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How I Do It: Australian Style Institute’s founder on why creativity isn’t enough in fashion

WORDS BY MAGGIE ZHOU

“Sometimes your feet lead the way even when you don’t know where you’re heading, and you need to trust in that.”

Impressive job titles are one thing, but what about people who have carved out their own niche and created a job specifically for them? Rather than landing that covetable LinkedIn byline, working for yourself presents a whole new way to choose your own adventure. That said, it’s not always about exploring the road less-travelled – sometimes it can mean forging your own entirely untrodden path.


We round up the best career advice weekly. Keep up to date with our Life vertical.


It’s a tough slog, but if being your own boss is your own personal dream, How I Do It is the column for you. We’ll talk to established freelancers and friends of FJ who’ve been at this long enough to have the benefit of hindsight, and they might be able to help you figure out how exactly they ‘do’ what they do.

We have the pleasure of having Lauren Di Bartolo giving us her sage advice. As the founder and director of Australian Style Institute, Lauren has built an incredible institution that nurtures some of Australia’s brightest stylists. Fifteen years on and Lauren has had students in 15 countries and is currently designing a new Sydney office.

Here, we find out what fashion means to her, why she fell into styling, how she’s grown this fashion empire and what skills are vital in the industry.

Run me through the last, say, five years of your life. What’s been happening for you?

Working, creating and constantly learning as I go. The past 12 months, we’ve all had challenges to navigate with COVID, but as the founder and director of Australian Style Institute, it gave me the ability to find new opportunities for my stylists and community particularly in a fast-changing fashion world. Five years ago, I designed and moved into our Fitzroy Melbourne headquarters and I’m now designing a new Surry Hills Sydney office, which is exciting. While we already run courses all over Australia and online, this new space will help us continue to grow our footprint.

Before the pandemic, I was travelling a fair bit and spending a lot of my time gaining inspiration – not just in fashion, but taking in different perspectives from interior design, art and human behaviour. I became obsessed with listening to podcasts. I love listening to fashion, business and leadership podcasts as well as the occasional true crime. Guy Raz’s Resilience Edition on NPR is a great one for hearing how innovators adapted during times of change and challenge.

I’m your Aunty Fran and it’s Christmas day. Describe to me exactly what it is you do for ‘work’ these days.

I have the great fortune of being able to dive deep into people’s wardrobes, help makeover their style, shop for a living and teach other people how to do that too. With students in more than 15 countries, I’m constantly finding ways to help them become world-leading fashion stylists.

 

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A post shared by Lauren Di Bartolo (@laurendibartolo)

If you could have Aunty Fran listen, as in really listen, what do you wish she knew about what you do and why you do it?

I get to help people bring their creative ideas to life, which results in successful creative careers and businesses, and that’s such a privilege. When it comes to fashion, it is so much more than the clothes we wear. It’s about what drives our decisions on why we wear what we wear, and the psychology behind our style and what limits us. It’s unlearning all the style ‘rules’ that we place on ourselves, and finding new ways to look and feel our best every day – irrespective of our shape, size, age or budget.

Take me back to age 18, when you left school. Did you have any sense of what you wanted to do, and if so, what steps did you first take?

I knew I wanted to be in fashion but I didn’t know it was styling. I would turn up to life drawing classes on a Friday morning still with residual alcohol from the Thursday night before – the result of two-for-one drinks, on a student income (was always great). I remember my peers and I would giggle our way through, hoping and dreaming that one day we might actually have the opportunity to use our creativity for a real job.

Finally, this had me arrive at visual merchandising where I found that I wouldn’t be happy in a forever career of styling a product. What I really wanted to style was people.

Before long, I was studying human behaviour and noticed how that impacted styling. From there, I developed the initial outlines of the courses you now see at Australian Style Institute. I recognised we needed a new approach to styling – to be honest, the industry needed an overhaul, and I had to trust myself to really go for it. The life drawing has stayed with me ever since too. There is no better way to understand the human body, all of our different shapes and sizes, and the beauty that lies underneath the clothes.

Take me back to your early twenties, when you were just finding your feet. Did you have any sense of where you were going, and if so, how did you get there?

Sometimes your feet lead the way even when you don’t know where you’re heading, and you need to trust in that. There were specific conversations (that even remain pivotal today) about really believing in the fact that I could be creative and commercially successful in a career that I love, and that I shouldn’t settle for anything less.

But no, I did not know exactly what I was doing. The best thing I ever did was invest in myself and that wasn’t always through traditional education. It was about finding courses that would give me skills to be able to get me to where I wanted to be, and finding people who would impart knowledge along the way.

What drove you to start your own business? Tell us about the best part of your job.

I always liked the idea of being able to work when and where I wanted, not because I didn’t want to work, but because I loved the idea of it being on my terms. And that wasn’t just about what I was doing, but also the kinds of people I would get to work with. If you give 100 per cent to your job every day, you want it to be for clients that get you to jump out of bed in the morning with excitement. I think, as well, I started my own business because 15 years ago, there wasn’t anything that I could just step into that appeared to be what I was looking for.

And the best part of my job, fashion – obvs! And accessories, shoes, photoshoots and travel, along with all of the talented creative people. I also love having a different brief every day and a different focus, but turning up with the same passion and for the same purpose.

 

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A post shared by Lauren Di Bartolo (@laurendibartolo)

What about the worst? What do you wish more people knew about owning their own business?

Some days can be tough and they send you so far out of your comfort zone that it can be really challenging to know how to navigate it. Other times it’s just plain scary. Something that comes to mind is Elon Musk currently sending astronauts into space, which sounds terrifying but also amazing. Every day you turn up in business and sometimes you know how a situation will play out, you’ve planned for it, other days you’re completely in a different atmosphere or realm of familiar and uncharted territory.

As a creative, I had to learn how to outsource my weaknesses, of which there were many! While I could let the ‘control freak flag’ fly in some parts, there were others that had to be delegated in order for me to grow and get the best outcome for the business and clients. To keep it plain and simple, you can’t control or do everything, nor should you. You also come to learn that sometimes in the beautiful mess is where the real magic lies, and sometimes things have to get messy to get to that point to reach new outcomes and success.

What would you say to someone thinking about pursuing styling?

Come and learn with me! I created Australian Style Institute so that more people from all different walks of life could have meaningful careers in fashion. You can study with Australian Style Institute in all of the major cities in Australia, or virtually online to fit around your other commitments.

Something that I teach my students in their careers is that creativity is not enough; you need to have a huge amount of empathy for people and a willingness to learn in order to gain the skills and commercialise your skillset. The industry is evolving fast and there is room for talented, hungry people. Mediocre doesn’t cut it.

The Australian Style Institute community is something I’m particularly proud of. Our students and graduates are a tight-knit crowd and they look out for each other throughout their studies and careers. It’s important to find your people so you can keep learning from the best.

You’re surrounded by the next generation of fashion stylists. What do you think the future holds for the Australian fashion industry? What are your hopes for it?

We’re going to see a more collective commitment to sustainability, to ethical production and manufacturing, and representation in ability and diversity. My hopes are that anyone of any shape, size or style can easily access the kinds of fashion that help them to not only feel great about themselves, but about the purchase and its impact on the environment.

@laurendibartolo

Check out the other How I Do It interviews here and our non-freelancer focused career series How I Got Here here.

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