Welcome to 20 Queensland Designers. Through the Design Minds initiative managed by the State Library of Queensland I was commissioned to interview a select group of the state’s most intriguing designers.

The idea was a celebration of sorts, a showcasing of some of our top talents, and a more intimate glance into their work and background than may have been recorded before. The subjects come from a broad range of disciplines, and included areas such as medical research and digital games development — areas that are not in the usual ambit of design writing. The premise we decided on was a simple one – to ask each designer what led them to the work they do today. Everybody is interested in a life story, and it is telling that many of the people I interviewed talked about early influences and identified key moments in their young lives that were turning points for their career paths. Each was generous with their time, and candid with their comments. Each has a passion that I believe is imbued in their words. I hope you enjoy these little vignettes and insights into a designer’s mind and inspiration.

The first winner of Project Runway in 2008, Juli Grbac established her own fashion label and produced seasonal collections for eight years, before she won a contract with Virgin Australia to design their uniforms. In the 11th year of her career, she moved to New York to peruse greater international opportunities and is currently working on creating a luxe travel goods line made in Italy. She has had losses and wins in her career, but remains ever optimistic, and passionate about her future in the industry.

When did you first decide you wanted to be a fashion designer?

When I left school I actually thought I wanted to be a hairdresser. I knew I wanted to work in fashion, but I saw my mum and how hard she worked as a uniform manufacturer and I knew I didn’t want to be part of that world. I’d spent my childhood sewing with her, helping in her workroom. I could make pincushions when I was eight or nine, and dolls’ clothes and pencil cases. As a kid I used to help mum sew, as she worked for Easton Pearson, covering their buttons and doing helping out. After trying hairdressing for two months I thought, “Who am I kidding?” I decided it really was my fate to work in fashion, so I enrolled in a fashion course at Gateway TAFE. The certificate course covered the basics and immersed me in the fashion world, which is important. I already knew a lot of the stuff. I learnt how to drape a dummy. We were given nine weeks to sew a men’s shirt and, because I am a good sewer, I did it in the first lesson then went to the beach during the other classes.

After TAFE I got a job at Easton Pearson for a year, then went to London and enrolled in courses at Central St Martins. The colleges wouldn’t accept me here – I didn’t have the right portfolio, or an OP score.

I worked three jobs a day from 6am to 10pm to save $10,000 for the trip. In London I worked for Voyage, who designed outfits for Elton John and Posh Spice, it was very opulent. Living in London and working for a minimum wage was tough but it was a great experience. After a year of living in London and learning all that I could I decided to move back to Australia.

Back in Brisbane, I started making camisoles for myself and my sisters. A friend asked me how she could purchase one… then she suggested put ten in her shop on consignment. They sold in two days, and that’s what started my business. I was 22. I still kept my old job as I call it, in a pharmacy for constant income. I needed that money because for a long time I worked for free in my business.

I’ve had tough financial times because my strength was more in design than business. It’s been a lesson in business, do what you do best and hire professionals in the fields that are not your strengths.

I also always say trust your initial instincts, not just with people but situations, sometimes if it’s too good to be true it usually is. Find out all the details before you sign anything and if you have to invest in a lawyer to look over your contracts.

Winning Project Runway Australia for me really was a dream come true, being able to go on a reality TV show and show Australia what you can do is a blessing. I was doing what I love every day and I had the perfect platform to do it on. I won the show because I was so passionate about creating and making beautiful garments.

I know what I do is very commercial and appeals to a mass audience. That doesn’t worry me. I know what makes women feel beautiful and it is a gift to be able to do that.

After winning Project Runway Australia I expanded my company to make sure I could capitalise on the win. I felt immense pressure to prove to everyone that I won for a reason. I took some bad business advice and lost all my money all over again. I then turned to making wedding dresses and was miserable. I couldn’t afford to make a collection. I went on a spiritual course to Hawaii that someone had sponsored. I was at a low point after that with no work left, and no money, when I got a call from Virgin Australia to bid to do the uniforms. It was incredible timing. I bid on the job against all the other Australian designers and I won the bid and I haven’t look back. It’s the best job I have ever had and Virgin Australia has been an inspiration to work with.

Mentors: John Borgetto, Virgin CEO – always fair and professional; Barbara Battaglini and her motto, “Presentation, presentation, presentation”.

Heroes: My Mum: we’re dynamite together with designing. All my wins are hers too.

Margie Fraser

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