Kim Bourke and Evan Sturrock are all in.
The co-owners of Joe Bananas, a 40-year-old Australian luxury men’s brand, have picked up stakes, moved halfway around the world to New York and opened their first store on Madison Avenue.
“When Americans dream big, they dream of making it in New York City,” Bourke said. “And when Australians dream big, they dream of making it in New York City.”
And so he and his business partner — and brother-in-law — took the leap of faith, leaving their home, and their two stores in Sydney, to open a 1,600-square-foot space at 943 Madison Avenue, between 74th and 75th streets, next door to The Met Breuer. The store had a soft opening last week and the grand opening is scheduled for Oct. 18.
A peek inside gives the first hint at what makes Joe Bananas different. Although the brand offers a wide range of products, it is best known for its colorful sport coats that are created from limited-edition, handcrafted silk textiles in patterns that are inspired by nature in Australia. It takes 250-300 days on average to weave one bolt of fabric that will in turn produce only six jackets that retail starting at $2,800 and go up to $9,500. Custom orders can easily exceed that.
There are also boldly patterned sport shirts and neckwear along with pants in a rainbow of colors throughout the store, which itself showcases the care and attention the owners took in building out the space.
Housed in one of the last six brownstones in a row on Madison Avenue that was never used for retail, the Joe Bananas store sports details that speak to the brand’s heritage. Australian hardwood tables are partially constructed from fence posts obtained from scrap timber yards outside of Sydney and the doors to the VIP area in the rear were commandeered from the brand’s first shop in the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney.
Joe Bananas was founded by university friends Joe Bananas and Peter Bourke and began life as a wholesaler, supplying over 300 shops around Australia. When Sydney’s famed Queen Victoria Building opened in the late Eighties, the founders were among the first to take a space and opened a retail shop. Four days after opening, Elton John came in and “bought the whole shop,” said Kim Bourke, who is the nephew of the co-founder.
The buzz that sale generated helped the business gain a foothold for the shop that is still in its original location. There is also a second shop in the Rocks neighborhood of Sydney.
Kim Bourke, who had worked in the business growing up, took over the operation of the company in 2012 when Joe Bananas passed away. He cajoled Evan Sturrock, who had also worked for the company at one point in time, to join him as a partner. It didn’t hurt that he also married Sturrock’s sister.
The men who frequent Joe Bananas are “absolute individualists,” Bourke said. “They wear what they like and that can be totally outrageous or artistically creative.” Sturrock added: “We design suits for guys who are done with wearing suits. Our greatest passion exists in introducing the man who has everything to something he doesn’t have and offering a personalized shopping experience.”
But not every piece off the rack is showstopping. “We also offer things as simple as a beautiful navy blazer, but it’s not boring,” Bourke said, pointing to the intricate patterns within the fabric. And once selected, each piece is tailored individually to the customer to ensure the right fit. And while it’s a men’s wear line, women are also drawn to the intricate fabrics, so Joe Bananas has produced its share of women’s pieces as well.
The textiles are indeed special and Sturrock said he is inspired when designing them by the “diversity of Australia” — its rocks, trees, animals and gemstones such as the black opal which is the brand’s signature weave. “No two are identical,” he said of the jackets made from the fabric.
While the textiles are special, the cut of the clothing is “relatively simple,” he added, “to showcase the fall of the fabric.”
Their search for their first American location was as exhausting as their search for the perfect textiles. They looked at the West Coast and the East Coast, uptown and down, for years before deciding on upper Madison. Since 90 percent of their existing clients are based outside of Australia, New York seemed like the right fit since it’s closer to Europe where many of its customers live or work.
“We’ve always known this was the right part of town for us,” Bourke said.
Eventually, the company would like to open a store on the West Coast as well — Los Angeles and San Francisco are tops on the list — but that’s down the road a bit. For now, they are concentrating on putting down lasting roots in the U.S.
“Reward always favors the brave,” Sturrock said. “And we feel energized and encouraged to be here.”
His partner added: “We’re realizing the dream.”