Retail’s a tough business. Margins are small, survival rates low. If you fail, it’s game over. Second chances are rare. Third chances? Impossible.
This is the story of a retail brand that in its 34-year history has gone under not once but twice, and somehow, remarkably, is thriving in its third act. More remarkable still, the original founders are still in charge, the company’s original mission has remained intact, and many of the original products — highly original, it bears mentioning — are still in stock and still look as modern and, yes, original as ever.
Allow me to introduce you to REMO, founded in 1988 in Sydney, Australia, by a lapsed lawyer and Sydney native named Remo Giuffré who nearly broke his mother’s heart when he told her he wanted to open a general store.
Not just any general store: a store “as information broker.” A store that, as Giuffré wrote in 1991, enabled “customers to communicate with each other by virtue of their shared relationship with the Store.”
REMO was, in other words, an internet brand before the internet. A social-media brand before social media.
I know about REMO because I was a REMO customer in the 1990s. I never visited the physical store — I’ve never been anywhere near Australia — but an American friend had somehow discovered the REMO catalog, and she passed it along to me, knowing that I was interested in catalog marketing. (I’d been Banana Republic’s editorial director when that company produced a famous catalog. After that gig ended, I made a modest living writing copy for about a dozen other retail catalogs.)
The REMO catalog knocked me flat. It was perfection: beautifully designed, thoughtfully and cleverly written. I placed my first order almost immediately, for a bunch of quirky swim caps (I swam on a masters team) and for something called a Sea Shell Head Set.
I wasn’t the only one who succumbed to the siren song of Sea Shell Head Sets. Madonna bought a set. So did David Byrne. I still have mine.