Virgin Melbourne Fashion Festival CEO Graeme Lewsey shares his diary and insights from a recent educational trip abroad.

As a design-seeking tourist, the sun and sand lust has been replaced by the intrigue and intellectual stimulation of conference tourism.

This emerging trend is not only supporting self-elected professional development but is rejuvenating the tourism market and brining extended life expectancy to a number of media outlets, festivals and events.

Monocle magazine’s ‘Quality Of Life Conference’ beckoned this winter for my European break and Berlin, a city infamous for breaking many norms was an attractive setting that ultimately lead me to take flight.

Day one

First thing after a long-haul flight I like to do to dump the bags and hit the pavement. Berlin is a great city with the Tiergarten in the heart of the city and a perfect spot for a beer and a pretzel and some wurst to say “Hello Berlin”.

Before the temple the Monocle magazine beckoned, I spent time riding around the city on my push bike (conveniently came with the hotel room). 

Berlin has clear paths for cycling that makes it so easy to get around. No tolerance of MAMILs (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) here, but rather many stylish black Céline pant-suits on actress Robin Wright (aka House Of Cards) look-a-likes, riding bikes in high heels.  As you do.

Likened to Melbourne, Berlin does precincts and tribes in terms of fashion aesthetic really well. Although don’t expect to find too many local designers, for that you need to dig deep. If the rain is at bay, the bike is undoubtedly the best way to explore Mulackstrasse and Auguststrasse areas.

Day Two

Soho House was the venue for a panel debate on mobility. Not a topic normally associated with fashion devotees, but one we all experience. 

How do we create homes and public spaces that don't subconsciously exclude older people - but invite them to keep enjoying life and getting out and about?

Something for us to think about is how do our retail stores and brands invite all people. Creative businesses can optimise profits if they start to consider the needs of an aging yet super spending population.

The impact on store layouts not supporting mobility was certainly not top of mind for me personally, but it resonates now.

The buzz of what this full conference might evoke in terms of ideas and unprecedented thought-provoking outcomes was building.

That night, with jet lag as the excuse called for an early bed time, but not before attempting to head out for a quick bar hop and attend the welcome drinks hosted by Monocle’s Tyler Brûlé and his style-clad journo army.

But waiting or calling down a cab with no functioning Uber service in Berlin, was the cause of much frustration for many. Not the international city framework you’d expect.

Day three (the big one)

With some slight apprehension...will this be worth it? Will I get to meet great people? What’s my elevator spiel about what I do?..the morning rolled out calmly and started with what was affectionally described in the promotional preamble as “Coffee and headlines from the global newspapers”, in the foyer area.

The light filled venue in Berlin Mitte, had baristas working overtime and Apfelstrudel Danishes accompanied the complimentary Monocle canvas tote bag full of expected printed collateral treats and bespoke notepads.

As the room filled with a 200ish crowd of delegates that looked impressively similar to the stylish images found in the magazine, bravado soon built as introductions flowed and discussions about Berlin's torrential rain continued to help break the ice.

With a stage now set and seating fitting the Monocle style, we settled into deck chairs with side-board wooden creates and purposefully perched bottles of water bottle (and openers) all set for a day of speakers, panels, note taking and inspirational thinking.


As the CEO of Australia’s biggest fashion retail-focused event, I sought inspiration from a number of the programmed panels especially where design was leading transformation, retail and consumer trends were explored and some healthy blue-sky thinking was shared.

Monocle’s editors helped co-host and push through many panels which to be honest were too brief and did not enable enough interaction with the audience delegation to open up dialogue.

Also, the panels were kept very rigid and on time to help ensure that Monocle’s radio broadcast was never compromised. As a (substantial) fee paying delegate, their broadcasting priorities versus delegate value for money felt unbalanced.

Despite this, here’s some stand-out eclectic quotes and thoughts I’ve been able to interpret from my scribing and scribbles in my Monocle conference journal.

Mohamed Haouache, CEO of Storefront, a leading short-term retail space facilitator, boldly claimed “the future retail store will be offered up for free by landlords."

In context to global developers’ continued quest to balance footfall versus cool factor to entice high yielding residential tenants.

Haouache also reminded us all that “retail should be as accessible as a hotel room”, that one statement seems so simple and logical yet rarely applies to Australian retail.

Neukolln Mayor, Franziska Giffey gave us great insight into Berlin’s local government five core focus areas:educational for all; an enabler; establishing common “normality”; setting up rules and values that can’t be negotiated and; security for all.

A city where people “just get things done”.

I found these tight focus areas have application to many things in our creative communities too.

Nick Jones, founder of the global enterprise Soho House reiterated the importance of having a “similar design language” where its always important to “feel the potential” of a creative space. “Made by location” is very relevant for our fashion industry at the moment.

The ‘Speed Dating For Entrepreneurs’ panel presented many interesting ideas and business ventures.

Lorenz Aschoff, founder of EyeEm reiterated the impact visual content has on influencing all a reminder that all content shared can still be produced with artistic integrity.

It's so inspiring hearing from start ups and we should always encourage this dialogue at events in Australia.

A surprise panel discussion titled ‘Healthy Income’ introduced us to Ozden Akyildiz, founder of Komsukoy, who presented ideas around satisfying city dwellers with tactile environmental experiences supporting a reconnection with agriculture.

There were many more insightful moments shared by various presenting speakers and Monocle editors.

And not forgetting the more bespoke conference experiences including private tours, fashion atelier precinct visits and communal refuelling and feeding sessions hosted throughout Berlin.

Day Four

A professional hang over in this case is a dose of dehydration and brain drain, but waking up to this was “A OK” and made for a feeling of great satisfaction.

The program then facilitated networking over breakfast before offering up private tours and, as was of particular interest to me, a retail precinct visit that helped navigate and explore some of the better standouts of this eclectic city.

Although not a Berliner, my favourite was Munich based menswear label A Kind Of Guise.

And so that was four days of enjoying an “Edu-vacation” in Berlin.

I’m left feeling educated, inspired and well rested from the intensity of life back in Australia.

In contemplation, it’s clear that these conference itineraries are creating a category of vacation by definition for the professionally mobile, as a new calling for travel agents and tourism entrepreneurs.

They are bringing together the very currency of doing business, knowledge and networking in a compelling way. And that not forgetting obvious advantages of furthering professional development, and assisting with corporate travel cost efficiencies.

So, I urge you to consider to opt-out from the automatic thematic of securing a sea views Airbnb break and contemplate this well rounded, stimulating opportunity and be a part of the global conference tourism movement.

The Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival will stage its annual Ideas and conference program featuring Ragtrader Live events in March 2018. Go to for details as they are announced.


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