Former Cue head of design Prue Rainey opens up on her long tenure at the Australian fashion brand, and makes predictions on what's ahead in the fashion design space. In an article update on February 2, Ragtrader included a response from Rod Levis at the end of the Q&A.

You have worked at Cue for around 17 years, with much of that leading the brand's design. How did you first enter the brand?

I was lucky to find Cue straight after college. One of my teachers was a previous Head Designer at Cue, she introduced me to Debi Rolle and I started the following week. It felt like the perfect fit from the beginning. In the meantime, I had won a scholarship to do my Masters in fashion design and styling in Florence at the Academia Italiana, so I made the most of the opportunity to live abroad and then returned to Cue. My first style was a “winner” and I was hooked, happy to be working for a brand where the owner of the company,

Rodney Levis encouraged creativity and understood it was at the heart of the business. I thrived under the mentorship of Debi who understood and had a deep respect for the creative process and the freedom to be experimental lead to the success that we ultimately enjoyed. It was an incredible time. At the end of 2013, I made the hard decision to leave to try and start a family with another designer taking over the Head of Design position. I returned in 2019 just prior to the pandemic.   

What have been your key highlights in that time? 

Most recently, there was our show at AAFW last year. It was Cue’s first standalone show with over 70 looks, and it was beautiful to share this experience with the amazing design team who pulled it together, along with stylist Karla Clarke and her team. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to say goodbye to a brand I have loved working on for so many years. 

It is hard to pick a highlight from my Cue journey, there are so many. I worked closely with Creative Director, Debi Rolle, through the 2000’s and 2010’s we not only enjoyed great success and growth during that period but also won numerous awards: Four times for Best Australian Fashion Brand -  Prix de Marie Claire Awards, Best Australian Fashion Store - Harper’s Bazaar Online Style Awards and Favourite High Street Brand -  Grazia Shopping Awards. 

It was also an honour to be invited to be a part of multiple Powerhouse Museum (MAAS) exhibitions. Most recently the Cue 50th Anniversary exhibition which just happened to coincide with my return to Cue in 2019.  

Personally, it has been such a privilege to collaborate with so many talented and dedicated people within the company and externally - art directors, stylists, amazing international models. It has been a truly amazing ride and I am lucky to have been able to do a job that I love.  

I am sure there will be many highlights for the Cue team in the years to come. 

Did you face any challenges? 

Throughout my time at Cue, the team and I faced numerous challenges, for which I am grateful. Challenge inevitably encourages innovation and growth and that is what design is all about for me.  

Most notably and recently was pivoting and adapting during the pandemic. From a design perspective we had to navigate changing consumer needs and seasonal shifts. Living on the Mid North Coast, I was unable to go to the office during both lockdowns so I designed from my kitchen, managed the buying schedule with fabric and trim delays throwing curve balls and had zoom fittings while the team were either at home or in the office at various stages. At one point, there were only 4-5 people in our design, pattern, and machining teams who were able to work in the office. They managed fittings, the cutting of work and handled samples coming and going, ensuring the continuity of our weekly buying meetings. It is still hard to believe what we managed to accomplish. The team was incredible during this time, decisive, flexible and patient. Our Winter 20 campaign was a proud moment because it was a miracle the design room pulled it together in 3 weeks once we were all allowed back into the office.  

Over the years, the changing retail landscape has been a constant challenge. Remaining relevant is crucial in fashion—be it in design, image, consumer needs, or the shopping experience. All of these areas are essential for a fashion brand to stay modern. It was imperative for us to keep looking forward; our success sometimes resulted in styles being replicated by other brands in the Australian market, so we had to keep pushing ahead.  

As a team we were driven by challenge and thrived on it.  

What are you doing now since leaving Cue?

Always designing! I can’t imagine not being involved in fashion. 

I took a short break to recharge after the show, to carefully consider my options and have worked on a few freelance projects. It has also been a time to sketch for the sake of it and further my digital design skills with adobe express and Browzwear. 

A few years ago, I developed a fashion illustration tool called ILLY STRATE for creatives who found it challenging to translate their ideas onto paper. It is a moving fashion figure that can be placed in any pose and traced around, leaving a proportioned silhouette to design onto. I run fashion illustration workshops with Illy Strate in schools and I hope to translate this to an online resource for schools and students to be able to reach people in all areas of the country. The tool is stocked in Kinokuniya, Sydney but the majority of my online sales are international. Shipping became unreliable during the pandemic so I will be addressing the post-COVID logistical issues now that I have more time. 

There are a few personal projects I am working on in the design and textile space. I've come to the conclusion over time that it's best not to talk about specific things until you have done them, so no one can talk you out of them! I have purposely deconstructed parts of my life and am now determined to put it back together, encompassing everything I want creatively, with my husband and family at its foundation. 

When you work on a brand for so long, your identity can become tied up in that, but there is a Cue DNA and there is mine, and they worked well together. However, I know my signature, and I can’t change or erase that; it will naturally apply to whatever I do in the future. 

Literally, when it comes to clothes I don’t like is being restricted, I need to be able to move. I want to apply this metaphorically to my creative life. I want to make sure anything I do has a strong purpose and whatever it is I want to do it well. I am keeping an open mind and am excited about opportunities that lie ahead.  

What are the key challenges in the Australian fashion design space? 

I think the biggest issue that will be at the forefront in the coming years will be navigating sustainability. It is such a complicated, multifaceted issue. For designers the focus needs to be on sustainable practises and traceability, materials and innovative design ideas that create a more circular life for a garment, but at a company level there is the more complicated process of working out emissions, setting targets and reporting. 

I love the work the Australian Fashion Council, Ethical Clothing Australia, Good Earth Cotton and the like are doing in this space. It would be wonderful to see the government truly invest time and money into being part of the solution. I believe government intervention is the only way there will be any real progress here. Regulations setting targets across key areas from product design, reporting, waste/end of life waste management etc. like the EU have just announced to drive the initiative forward. 

Local manufacturing will continue to be a challenge, especially for smaller brands. As the industry continues to shift offshore there are many more limitations in what local suppliers are able to offer, linings and trims are in shorter supply and it is getting harder to find skilled machinists as it is not a trade that people generally fall into or want to do. It is a beautiful art, pattern making and machining it would be great to see the government support this part of the industry more too. Once it is gone it will be gone forever.  

Unfortunately is just not feasible for most brands to produce here anymore.  

Do you see any key opportunities ahead? 

I think opportunity sits where challenges lie.  

With all of the industry challenges mentioned here, there is opportunity for innovation and change, to find new ways of doing things and I anticipate that technology will play a large part in that journey. 

I would love to see a restructure of the rigid seasonal system the fashion industry operates in. It encourages waste. We live in a fairly tran-seasonal country and it seems unnecessary to be so seasonally minded.  

The circular fashion market is an area I can see opportunity for innovations for new and existing brands. 

Advances in AI will open up a world of possibilities for personalised and shopping experiences. Harnessing this new technology will be crucial for brands moving forward. Who knows hopefully in some way it will minimise the reliance on influencers in the fashion landscape.  

Another emerging technology is 3D sampling. What are your thoughts on that?

This is an exciting area that I have explored myself, and I look forward to seeing how it progresses. I anticipate this will be an important part of the design process in the future, but in terms of sampling, I don’t think it is quite there yet when it comes to accurately translating ideas and, probably more importantly, fit. Like with any new technology, there will be a teething period. The obvious benefit or use would be to allow made-to-order garments to eliminate dead stock. 

I can see how, even now, when used well, this could be an effective tool for engaging customers and offering an interactive shopping experience.

Cue founder and chairman Rod Levis extended his thanks to Prue Rainey for her tenure at the company. In an email to Prue, seen by Ragtrader, he wrote: 

"During your time here, we experienced our greatest growth; expanding our store numbers from 80 or so to 160 and then to 200 plus. During this time, your energy and prolific creative flair was responsible for at least 80% of our styles with your back up team supporting you with the balance.

Your amazing instinctual design flair is expressed in your beautiful ability to sketch - creating the feeling for the pattern cutter that you wanted to achieve in the manufactured garment.

Throughout your time, Cue was the top selling brand at Myer, and the only all store and exclusive brand.  Cue was always a star brand in the regular Myer Designer Launch season shows.

Your design ability to create product that had an identifiable and indelible Cue handwriting was amazing.  You were in fact the person behind what was regarded as 'the magic of Cue'.  

The Powerhouse Museum award was the ultimate acknowledgement of your achievement - as one of only 4 designers honoured - still practising and working in Australia as a designer. One of the others honoured was your assistant, another the head of our partner brand (Dion Lee); along with Tony Maticevski. 

Of course the fact Cue was the only company to win, four times,  the coveted marie claire readers' favourite fashion brand is the ultimate credit to you as you headed design throughout each of those years.

Prue you were meant to be our head of design from the outset as Debi claimed. While Debi had no design qualification, she mentored and encouraged you and very early on, one of your first items was a winner sealing the decision: you were the next Head of Design following our other, the special Vicki. 

This Ragtrader article prompted me to express more fully our gratitude to you and express more fully what you have meant to Cue's amazing success. I also want to thank you for the lovely expressions of appreciation for the company. 

You will always be regarded by us, as a Cue girl, and our best!"

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