Justin O’Shea doesn’t live life by half measures—that’s unless he’s pouring himself a glass of Goldy Gin, his latest business venture, preferring a hearty American style pour on the rocks.
The Australian-born and Berlin-based entrepreneur might be peddling booze and hooking up rock stars for the collaboration, but by day he’s working as the creative director of SSS World Corp—a mid-luxury unisex fashion brand pitching to heavy metal lovers, pimps and surfers for a street-style reality check. And in case you’re wondering, that tribal pattern you see in the new seasonal drop was inspired by a crusty surfer and his surfboard that O’Shea and his girlfriend bumped into on the beach last Christmas in Australia.
O’Shea has made a name for himself as a go-getter in the fashion industry—moving from denim retail gigs in London and Amsterdam to buying director, and now head designer in around 15 years on the scene. He thrives on gut instinct when it comes to decision-making and is the sort of guy who will always choose the fast lane.
He has more than 100,000 followers on Instagram eager to like his regular posts about fashion, boozy soirees and VIP party hangs. His girlfriend and model Veronika Heilbrunner—co-founder of heywoman.com—happily posts photos of him holding a koala [true story] and hashtags her birth as #WokeUpLikeThis with baby Walter lying on her legs in a hospital.
But more than the social party tricks he pulls via his feed, this is the same guy who helped MyTheresa grow from a small retail store in Munich to become a successful luxury e-commerce powerhouse generating more than USD130 million in revenue over a seven-year period.
O’Shea became the most talked-about global fashion buying director known for vision, passion and an eccentric dress sense.
He left MyTheresa in 2016 to become the first Australian to design for Italian luxury fashion label Brioni. In just six months in the top job, he managed to get Metallica off the stage and into their suits for a campaign—not a bad effort for a guy with no formal fashion training but a black book that’s the envy of many competitors.
“Like with anything I do, nothing is very planned."
O’Shea proves he’s also got the gift of the gab. He knows how to network and built a rock’n’roll reputation into the seams of his freewheeling spirit. He knows when to keep his cards close or hedge a bet—it’s a rule he applies in and out of the fashion ring. The heavily tattooed designer [he’s got around 50 all over his body], who has just become a first-time dad, won’t be shifting gears anytime soon either, even with the arrival of his son.
He returned to Paris Fashion Week last month to showcase SSS World Corp’s second collection and is also promoting Goldy Gin—even managing to get The Rolling Stones and Guns’N’Roses along for the ride.
“Like with anything I do, nothing is very planned,” begins O’Shea speaking from London three days before Heilbrunner is about to give birth.
“Everything is very spur of the moment in my life and seems like a good idea at the time,” he confesses.
“A lot of things interest me that have nothing do with my expertise or background and maybe that is why I find it so interesting. It’s a challenge when you look at things from a different angle,” he offers. “So many industries are stagnant and go down the same road every time. I bring a different take on it and brands like that.”
The idea to develop Goldy Gin had its beginnings when he was at Brioni. “We were going to serve it in our stores,” explains O’Shea. “Something that was unique and you could only find in the retail network and give to our best clients. After I left Brioni, the gin idea was the first thing on my mind. Gin is also my first choice when it comes to a drink. I saw a gap in the market. Nobody was doing an authentic gin—there’s botanicals everywhere, but I wanted original and fuss-free.”
Enter Maurice Terzini—of Bondi Icebergs Dining and Ten Pieces fame—who fancied the joint venture.
“Maurice not only made $40 baggy T-shirts look amazing in Ten Pieces, but I found him incredibly similar to me,” says O’Shea, who bought Ten Pieces to be stocked at MyTheresa three years ago.
“There are no botanicals or special ingredients or bullshit that goes around with promoting gin,” says O’Shea. “This is not for the modern man with a twirling moustache who wears espadrilles either. This is a rock’n’roll gin—it’s black and gold and the antithesis of what gin represents.”
O’Shea, 39, was born into an Irish-Catholic family in rural Queensland and moved to outback Australia at the age of seven.
His mother worked as a hearing specialist with Aboriginal children and his father is a plumber who worked on the bauxite mine on the Gove Peninsula. He followed in his father’s footsteps for a while, working in the mines, and even had a gig unpacking boxes in a supermarket before setting off for Europe in his early 20s.
As a child, he was the only non-Aboriginal player in his Aussie Rules football team in Nhulunbuy, Arnhem Land—an 11- hour drive east of Darwin where locals spend their time fishing, bushwalking, camping and living in a tropical climate of two seasons: dry and wet.
It was hardly the epicentre of fashion, but O’Shea didn’t let the red dust and rural landscape interfere with his chances of joining the fashion brigade.
He left Australia in 2002 for Holland where he lived for a year. Once his UK visa was sorted he moved to London for two years and went back to Australia for 12 months in 2008. He left again in 2009 and has since lived abroad permanently.
When O’Shea assesses his career achievements, he says his role at MyTheresa served him well. He admits he’s no fortune teller, but many described him as one after he helped make MyTheresa a profitable business.
“The most valuable thing I learned from day one at MyTheresa is you have to gamble. You have to take risks and ultimately believe in your decisions. On the flipside, you have to accept responsibility when it doesn’t work out,” he says.
It’s this approach that saw the company become a luxury e-commerce leader. “Fashion buying always comes down to the one question,” begins O’Shea.
“How many items do you buy: six or 6,000? That is ultimately what helps or prevents your growth and you can’t plan for how it will end up.
“I would always say let’s not buy shitloads of stuff, but instead devote the budget into less brands and not focus on pleasing everyone,” he explains of his buying strategy.
“By doing that, we narrowed a corner of the market and found our niche. I was buying Valentino, Saint Laurent, Acne Studios, Gucci under Alessandro Michele and Chloe long before it started doing well,” he says.
When it came to taking over the reigns at Brioni in 2016, O’Shea knew he was out of his depth, but was assured that Kering Group [which owns Gucci] was keen to see where he’d take the Italian tailoring brand. He got fired only six months into the job. “What I did with Brioni version 2.0 was basically think about the man and the new aesthetic,” he says.
“Brioni is incredibly expensive and unattainable to most people, so what I wanted to do was push accessibility and then watch it grow. You can’t be that expensive when you don’t have an accessories business on the side and when you’re not selling ready-to-wear. You can’t reach out to all consumers and we got in a spot of bother along the way,” he explains.
O’Shea bounced back quicker than he could get himself in a tattoo parlour for fresh ink, emerging with his self-funded Berlin label SSS World Corp.
“I have the freedom to develop a collection where I can focus on accessibility,” he explains of the brand and his new-found freedom. “We are entering the contemporary market and define ourselves as a contemporary men’s and women’s wear line that gives you formal looks but at a price point that’s below Acne Studios. We also don’t have other competition at this level,” he adds.
O’Shea wants musicians and celebrities to wear his brand and has already dressed Zayn Malik and Miguel. “I am not reinventing the wheel,” he says. “It’s about listening to your audience and plugging into what they want. Musicians don’t want to always go to the Grammys in jeans and a T-shirt; we’re pitching to them as an alternative.
“It’s nice to have celebrities wearing your stuff. It makes a difference, but there’s more to fashion than that. I have learned a lot about fashion design, marketing and the ins and outs of developing a brand in a busy world. Coming from a buyer background, it has been fascinating to see how people respond to it,” he says of wearing the designer’s hat this time.
“For me, this next chapter is about understanding who I am and what I want to be with the brand. Some people like to be in the background and not the forefront. I am very happy to not be the face of SSS World Corp. I just want create cool stuff that people will enjoy and that ultimately sells well,” he says.
That said, O’Shea knows only too well the vices of a DIY approach in a competitive fashion business, but his social media status is well-oiled with the right industry contacts and surely all roads lead to the pot of gold on a fashion mood board.
“It’s difficult to put something out on your own,” he says.
“I mean this is the first time I am doing it. You have a lot of highs and lows and have to learn how to take criticism and when things don’t work out it’s a great self-building project,” he says. “I say never give up.”
This article was originally published in the August issue of Esquire Singapore.