In this exclusive Q&A, three key winners at the 2023 Australian Fashion Laureate - Cue founder and chairman Rod Levis, fashion designer Christopher Esber, and the Powerhouse Museum CEO Lisa Havilah - reveal what it takes to succeed in fashion.
For reference: Levis won the Lifetime Achievement award, Esber took home the Designer of the Year award, while Havilah was chosen for the Carla Zampatti Award for Excellence in Leadership.
What do you believe secured your win today?
Rod Levis: It was a great honour to receive this acknowledgment especially given I’m not a designer and I’m now being represented amongst Australia’s most creative, successful, and esteemed designers - from the likes of Carla to Dion.
I am indebted to the people that helped me find my feet, like Carla Zampatti who as a young woman supplied my first garments - designed and produced by Carla; we were early pioneers together.
So many talented people have built and maintained the strength of our brand, and I really see this award as a culmination of a massive team effort. Whilst it has my name on it, it’s shared with everyone at Cue.
Finally, the company has enjoyed 55 years of truly memorable experiences. All made possible by the support we receive from our customers. Ultimately, we are only as good as our success and for that we are forever appreciative of all those women who have exclaimed “I love Cue”.
Christopher Esber: I think this year has carried a sense of energy and expression of individuality that has been building.
I’ve always stayed true to the brand codes and values. Challenging the classic silhouette and proportions, and then deconstructing and constructing them in our own distinct way to push the perceptions of wear.
Lisa Havilah: The Powerhouse has had a very long commitment to Australian fashion and investing into Australian fashion. I'm very lucky to be part of that institution and enable that support to happen from a whole range of different perspectives - whether it's supporting studios and making practice of fashion more sustainable and collecting those stories and sharing those stories.
How will it impact you and your company in the future?
Levis: While we have received many customer voted awards, this is our first award voted by our peers in the industry. It’s an honour and the most creditable acknowledgement to receive. It places our brand in the company of Australia’s most respected designers and creatives.
Obviously, we’re proud of our other awards, notably this year’s Australia Post Hall Of Fame award, but receiving the Laureate is by far my most valuable acknowledgment – indeed a real honour.
Esber: We are a brand obsessed with creation and development, so it is meaningful for me and the team to be recognised for the work but also how the clothing impacts our wearer.
The brand now has the product mix and categories where the aesthetic is being fully realised. It has become a distinctive moment in time to be reminded of why we do this.
Havilah: Hopefully, it will support new emerging designers coming through and being able to sustain their practice over the long term. Currently, we're the home of Jordan Gogos, Romance Was Born, First Nations Fashion Design, and the Australian Fashion Council.
We're building a real ecology of organisations around the Powerhouse that we're supporting.
What is a key business highlight for you in 2023?
Levis: Our greatest highlight was showcasing at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week, the brand’s first ever solo show in 55 years. Not only did it receive so much press attention, more than that – the show’s full attendance on the night (in fact it’s over attendance with more than 700 people in the room) had an electric atmosphere.
Esber: It’s been crescendo year, with an extension into bridal, and continuing to evolve swim, leather goods, footwear and soon, eyewear categories through our ecommerce channel and our 150 global stockists.
Growing the Christopher Esber universe for our customer has been incredibly exciting, to offer her the full proposition of how to wear and adapt the brand into her life.
I’ve also loved collaborating with brand muses like Carmen Kass who features in our latest campaign, to Gemma Ward who I’ve worked with from the beginning of my career, and Elise Crombèz who closed our Paris Fashion Week show this September and fronted an earlier season.
Havilah: I think the creation and presentation of the Carla Zampatti Powerhouse show. We're all incredibly proud of it and we hope that we really did honour Carla Zampatti's legacy in that exhibition.
Any key challenges?
Levis: We always have the challenge of consistently maintaining our forward fashion profile - our new design team is headed by someone who we recruited from the UK; we were excited to find him as he has the highest possible qualifications having studied at London’s most prestigious fashion colleges. He has a new backup team and their goal is to maintain Cue’s long term historical mix for which we’re renowned, ranging from suiting to event dressing.
One key focus is expanding our product mix. For example, we’ve recently returned to denim and a reenergized attention on event wear which we obviously took up and championed the first time it had a big focus in the 70’s – think disco or our 'it was a Cue celebration' song if you know it.
Esber: Running an independently owned business, you manoeuvre through the changes and challenges in the most agile way.
My goal has always been to have a global presence, whilst staying true to the brand’s DNA and designing for the CE woman.
Right now, this era of the brand feels pivotal as we are building to new milestones.
What plans do you have ahead?
Levis: Leaning on our experience, the true focus after 55 years is presenting a Cue of the future, not of the past.
And lastly, we’re focused on looking after our amazing team; many of whom have been with us for over 20 years working alongside a number of newcomers in key executive roles, from art direction to head of retail, keeping the brand fashion forward.
Esber: We’ve been moving globally for many years now so we will continue this trajectory. I will be in Los Angeles soon and next year we continue to evolve and build the world around the brand. Can’t wait to reveal more.
Havilah: We'll have an ongoing program of exhibitions. We're also collecting archives of great fashion, and we did the Carla Zampatti exhibition this year. There's definitely more exhibitions in the pipeline.