Many people find it hard to pinpoint a turning point in their career, but not Graeme Lewsey. For the CEO of the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival, that moment came early.
After I graduated from RMIT I won an amazing scholarship which to this day I’m incredibly grateful for. It was a Woolmark program back then, and it gave me a three month scholarship to work with fashion houses overseas, he says.
The experience opened up Lewsey’s networks, but also his eyes: he realised the variety of career options that were available in the fashion industry beyond design.
I saw areas like promotion and marketing and I very quickly grasped the concept that fashion could be much broader than pattern-making and designing clothes, he says.
When the scholarship ended, he worked in the suit department of UK designer Paul Smith in London’s Covent Garden. Lewsey leveraged the opportunity and campaigned hard for a role behind the scenes, instead of in its retail store: I was fairly tenacious. [Eventually] Paul Smith tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, you crazy Aussie, I think you’d be really good at promoting and working as a junior press officer in my team,’ he says.
It was the start of life at the centre of London’s fashion industry. The Face magazine was in vogue and Dazed and Confused was just starting up.
There was no social media then, I was faxing loan requirements to stores; learning about the marketing of fashion; and working with the cool gang at that time in London, he says.
I had Corinne Day – the awesome photographer who really discovered Kate Moss – and Kate Moss living above one of the offices I worked in. They were defining years, not just for me, but for the fashion industry, he says.
Eventually, after a decade working in Europe, Lewsey returned to Australia where he realised the reasons which had kept him overseas were well and truly in the past.
I suffered massive cultural cringe. I couldn’t stand our lack of style; I was so into the Brit Pop era, and I thought everything we were doing was way behind. After a decade working overseas in Europe, I came home and saw that transformation, he says.
Lewsey also became part of it. He got involved in the development of Australian Fashion Week in Sydney; landed a role as the creative director of Melbourne Spring Fashion Week; joined global talent management company IMG as a senior executive for the Asia Pacific region; and was instrumental in the establishment of a range of events including Singapore Fashion Festival, Hong Kong Luxury Week and the Sydney Fashion Festival.
Now, after six years at the helm of the Melbourne Fashion Festival (his first CEO role) he admits the business side of his role is ever-present. But for Lewsey, what attracted him to the fashion industry remains at the fore.
I don’t miss design, because I’m whetting my appetite with creativity every day, he says.
Name: Graeme Lewsey
Current position: CEO of Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival and Melbourne Fashion Festival Ltd.
Responsibilities: As well as responsibility for the vision, governance and CEO duties of the festival, Lewsey is its creative director, festival director and spokesperson for Australia’s biggest fashion event.
Education: Bachelor of Arts, RMIT University. Additional training/courses: Numerous industry-led workshops and seminars including business seminars run by the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival; workshops from the Future Laboratory; The CEO Circle events; Ragtrader LIVE events; and events run by the Victorian Tourism Industry Council and the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Professional associations: Among others these include: member, Creative State Advisory Board (Victoria); member of RMIT University’s School of Fashion Industry Advisory Group; member, Australia Global Fashion Alliance; member, Australia China Fashion Alliance (initiated by the Melbourne Fashion Festival); judge of numerous awards at the Melbourne Fashion Festival; judge, Australian Fashion Laureate awards.
Honourable mentions: Australian Young Designer of the Year (by Woolmark), 1988; numerous rowing medals.
Strength: I’m only as good as the people I have around me. And to keep the good people around you, you need to keep an eye on having a fantastic culture; encourage people to understand the morals and values of the organisation, and make that really clear.
Weakness: My biggest weakness is to get stuck in the micro. I know when I start doing it; something taps me on the shoulder and says stop. But I love the detail.
Management style and tips: I get huge joy out of seeing people thrive and win. [I like creating an environment where] everyone in a meeting learns and understands it’s not just about going through a reporting process to get the job done.
Work motto: Create for the better.