Translated from French, Apéro means aperitif – a pre-dinner drink that ignites the appetite of a diner, preparing them for their upcoming meal.
Rachel Mellers and Laz Smith, the owners of Brisbane fashion label Apéro, took their inspiration for the brand from a drink served at Rachel’s brother’s wedding. Ironically, there was no aperitif that could prepare them for what was in their future – very, very fast business growth.
Apéro is now a much loved and well recognised fashion brand based in Brisbane, but sold in boutiques and online Australia-wide.
The pieces are versatile, French-inspired and made with natural materials – a culmination of Rachel’s experiences as a designer at various fashion houses. And with the brand now seven years into its journey, Apéro clearly has that je ne sais quoi that makes a brand special.
But success isn’t a straight road, and one of the first hurdles the pair faced was the challenges that come with managing a business that hits the ground sprinting.
“We started with 6 designs,” Rachel says.
“And I guess when you start something you don’t really know if it’s going to take off. You kind of assume it’s not going to work, but you just sort of go for it anyway.”
Spoiler alert: it did work.
So much so that within six months of starting the business, Rachel’s partner Laz had quit his job and jumped into Apéro full time.
“We moved in with Rachel’s parents, just so we didn’t have any overheads, and we were packing orders out of the lounge room,” Laz says.
“We did grow very quickly at the start and there were problems caused by that that we probably still are working on.
“But we went from packing things at home to having seven staff now and this beautiful building here in Albion.”
Managing the emotional ride of growth
Laz is only half joking when he says the journey of owning a business has been a mix of “rage and crying in various forms of either sadness or happiness, depending on what happens each day”.
He says the consequences of fast growth teach you to plan for both the long term and the short.
“Growth is a good and bad thing,” he says.
“Quick growth can introduce things into the business that don’t necessarily help in the long term, because you make really quick decisions without thinking about the long-term effects of that.
“So I’ve learnt that when you can, thinking slowly is really important. Making quick decisions can make you a victim of fast growth. Be wary of the opportunity cost.”
Apéro went very quickly from a home business to taking on a warehouse, assets and staff. And that’s something Rachel says was hard to adjust to – the nerves that go along with the thought that this could all go wrong tomorrow.
“Some days we’d have a week with no orders and then an order would come through and I’d just start crying because I was just so happy,” she says.
“One day I remember we got two orders in a day and I cried. I just cried. I thought it was a mistake.”
Rachel says it’s important for businesses to plot out the milestones they need to reach, and be persistent about achieving them.
“The first order that comes through is always a big milestone,” she says.
“There were some [wholesale] stores that I just called and pestered for ages. I sent them about 10 emails and you finally get a response and get an order, and you realise all those emails were worth it.
“I won that small battle. And then you just have to repeat it.”
Sewing social good in at the seams
Deeply entrenched in Apéro’s values is giving back and supporting causes close to the founders’ hearts.
“Both of us have always been passionate about giving back in whatever we do. I think that’s just been the theme of something that we’ve always talked about in our relationship,” Rachel says.
“When we started at Apéro, we wanted that to be part of our motivation because we didn’t just want to make money for ourselves. We wanted to be able to contribute and give back to people in need.”
The couple entrenched giving back to the community into their business right from the start – even before their revenue was looking as healthy as it does now.
“We just said, ‘let’s do that from the get-go – we’re not going to wait until we’re this big or that big’. We’re just going to do it from the get-go and commit to it,” Rachel says.
Laz adds: “It’s just a really important thing to give back in fashion, because it’s responsible for a lot of bad things in the world.
“There’s a lot of waste. So if we’re going to make a profit off fashion, we both felt a responsibility for us to offset that by giving back.
“Our biggest community contribution goes towards women’s community shelters, but we try to get involved with charitable events as much as possible.”
Rachel adds: “We also support the Red Frogs, the Sharma Foundation and Thread Together. We’re always looking for ways to get involved, whether it be donating money, clothes or our time.”
Three tips for business owners
Rachel and Laz agree that passion, staffing and self-development are the three biggest takeaways for them in their business journey.
“You have to be really passionate about what you’re doing. If your motivation is just money, it’s not really going to last that long,” Laz says.
“I think also having a continual commitment to developing yourself and your staff is important as well. We need to continually develop our own skill sets so we can stay across our business and ensure we are not being taken hostage by someone else’s direction or idea of our business.”
Rachel adds: “Staffing is vital, and just making sure you follow through with that recruitment process and have the right person in each of your roles. You can’t just hire friends.”
Laz also says doing business in Brisbane and being a mentor at the Brisbane Business Hub has been an exceptional experience, because while he is there to help others, he’s found it to be a great exercise in self-reflection about Apéro.
“It really gave me a good context of where I was at in a weird way, because I think we often have imposter syndrome as business owners,” he says.
“When I was put in that mentoring situation, I was able to clearly put forward my thoughts and my experiences and really give the person I was mentoring direction. And it gave me a more objective viewpoint on where we are at.
“Starting a business in Brisbane and doing business in Brisbane has been amazing. I think Brisbane’s going to continue to be a place where more people want to start businesses, because there is a thriving community of great business owners and businesses that are really standing out – not only on the Australian market, but on a global scale as well.”
We’ll drink to that.