Comeback Kings

In the earliest days of 2017, an unrelenting warehouse fire brought Culture Kings to its knees. That might’ve been the end of the Australian streetwear brand, if not for a husband and wife who proved they were ready for the moment—long before even they knew it.

It was a warm, quiet Sunday—early summer in Queensland, the waters of the Coral Sea lapping slowly against Australia’s eastern shore. At their Gold Coast home on January 8, 2017, an afternoon of calm waited for Simon and Tahnee Beard.

These were exciting times for the couple. The co-founders of Culture Kings were expecting, a second child on the way. Inside the house, Tahnee puttered around upstairs, while Simon, with the help of his warehouse manager Tyrell Joyner, moved furniture into the new nursery. There was a time not long ago when Simon and Tahnee, in the building of their famed streetwear brand, had gone nearly five years—often 100-hour weeks at a time—without a vacation. For two hyper-driven, all-consumed business owners, this was as close to a lazy day as they were liable to have.

And then, suddenly, Tahnee came bursting down the stairs in a panic. Simon looked on with great fear at the worry on his wife’s face. Moments earlier, Culture Kings’ security company had called to report that alarms had gone off at the retailer’s warehouse, an hour north in Acacia Ridge, a suburb of Brisbane. The company they built—a little-known eBay seller that had become eight retail stores and an international streetwear destination for celebs like Drake and Justin Bieber—was under attack.

Tahnee brought the security cameras up on her screen. “I was staring at it for it felt like 10 minutes,” she says. What was that? She squinted her eyes closer. Was that a flicker? Was it orange? “Then it was just like, ‘Oh, my God!’” she says. “I could just see smoke. I could just see fire everywhere. I’d never seen anything like it.”

She rushed to find Simon, and in a flash they were gone. Simon hopped in with Tyrell; Tahnee waited behind a few minutes to find a girlfriend to come watch their young boy, Ethan, who was asleep at home. Soon all three were on the road, in two separate vehicles, sharing one sense of dread.

Things weren’t looking good. As Tyrell sped the car up the freeway, Simon had the security cameras live in front of him on his phone. There was a helplessness watching the carnage from afar. Was this really happening?

As the flames grew, wiping out one security camera after another, Simon flicked to whichever view he had left. “And then the next one would blow,” he says. Just then, Simon watched the blaze approach a new delivery of Air Jordan goods. They were “straight money,” Simon remarked—an easy sell. But the fire spared no favorites. In an instant, $500,000 worth of product was gone.

The devastation met them long before they could arrive. Some 20 minutes out from the warehouse, the smoke could be seen, jet black plumes spewing into the air. “It was like a volcano,” Tahnee says. Once they’d pulled up, the scene was something from a movie: Hundreds gathered around to watch, firefighters smashing through windows, the 43,000 sq. ft. warehouse gutted almost to its steel frame.

Tahnee stood there, devastated. News cameras caught her, distraught, having to be consoled as she spoke desperately with a fireman. Simon stood by her side, his black t-shirt pulled up to cover his mouth, a faraway look cast toward the crumbling warehouse.

On the harried drive over, Tahnee had stressed to Simon over the phone the importance of putting on a brave face. They ought to stay positive for their staff to see, she said—to lead in the face of anything, as they had always done. But when they arrived, when confronted with unimaginable loss and the uncertain future of the company they had built together, there was no way to keep the doubt at bay.

“We all just had to sit there and watch it burn,” she says. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Tahnee, you’re so full of sh-t. How the hell are you supposed to pretend we know our way through this?’”

Courtship of a salesman

They had met nearly a decade before, at a Starbucks near the Gold Coast. It was a first date that was impossible to forget.

Tahnee almost didn’t show. “I actually had written out a text to say I’m not going to be able to make it,” she says. “But my roommate at the time forced me to go.”

If there is an entrepreneur’s gene, Simon Beard may have it. He came from Mount Isa, a “real small sort of town,” he says, far in Queensland’s northwest known for the mining of its lead and silver. Simon’s father worked in the Beards’ long-running department store before the family moved to the Gold Coast, nearly 1,200 miles toward Australia’s eastern shore. In school, Simon saw his future clearly. “I always had it as a goal to never work a job in my entire life,” he says.

Culture Kings founders Simon and Tahnee Beard embrace at the streetwear brand’s Australian headquarters.

In the beginning, there were smaller enterprises, hawking the answers to the learner’s permit driving test to schoolmates for $20 a piece. He saved everything he earned, even the cash given to him for his birthday. “I was a huge tight-ass,” he says. “I never spent any money.”

Soon enough he was importing, trying his luck at the local Carrara Markets. A friend in America would go to Walmart, buy up all the Dickey shorts he could, and DHL them to Simon, who would sell them to Australian shoppers at a profit. By the time he was 17, he spent the only $4,000 he had to ship in some consumer electronics from China. He sold those, too.

There seemed to be nothing he could not move. On eBay, he was trading in expensive hats and sneakers, raking in the kind of money most teens do not. But he was also investing everything he had into his own professional development. When he was in class, at Queensland University of Technology, he bristled at his professors’ efforts to teach the business he was already learning for himself. “I’m like, ‘What does this guy know about marketing?’” Simon wondered. “‘He couldn’t sell something to save himself.’”

He believed then what he does now—you learn from the best. By the time he was 22, he says, Simon had spent what seems like an impossible $120,000 on his own career, everything from Tony Robbins programs to one-on-one sales sessions with Jordan Belfort, the “Wolf of Wall Street” himself.

And so imagine, at that Starbucks in 2008, what Tahnee was in for. What was supposed to be a casual date quickly became something different. Small talk was of no consideration. Simon stunned Tahnee at the first thing he asked her. “What are your goals?” he said. Whoa, Tahnee thought to herself. The audacity of the question made her feel as if she’d hit a brick wall.

She was working at a car dealership, selling after-market products. It was a good job, especially for her life then. “I’d never really started to think about what I wanted for myself,” she says. “There was no direction. It was just, ‘Come at me. Whatever. Roll with it.’”

To Tahnee, Simon wasn’t rude, or necessarily detached, but it was clear there were other tracks in his head. “I’d never come across someone so goal-driven,” she says. “You ask him a question, but he’s thinking of a thousand other things at the same time.”

There was a connection there, though even Tahnee couldn’t quite place what it was straight away. With Simon, through the lens he looked at the world, she soon began to view herself differently, about the things she wanted for her life and how she might get them.

Soon they were inseparable, spending 20-hour days together, selling this thing or that, combining their money into the same bank accounts not long after. Tahnee chuckles now at the thought—that she almost didn’t show to meet him in the first place. “It was,” she says, “definitely the best decision that I made.”

With Shopify Plus, Culture Kings focuses on the art, not the science, of its ecommerce empire.

See how they did it

Culture Kings: more nightclub than retail store

The same year they’d met, there was a larger movement underway. For years, Simon had been doing business with a boutique in Miami called Culture Kings. He would buy sneakers from the U.S., pay a commission, then resell them in Australia. It was a good hook-up for a few months, until Culture Kings itself started going under. Simon had taken a liking to the name and branding—he’d been using it on eBay already—and wished to secure the trademarks.

The asking price stunned even him: $30,000. “At the time,” he says, “that was f--king everything I had.” He called it “crazy money,” but in the end he paid. He loved the universality to the name. Culture Kings meant not just selling shoes or apparel. It meant never being pigeonholed into one line of products, or one idea about what a business could be. To Simon, Culture Kings was unlimited.

They opened the first store in 2008, a tiny shop on the Gold Coast. Simon and Tahnee funded every last bit themselves, so every move forward required a lump in their throats. “That moment of going to sign the lease, like ‘Oh, f--k. This is a big commitment.’ It’s that moment of going all-in, you know?” Simon says. “To build the business and self-fund it the whole way—it means the only way you do that is you go all-in every time. Every time, we’re betting the farm on everything.”

It took a leap at every stage, from the first store on the Gold Coast, to the second in Brisbane, to the third in Sydney. And on and on. But each new Culture Kings store established something. Simon and Tahnee believed they were creating a shopping experience not seen anywhere else.

They had observed the sports apparel chains that filled malls and plazas, the same sterile feel, the same indistinguishable experience, just minutes down the road from one another.

Culture Kings was not that. Inside, the lighting was darker. The sounds were different, too—a live DJ often providing the soundtrack to the store. There were barber shops and basketball courts, Ferraris parked at the curb out front. It was more night club than retail shop. “And you actually love it,” Simon says. “You don’t want to leave.”

At Culture Kings, the hype is real.

Celebrities were taking notice. Simon had always recognized the power of fame. He never forgot seeing 50 Cent once when he was younger, at a concert in Brisbane. That rush of being so close never left him. In 2013, long before he believed stars of this magnitude would know the brand, Bieber visited the Culture Kings store in Sydney. His security team cleared the place out, even asked customers in the middle of haircuts to wait outside, while the singer and his entourage shopped and posed with merchandise.

The co-founders couldn’t ignore the impact, the way it energized their customers and staff, the buzz it created for Culture Kings. If you were a celebrity who was young, cool, and into streetwear, the stores became a rite of passage to visit, destination stops anytime you were in Australia. Drake, Snoop Dogg, Cristiano Ronaldo, Migos, Cam Newton—they all came.

T-Pain poses inside a Culture Kings store. Wiz Khalifa poses inside a Culture Kings store. Joel Madden poses inside a Culture Kings store. Drake poses inside a Culture Kings store. Marshmello poses inside a Culture Kings store. Machine Gun Kelly poses inside a Culture Kings store. A$AP Rocky poses inside a Culture Kings store. Justin Bieber poses inside a Culture Kings store.
Celebrities visit Culture Kings often: T-Pain, Wiz Kahlifa, Joel Madden, Drake, Marshmello, Machine Gun Kelly, A$AP Rocky, Justin Bieber, and more.

Simon and Tahnee had built it together, up to eight stores and millions in sales online. And they were building a family, too. In 2015, Ethan was born. In 2016, Tahnee became pregnant with a girl. This was the life they had earned, what they had sweat to make for themselves.

And then, on January 8, 2017, Tahnee Beard dashed madly down the stairs with the news that threatened to bring it all down.

From the ashes, an empire

The flames began outside, how exactly is still a mystery. In the brush near the Culture Kings warehouse that afternoon, a spark became a flame, and the flames roared toward the building. The doors were fire-proof, but after a time even that could not save things. The doors grew so hot from the blaze that they caused merchandise inside the warehouse to ignite and spread.

“They were still trying to put it out when we got there,” Simon says, “but you could just know that there’s no way anything would be left.” Simon and Tahnee watched it all smolder, some $10 million going up in smoke right before their eyes.

There was a heap of uncertainty in front of them, though Simon and Tahnee had in themselves a reservoir of grit, of resolve, that had readied them for moments just like this one. “Crisis is when I know I work the best,” Tahnee says. “When it’s the hardest is when I thrive.”

Not long after the final flame was extinguished, Simon looked at his wife, and Tahnee looked back. Together, they got to work. “I’ve never been more productive in my life than that period after the fire,” Simon says.

The first order of business was clear, proof of which was laid out in rubble on the ground beneath them: Culture Kings needed a new warehouse. Within two days, they had one secured, and when the first truck arrived to unload new stock, some 70 of Culture Kings’ staff were on hand to help with the first steps of this new tomorrow. “It was a surreal moment,” Tahnee says. “It gives me chills now to think about it. It was just amazing to see the character in some people.”

Simon and Tahnee had so worried about the effect of the fire on their staff, about 300 in total then across all of Australia. “We never wanted anyone to lose their job,” Tahnee says. “We had no choice but to fight our way out.” There had to be lots of faking it in those early days before the Culture Kings founders knew just where to turn. They would assuage their staff: You’ll have hours to work. We’ll pay you still. But the truth was they didn’t yet know precisely how to make it all better. “There’s no instruction book on what your steps are dealing with a fire,” Tahnee says.

Culture Kings founders Simon and Tahnee Beard engage with office staff standing around a waist-high white table.

They leaned on their most loyal employees, who rallied to return Culture Kings to its rightful place in Australian streetwear culture. The challenges were vast. In addition to the destroyed stock, the fire had also wiped away $800,000 in orders that had yet to be dispatched. Culture Kings worked its way through refunds, but doing so in such volume triggered their company accounts to be frozen. Customers began to complain, loudly and online, that Culture Kings wouldn’t return their money. “It was a nightmare,” says Simon. “I remember we didn’t sleep at all that night.”

For every step forward (some suppliers, sympathetic to Culture Kings’ predicament, shipped the company new goods that it could begin selling right away), there seemed to be a step back (other vendors, unsure of the brand’s financials, withheld product unless Culture Kings pre-paid any invoice.) It was like this for some time, though at every turn Tahnee and Simon found themselves growing stronger, becoming more emboldened by the fight to reclaim what had once been theirs.

By the middle of 2017, only months after Tahnee gave birth to their little girl, Avery, Culture Kings was fully back on its feet. In a new warehouse, more than double the size of the old one. With a new website, bringing in more business than it ever had before. And with new plans, outsized ambitions to paint the world black by bringing a Culture Kings store to the most iconic cities in every corner of the planet. (Those shoppers burned by the company’s frozen accounts? They got their money back, and Culture Kings offered them special promotions to ensure that they, too, returned as customers.)

The fire was in the rearview, but in some ways it never left them. It was a galvanizing moment, confirming to Simon and Tahnee what they both had long suspected about one another. “It was one of those things that brought us even closer together,” Simon says.

He began an entrepreneur’s path before he was out of a school uniform. She wasn’t sure quite what life had stored for her. They seemed an unlikely pair. And yet as they joined their lives as one, it became impossible to separate what parts of the business were Simon, and what parts of it were Tahnee.

Culture Kings was them, and they were Culture Kings. “It may not have happened this way,” Tahnee says, “unless we were both in it together.”

A Culture Kings employee shoots a basketball on the court inside the streetwear brand’s warehouse.