How I Got Here: Lee Mathew’s Head of Design on creative collaboration and proving your value


“Be curious, ask questions and challenge your own ideas, because that leads to new ideas. Be open to evolving and stepping out of your comfort zone – it can take you to fantastic places.”

Have you ever stalked someone on LinkedIn and wondered how on earth they managed to land that wildly impressive job? While the internet and social media might have us believe that our ideal job is a mere pipe dream, the individuals who have these jobs were, believe it or not, in the same position once, fantasising over someone else’s seemingly unattainable job.

But behind the awe-inspiring titles and the fancy work events lies a heck of a lot of hard work. So what lessons have been learnt and what skills have proved invaluable in getting them from daydreaming about success to actually being at the top of their industry?

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Welcome to How I Got Here, where we talk to women who are killing it in their respective fields about how they landed their awe-inspiring jobs, exploring the peaks and pits, the failures and the wins, and most importantly the knowledge, advice and practical tips they’ve gleaned along the way.

This week we chat with Natalia Grzybowski, Lee Mathew’s Head of Design. After winning a national design competition as a second-year Syndey fashion design student, Natalia was offered a learning opportunity that changed her life – the chance to work at Calvin Klein Collection in New York. Coming back to Australia, Natalia worked as a young full-time designer, moving into her position at Lee Mathews in 2018.

Her career story is one that will resonate with a generation of young creatives – a story of sacrifices, self-education and the all-important ‘leap of faith’ moment. Read on to learn about creative decision-making, embracing digital technologies and how to smooth clothing without an iron (always relevant).

What do you do and what’s your official job title?

My role is Head of Design at Lee Mathews. The role is quite broad but in short, I design all the seasonal collections as well as the textile prints. I also manage our amazing small team, where everyone plays their part in the long chain of events that transform our garments from sketch to reality.

Take us back to when you were first starting out. Did you study to get into your chosen field, or did you start out with an internship/entry level role and climb the ladder? Tell us the story.

I started off by completing a Bachelor of Design (Honours) in Fashion and Textiles at UTS. The degree is a little different now, but at the time it was four years with a compulsory dissertation and final collection. This is what essentially opens up the doors for opportunity, allowing you to take that body of work and enter it into various competitions and scholarship programs.

I didn’t do any internships throughout my degree but I spent a lot of time self-educating at home – both on a practical and theoretical level. I was very interested in expanding my skill set in the Adobe suite and had a strong pull towards textile design which contributed to some later successes.

The first competition I won in second-year uni was a national textile design competition. My graduate collection was featured at the National Graduate Showcase in Melbourne and won third place at the International Emerging Designer awards. The opportunity that really changed my career was receiving a scholarship from the AINYFF, offering me the chance to work at Calvin Klein Collection in NY.

I worked full time in the red carpet celebrity atelier department alongside some fantastic talent – this was when Francisco Costa was the Creative Director. I was lucky enough to be heavily involved in the creative process. This was really rewarding because experimentation was the true driving factor of that department – as opposed to sales and commercial viability.

I returned back to Australia when I was offered a full-time design position at Alice McCall. This offer let me bypass assisting and junior roles, taking me straight into a full-time design position. It was quite a unique situation to be in.

What challenges/hurdles have you faced getting to where you are now? Can you tell us about one in particular?

I’ve always worked for small (in the scale of the international fashion landscape) businesses that were highly creative, so the challenge is always time management and juggling several roles at a time. At the same time, these circumstances massively contribute to the extensive skill set you end up with. You become a very well rounded, adaptable, experienced creative within a very short time frame – it’s fantastic.

When you’re starting out in a creative field with little experience, you often have to prove your value and skillset to gain the trust of your Creative Director and other senior team members. It’s easy to find yourself working extensive hours and making some personal sacrifices – this can take a bit of a toll on your motivation, but it’s a choice you make.

The personal and professional growth you gain can be very rewarding. In your first years in the industry, a work-life balance can be tricky to manage. It never completely levels out, but you definitely become better at prioritising and being assertive in the workplace.

What do you want people to know about your industry/your role?

I think people would be surprised by how technical and managerial the role is on top of being creative. There’s a lot of strategic and creative problem solving around budgets and timelines but also intuitive decision making, especially around the creative direction we choose to take each season. Fashion has a very unique business model that’s made up of many factors: emotional desire, aesthetic beauty, functionality and commerce.

So not only is the role visually creative, it can be quite strategically driven. There’s also a lot of opportunity within this industry to collaborate with other fields as we move into fast-growing digital markets. There’s a lot of interest around sustainable practices and innovation, not only for the purpose of serving the luxury market but also the functional clothing market – like sportswear, protective workwear, clothing for rehabilitation, etc.

What’s the best part about your role?

So many things! Essentially creating a product that is beautiful, functional, made with integrity and makes people feel great about themselves. Creating a product that is timeless and lives beyond the seasonal trends.

A product that becomes more than just an item of clothing as it’s purchased for a special occasion, gets passed through many hands, re-used, comes back to life when one owner is done with it and is passed onto someone else.

What would surprise people about your role?

Perhaps how many things I design in a year (a lot!) and how varied a creative process can be. Aside from inspiration and mood, many external factors like lead times, suppliers, raw materials and your team members contribute towards how that creative process plays out.

It’s not necessarily a smooth order of steps but rather a strong collaboration between teams and individuals – there’s a lot of trial and error to get to the desired end result. I think people are surprised to learn how many moving parts there are and external contributing factors in the process of making an idea become a reality.

What skills have served you well in your industry?

Intuitive decision making and adaptability. On a practical level, embracing new digital technologies – UX for broader creative thinking and problem solving, streamlining team workloads through digital platforms and extensive experimentation with the Adobe Suite in the early days. Being qualified in both garment design and textile/print design has been very positive for my career progress.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be in a role like yours one day?

Be curious, ask questions and challenge your own ideas, because that leads to new ideas. Be open to evolving and stepping out of your comfort zone – it can take you to fantastic places.

But most importantly, if you’re pursuing a creative career, follow your gut feeling – especially when it comes to generating ideas and creative decision making. As a creative, your expertise is to make the right creative decisions. That is one of your biggest skills.

What about a practical tip?

Your garment is creased, but you don’t have an iron. If it’s a softer fabric like a satin, silk or viscose, hang your garment in the bathroom has you have a shower or let the hot water run for a bit. The steam will soften the creases out. Just make sure to give it a little time to dry before you need to head out.


Read the rest of the How I Got Here series here.

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