Let’s get this out of the way: it’s pronounced “Day-us Ex Mack-in-a”. Sitting on the corner of a busy intersection in Sydney’s Camperdown, an aptly dubbed “temple of enthusiasm” houses the Australian headquarters and café-cross-flagship store Deus Ex Machina. Walls are clad with vintage-inspired artwork and I’m immediately welcomed into the eccentric world of motorcycles, surfing and streetwear to meet the godfather of the brand. Thirteen years since Deus roared into the Australian consciousness, the company has gone global: Bali, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Milan – and with the Deus philosophy now comes a cult following.
Arriving into Sydney’s Inner West cultural scene in 2006, the brand plucked creative director and co-founder Carby Tuckwell and fellow comrade Dare Jennings from corporate desks and into a far-removed venture: bikes. Outlaw country was a world away from being in an office – it was gritty and it was honest. It was also worlds away from the militant bikie culture that took hold of communities across the country, but the duo did have their encounters. ICON sat down with Tuckwell to chat Japanese inspiration, gangs and taking a leap of faith.
ICON: Why motorcycles?
Carby Tuckwell (CT): “Because we like them [laughs]. Dare [Jennings] and I are both from the country and grew up riding motorcycles, so it’s in our blood. And also the connection of motorcycles to design and applied art.”
ICON: What were you doing before co-founding the brand?
CT: “I was co-founder of another brand called Moon Design [a 120-person-strong design company in Sydney] and we had been doing that for 11 or 12 years and I was exiting. We did Jetstar, Qantas, Westfield, Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Seafolly. It was graphic design and brand development. We had sold the business, so I went from being a creative director of a large agency to a one-man band in a start-up motorcycle company.”
ICON: What did your family think when you jumped ship from the corporate world?
CT: “They probably applauded… because I was into this anyway. It was like finally connecting two dots.”
ICON: Bikie gang culture was very prevalent back then. Was that something you had to navigate in your line of work?
CT: “That’s an interesting observation because when we started with motorcycles, what we were referencing and liked were predominately Japanese bikes. We’d travel to Tokyo to see the custom scene and that wasn’t choppers and bikies and Harleys. It was refined, and it was clever, and they were doing the most with the least and it was incredibly creative. They were smaller bikes and there wasn’t that gang culture around the cafe racer scene. When we started a ‘custom’ motorcycle business, people assumed that we were coming off the back of that terrible TV show American Chopper.”
ICON: What were the challenges you faced when trying to gain traction in those early days?
CT: “It was really just a big empty shed, a big room with a couple of bikes in it, so getting traction from the revenue side of [business] was important. Dare has always maintained that apparel was the scalable part of the business and we could actually make that bigger. Whereas motorcycles are always going to remain stratospheric and very refined – we won’t sell many of them and the margins are low. Getting a foothold into the apparel side of it was the challenge and really just establishing a brand.”
ICON: Deus Ex Machina is a culmination of motorcycles, surfing, cycling, snowboarding, streetwear and even coffee. Would you say it’s a lifestyle brand?
CT: “Yeah, lifestyle. That’s sort of a dirty word, but it’s very difficult to describe. But lifestyle brand does seem to catch what it is. It is sort of a philosophy. I guess we always go back to saying that Deus is more of a philosophy.”
ICON: How do you respond to critics who believe Deus has become too commercialised?
CT: “I would disagree with them, but ostensibly it does look like that this whole thing is a marketing construct – albeit a very expensive one – but it’s something that hasn’t been invented just to create a brand. How would I counter the argument? Ultimately, sooner or later you have to make a decision about whether you’re a wholesale or a retail brand. We’re a bigger business now with greater commercial responsibility. Europe’s growing now, the US is big. The creative hub is still centred here in Sydney.”
ICON: What was the reason behind choosing Sydney’s Inner West as the home to the brand?
CT: “I think it was the building. We have always chosen locations based on the space available. Space is an absolute luxury. And it was cheaper back then, but there was no one around. This whole block was warehousing. So, yeah, it was just space.”
ICON: It just so happened that it turned out to be Sydney’s cultural hub…
CT: “Yeah, I think we did that [laughs].”
ICON: With stores in LA, Milan, Tokyo and Bali, do you find that these different cities are drawn to different aspects or disciplines of the brand? And was this intended?
CT: “Definitely. There are different competencies in each area and they’re all centres of excellence. Italy is bicycles, Sydney is still motorcycling and art, Bali is surf. But we haven’t instructed it – it’s just been the read on the Deus philosophy. I think it’s doing what you’re good at and know what you can do well, but there has to be an audience or a market for it to succeed.”
ICON: Do you have a favourite collaboration with another creative?
CT: “I’m doing a really interesting collaboration at the moment with a guy from Portugal who restores Land Rovers built between ’64 and ’73. We’re doing a car together.”
ICON: As creative director of the brand, can you describe a typical day at work?
CT: “I try to spend an hour working with the guys going over what we’re working on, and then I’ll try to get a couple of hours of work done on my own so I can produce some stuff. And then around 4 o’clock, the other time zones come on and we’ll have a call booked with Italy or the US. It’s a rough plan and it rarely goes like that.”
ICON: For further insight into your colourful career, you’ll be appearing at Semi Permanent 2019 in Sydney. What can attendees expect to learn from you at the event?
CT: “Ooh, I’d better think about that. I’ll be doing a talk. I think I want to turn it around and assess what worked and importantly what didn’t work. This business is the product of lots of misses as well as big hits – failure can be a positive process also its the by product of having courage and testing things and believing in what we liked. If you’re doing that, you’re less and less likely to make missteps or go wrong because it becomes intuitive. I’ll talk about that and maybe the recipe for a delicious Deus ragu.”
Carby Tuckwell will join the likes of Erica Dorn, lead graphic designer behind Wes Anderson’s masterpiece Isle of Dogs, and Emmy-winning designer Raoul Marks for global design platform Semi Permanent 2019, May 23-25 at Carriageworks in Sydney. Visit www.semipermanent.com for tickets.