shopping our online store.
Vincent: Hero made sense to us because we’re trying to create that brick-and-mortar experience online. We know we have more and more customers in the digital space and we want them to get that special feeling of talking to someone about recommendations and styling. It’s one of those natural things that just became really important for us to go forward with.
And what about community? I know you guys work with a lot of local partnerships.
Brian: Supporting our community is a big thing for us. We’re part of a community ourselves and being able to work alongside businesses that are inspirational to us pushes us to work harder.
Recently, for our birthday, we collaborated with Gelato Messina and we curated their five special flavors for the week and we’re just about to launch a pop-up installation in one of the stores using a local paper artist named Benja Harney.
It’s nice to work with different businesses and individuals as it makes things a little bit more interesting and makes people want to visit us rather than just check out our website.
You guys have retail partnerships with A.P.C. and rag & bone. How do those partnerships tie into the wider business?
Brian: These brands wanted to grow in the Australian market and were looking for a local partner. We were a natural fit because we’ve been stocking these brands so we understand what the customer is looking for with each one.
We’ve opened these stores nearby Incu stores so we’ve created a little hub with like-minded customers. In Australia, there’s no natural place for some of these brands to fit so we had to create it ourselves.
For our customers, it means they have access to a wider range of product offering. We put it under the umbrella of Incu, so if they’re a VIP at Incu they can shop at rag & bone or A.P.C. and know they’ll be looked after.
Vincent: It’s also been a great learning experience as well. We enjoy the process but the learning side of things has always been the best part. Each of these brands is quite different. rag & bone is a big American brand and A.P.C. is very French in the way they operate. It’s been awesome just getting to learn how to successfully grow a brand like that locally.
Jumping over to the eCommerce side of the business. Beyond the tools you guys use to deliver the Incu experience virtually, what other strategies do you leverage to deliver a sense of community?
Brian: We were pretty early with eCommerce and at the beginning it wasn’t performing that well, but we knew it was a necessity. We could tell from our own lifestyles that it was becoming bigger and bigger.
We were always producing some kind of content through our work with artists in our physical stores so it was natural for us to bring that into the digital space. We used to produce and print a magazine every season that we gave to our staff so we thought to bring it online because that’s where most people are getting their content now.
Everyone uses the term these days, but we always thought of Incu as a lifestyle. We knew that the people who liked shopping with us also had other interests outside of fashion. That’s why the content is a mix of brand and clothing stories, and stories about the friends and partners we find interesting.
You guys have been in business for almost 20 years. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve made in order to stay at the forefront of Australian retail?
Brian: One of the biggest changes has been the emergence of the digital world. With a new brick-and-mortar, we know exactly what to do, we know who to work with, we know what the metrics are.
With the digital world, that’s changed a lot. The metrics are different, the amount of data you get is different. It’s been a big learning but it’s allowed us to service more customers than ever before.
One thing we’ve gotten a lot better at over the years is the planning side. We’ve increased the merchandising and planning side of the business, learning how to buy the correct stock and reducing inventory, making sure that if product is selling well that we have enough stock to maximize the sales potential.
It’s not the glamorous side of retail or fashion but it’s the side we’ve invested a lot of time and resources into because we need to make sure that we get that right.
It also goes back to our earlier conversation. Customers come in already very educated but we want to be more than just a transactional business. Proactively building a community and understanding the customer lets us offer an elevated omnichannel experience where we’re working with them in both physical and online spaces.
“It’s about understanding the customer journey and joining them so they feel special along the way. We try to do that on both the physical and digital side.”
Last question. I know food has played a big role in the growth of Incu—lots of important decisions have been made over lunch meetings. Is food actually that central to Incu and if so, what have been some of the most consequential decisions you’ve made while eating?
Brian: If you ask the office, food is number one for everyone. Our CEO, Doug, is probably the biggest foodie we know. A lot of decisions we make are made over lunch meetings and a lot of inspiration we get for the business have been on trips overseas.
One of the biggest ones we had was in Japan, where we toured around Tokyo checking out retail and stopping at every restaurant along the way. We learned a lot from the food experience because what they do really well is look after the entire experience of the customer. It’s something we can learn from on the clothing side.
A lot of those things are interrelated. It’s a very seamless thing.
Last, last question then. Can we expect to see an Incu Cafe or Incu Restaurant in the company’s future?
Vincent: We’ve thought about it. We spend a lot of time talking about food or what we’re going to have for lunch so it’s definitely a possibility.
Brian: We always think about the Incu customers’ lifestyle as a factor. So the people that come into our shop to buy clothes, where are they going to eat? And how do we enhance that experience?
In Australia, people will travel for food but people won’t necessarily travel to go shopping. I always think that for us to lift our retail game up and to create a destination-type store, we need to have a food element in there. Once you have food, people can wake up in the morning and go, “Oh, I wouldn’t mind having lunch and then going for a bit of shopping at Incu.”
All images courtesy of Incu.