TukTuk started in 1997 in Kinglake, Victoria. Our Head of Design Cornélia Selover tells how it all began with a simple thought ...
“I was tired of the beige jodhpur ‘Princess Anne’ look. I wanted some stylish horse riding clothes that I could wear to the shops.”
When we printed our first TukTuk tee shirt, I was driving from Kinglake to Dingley for work, and my business partner was working five nights in a pub on the dinner shift. Every weekend, we would go somewhere to do a show, a festival, a market, or an event. Back then, the entire range was tee shirts, a few polos, a couple of fleeces and some caps.
We would cram all the stock, shelves, posters, and two dogs into our station wagon, leave on a Friday night and set up in the dark. At weekend events we camped, and later we slept in my horse float. We either froze, boiled or had street lights shining in our eyes.
Handsome George and Corn at the first TukTuk photo shoot at the lookout in Kinglake in 1997
Every week we drove up and down from Kinglake to Thomastown, to deliver and collect stock from our printer and embroiderer. Then we folded every tee on the kitchen table and used a spare room as our storeroom.
In 1999, after the mad success of the first Equitana Melbourne, we rented our first shop in Kinglake. We spent a good year there, but the rent was high and a shop came up in Coldstream for a quarter of the price. Interestingly, as soon as we moved, we had a personal visit from a major supplier to the horse riding community to ‘wish us well’. That suggested we were no longer flying under the radar.
We were still folding and bagging the tees ourselves, hundreds at a time, but it was in this shop that the first samples of the Casual Riding Pants arrived. We knew we were onto something – finally, horse riding pants that were up to our standards. Fantastic stretchy fabric, unusual cut for riding trousers at that time and an almost universal fit. You could step off the pony and wear your CRP’s down the shops and no-one would twig you were still in your riding gear.
Shortly after, we were approached by a big industry name to make jeans for track riders that didn’t feel or look like jeans, as the jockeys had a bias against denim jeans. I designed our Five Pocket Riding Jeans Style #264 and our first significant order was shipped out. Only to be copied and sold under their label. Oops. Lesson learned.
I amended the design into TukTuk’s #274 mid-rise bootleg and away we went. We sold thousands of this style in eight different plain colours and seasonal stripes and checks.
The #274 is one of the first styles we are reinstating. This and the original Casual Riding Pants. Why? Because they are such a bloody good fit. Women love the way they feel and men love the way they look. Win/win, they call that.
When we started making our own winter gear – winter exercise jackets and the full-length riding coat – we moved to a large warehouse in Lilydale. Soon after, we introduced woven shirts, polos, vests, all manner of tees, lightweight wet weather gear and a range of accessories.
We painted the downstairs foyer and set up a warehouse shop. We had our offices upstairs. We still did all the warehouse packing, picking and shipping ourselves, only hiring staff for events and the big sale.
Twice a year, I drove around Victoria, South Australia, NSW and Queensland in ‘Sharon’ our company car, visiting individual saddleries and taking wholesale orders. People would frequently assume we were employees of a large overseas company, referring to, ‘they’, or ‘them’. They couldn’t believe TukTuk was just the two of us.
After the orders were collated, we would then order about twice what the shops had ordered. Of course, back then online shopping was barely a thing. We had a steady trade through our shop and of course, we were still attending events. Mostly, people simply rang us up and placed an order!
Once a year, we would have a ‘Warehouse Sale’ and sell off all the odd sizes, colours and discontinued lines. On the morning of the sale, there would be up to 100 people, with their noses pressed to the glass, waiting for the doors to open. It grew into quite a social event – fun times.
Attending so many public events allowed us to get to know thousands of people. We spoke to them, fitted them (that’s an intimate thing), and sent them away feeling good about their bodies and ready to ride. Pants are the key. Get a girl in a pair of pants that she loves and you have a friend for life.
The business grew, culminating in Equitana 2008 where we made substantial orders over the four days. Then, the Black Saturday Fires hit, affecting us personally. Meanwhile, the after-effects of Equine Influenza decimated our wholesale base. In 2012, TukTuk was sold and we went our separate ways.
In 2019, Sabine bought the TukTuk brand and began the arduous task of renewing trademarks, registering a business and name and regaining control of the Facebook page. She set up a new website and inventory system, hunted for premises to accommodate our design studio and warehouse, painted our new show room and office and got everything back in place for us to relaunch the brand.
Over the seven years where TukTuk went into the wilderness, we kept getting messages from people who knew us and were incredibly supportive and quietly wondered when they might be able to replace their TukTuks. I kept hearing people say, ‘Are you wearing your TukTuks?’ As if TukTuk is a THING. This always amazes me.
It feels great to be designing for TukTuk again and reconnecting with all those lovely loyal fans, many of whom appear to have simply been ‘waiting’. The enthusiasm for the brand is huge.
We’re back! I still can’t believe it. Come ride with us.
Our first photo shoot in preparation for the re-launch. May 2020 in Beechworth. Shannae (Photographer), Corn and Sabine