Making it, Without Taking it From the Man

Having two major commercial successes in one lifetime is a fair indicator that you’re not dealing with your average entrepreneur.

But talking to Dare Jennings, of Mambo and now Deus Ex Machina fame, you get the impression that his endeavours are more products of a life lived tapped into the vein of popular culture, than the sum of their protagonist. A self-professed left-wing radical in his formative years, talking to Dare about his career trajectory might lead you to believe that it’s all been one big ride and he’s fortunate that, on the most part, it’s turned out well. It’s important to be weary of modesty in successful people however, as it nonchalantly obscures the endless theorising and hard work that it takes to get anything off the ground, let alone make it successful. Not that the success started with Mambo. There was the printing business that went before it, and Phantom Records that ran alongside the Mambo glory years. It would seem that the common denominator throughout these ventures, is Dare.

Seeing that he’s managed to capture the romance and larrikinism of Australian coastal culture, it’s surprising to learn that Dare’s from the Griffith area, some 600km from the ocean. “I came from a very rural, hard-working farming family,” he tells me. “Around Griffith and Coleambally. My father was a very capable farmer and I wanted to be anything but.” After graduating from Yanco Agricultural College where he attended high school, Dare went on to study at Sydney Uni. These were the days where student politics was serious fare. The overwhelmingly unpopular Vietnam War dragged on, and the students weren’t afraid to break a few windows to get their point across. Dare embraced the liberal atmosphere wholeheartedly. “Through university I was a radical student,” he tells me. “Vietnam protestors seized the administration block at one point, it was all left-wing politics.” But the academic side of uni life wasn’t quite aligned with Dare’s ethos at the time, so like so many others of the period, he took off up the coast. Tune in, drop out. But not for long. “The Protestant work ethic came along and I decided to teach myself how to screen print,” Dare explains. “I started printing t-shirts and fabric and a little business started building up from there.”

The “little business” that Dare founded, grew to something not so little, and their Alexandria factory soon employed up to 100 people. Dare explains that balancing his left-wing tendencies and intrinsic ambition, was trying at times. “I was always torn between wanting to do something and sort of almost being ashamed of being a capitalist exploiting the masses,” he says. “There was a bit of a chasm between the two things.” During this period Dare was also heavily involved in the thriving Sydney music scene, and that birthed another business, Phantom Records. “The music scene in the ’70s was full on,” he explains. “Everyone I knew was either in a band or went to see the bands. These guys were closing down their record store in the city and I took that over and started Phantom Records. We didn’t sign anyone up, we just released cool records made by cool people. We put out The Sunnyboys, Flaming Hands, a whole bunch of stuff.”

Then came Mambo. A by-product of the success of the printing label, showcasing all of the talented artists in his extended peer group seemed logical to Dare. As anyone who was conscious at the time will remember, Mambo plunged straight into the central artery of the zeitgeist; the art of Reg Mombassa, Paul McNeil, Robert Moore and countless others plastered on tees and boardshorts, made the brand an almost instant hit.

“It was just one of those things that exploded,” Dare remembers. “It was full of humour and attitude, we were taking the piss out of the self-righteous surf companies, and people loved it.” The fact that contemporaries of mine still trawl the web hunting for vintage Mambo threads is the ultimate validation of what a cultural icon the brand was. Dare regards the art as being the key to Mambo’s success, and states that no small part of that was the fact that the artists at the time came from a fine art background, as opposed to the digital masses of today. “This was when the art schools were teaching art, not graphics and computers,” he says. “People knew what they were doing and there was just a different ethos. The politics were everything.”

A piece of culture, by Reg Mombassa.

As with all things that capture a time and place so perfectly, Mambo’s flame eventually burnt out. After they were commissioned to design the uniform for the Australian Olympic team for the 2000 Olympics, Dare cashed in and checked out. It started in 1984 and I sold it in 2000,” he explains. “I’m okay at coming up with ideas, but I get very bored with the running of companies—the grind of it becomes a bit dull. I sold it to a public company, and the rest of that is history. I’d had enough. And they paid me, so I should be so lucky.”

So, what next? Dare explains that in his younger years, everyone who surfed rode motorbikes for practical reasons. Then during the surf boom of the ’90s/’00s, the surf co’s took on the totalitarian attitude that if you surfed, then that’s all you did; everything else was just noise. Dare, and his partner Carby Tuckwell came up with Deus Ex Machina, part clothing label, but mainly a portal for them to explore the multi-disciplined theory of, “the juice.”

The essence of Deus. Photo by Anthony Dodds.

“The surf industry really began to irritate me because it was narrow-minded,” Dare tells me. “It didn’t relish humour, or attitude, or knowledge, or intelligence, which are the kinds of things I like. The idea with Deus was to create another cultural platform. I like motorbikes and had the sense that the surf industry was growing stale—taken over by public companies, exploitation, cheap clothing. I thought if we could put something with a bit more substance together then it would have a good chance.” Once again, Dare’s prediction was correct. From its fledgeling years in Camperdown (Paramatta Road, Sydney, where HQ still stands) Deus has opened ‘Temples’—the name given to their various bricks and mortar ventures—in Bali, Venice, Tokyo and Milan, with more to come. Each Temple is different, a reflection of Dare and Carby’s internationalist sensitivities, but they’re all Deus. “The idea was to take what is essentially a philosophy and start it in other countries,” Dare explains. “Motorcycles are only an aspect of what we do. We make beautiful surfboards in Bali, we make amazing bicycles in Milan, the Japanese guys make really hi-tech snowboards… there’s so many things.”

Dare outside Deus HQ, Camperdown. Photo: AFR.

Having been largely self-funding Deus since its inception, Dare sold his majority stake in the company at the end of last year. But not as a means of cashing in and checking out, rather as a means of spreading the juice further. Understandably weary of venture capitalists, Dare chose to sell to the fashion don Italians—“the devil we knew”—who set up Deus’ Milan store. “We got to the point that if we really want to grow and turn this into something substantial, we had to find some partners,” says Dare. “These guys are the best ones. They know who we are, we’ve been working together, the store that they opened in Milan is fantastic. There’s more people sitting at the table now, but they’re people that we know. Certainly after seeing the way that Mambo pretty much collapsed once new people started running it, I was very nervous about which way to go. I think that the deal that we’ve done is very good, and, yeah, more than happy.”

Dare’s very much still involved in Deus, and talking to him you can tell that the spark that’s carried him through his numerous chapters, is still there in abundance. “I believe that I still have the attitudes that I had at university,” he says. “They still exist in the way I live my life, but some things have turned out well, other things not so well, but y’know, that’s the way it goes.” When it comes to the next step for Deus, Dare lists, “Staying true to its philosophical roots of discovery, learning, progressing and bringing new ideas into it,” as the primary objectives. But I get the impression that he could just as well be talking about himself. After all, pursuing those traits seems to have served him pretty well thus far.

If you want to hear Dare’s story first hand, then scoop up tickets to his Vivid talk in Sydney here.

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