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The Next Big Thing: Talking the National Designer Award with Graeme Lewsey

“But this is the pinnacle, the most important award in the country.”

The Tiffany and Co. National Designer Award is the most prestigious award for fashion design in the country. With a prize pool in excess of $100,000 not to mention unprecedented exposure and opportunities into the industry (previous winners include Romance Was Born, Dion Lee and Josh Goot), it’s definitely one to strive for. 

Not too long ago, we attended the final round of judging to catch up with finalists Macgraw, Búl, Emma Mulholland, Verner and Pageant as well as VAMFF CEO and creative director, Graeme Lewsey. This six part series will delve into the inner workings of some of the country’s top designers as they prepare for Fashion Week. 

Our first interview for the series is with Graeme Lewsey. As CEO of the Fashion Festival since 2011, he is one of the most influential figures in the industry. We chatted with him about the direction of Australian fashion, what he hopes to achieve with fashion week and what he’ll be looking for as one of the judges.   

FJ: What are your thoughts on today’s finalists?

GL: It’s really strong, of course I’m going to say that. Each year it’s always the best of the best. It’s not just based on their designs, it’s based on how they are performing and how they demonstrate their capacity as small businesses. The criteria of the award is that they must not be in business for more than five years, so we are really looking at giving the award to up-and-coming designers who have established a business and got their act together. The idea is this award will bolster them and set them free. 

FJ: What about the collections? 

GL: The collections are really strong, this is the first all-female cast we’ve had, which is quite extraordinary. I think if you look at the range of different styles it will be quite challenging for the judges. You’ve got something more street, something more formal and something more ready to wear. Which is great, all things considered we are very excited.

FJ: So obviously you think it’s important to help foster young, local talent.

GL: Massively important. That is what the festival does. We nurture the industry as best we can. The festival is a not-for-profit organisation, but we have a purpose. Our purpose is to try and continue to promote our designers and retailers to consumers for a beneficial economic result. 

From the programmes we have, the Tiffany and Co Designer Award is at the top of the register. Beneath that we have our national graduate showcase, presented by Target, which is for tertiary graduates and then the Future Runway, introduced last year, which is for high school students. So we are really trying to provide that nurturing confidence factor, constantly trying to give people the energy and momentum to grow. 

But this is the pinnacle, the most important award in the country. It always has been, the prize pool is well over $100,000, which includes cash as well as business advice and guidance. 

FJ: How do you think Australian fashion has changed, and where is it going?

GL: It’s going in a positive direction. There is no doubt there have been challenges, but that’s not isolated to Australia – it’s been happening around the world. Fashion is big business, but it can also be really challenging to get into [the industry] and build a brand.

But I think the biggest change has been the global recognition. Contemporary Australia is being celebrated, which is fantastic. Our designers are doing extremely well overseas, as are our chefs, interior designers and architects. Creative Australia is really on the rise and is being extremely well recognised, and I think that is one of the biggest changes to our industry. 

The other one, which is really fortunate for out event, being we are a consumer event, is the consumer-to-consumer engagement. The fact that consumers are endorsing to other consumers. When you are on social media you see something you like, you tell your friends about it. You can no longer rely on just an editor telling you what to do. It’s all about consumer engagement, and the festival does exactly that. We put all this content out there for consumers to share with each other. 

FJ: What are you looking for in the finalists today? 

GL: It’s a combination of things. Our criteria has been quite consistent for a number of years. Its definitely about innovation; we want a designer who is innovative in their concepts, but they need to demonstrate a good level of quality and manufacturing output. They need to demonstrate a robust business acumen, we want to be able to ensure anyone we are anointing the award to is going to live up to the reputation and continue to flourish. We really want the winner to have the best possible chance of ongoing success. While it’s about encouragement, we need to make sure we are choosing the person who is going to take it the furthest. 

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