Ellery, who launched her label in 2007, said it was important that James, like all designers, maintain their own voice in an industry full of copycats.
“It’s important as a designer to have a purpose with your work – why you do it and who you are creating for,” Ellery said.
During the pair’s mentoring session, Ellery and James discussed a range of issues, including how to calculate margins and strategy for selling to major retailers.
It’s a subject close to Ellery, who is stocked at David Jones but was sued by Myer in 2013 for allegedly breaching an exclusivity contract. Ellery and Myer subsequently settled the case out of court.
She said the experience taught her “that I didn’t need to be afraid of ‘the man’, the power, and that I am equally capable of showing up with my strength”.
“Ever since then I have had more confidence in myself, in my business … it taught me a lot,” she said.
Ellery said navigating the fashion industry required a series of calculated risks, such as her decision to move to the couture show schedule, in January and July, and release two collections each year, in two parts.
“It was a big move for us and it’s still new so it’s still settling in the business,” she said. “What’s good about it is the company’s independent and full of youth and as a result we are agile to react to the market’s demands and the customer’s needs.”
The Runway to Runway Mentorship, which is supported financially by Etihad Airways, will link an established designer with a student from the museum’s graduate exhibition each year.
Ellery said that living in France, where she moved last year, “you get to see how supportive the government is there of culture and the arts”.
“We have that here but there could always be more seeing fashion is a multi-billion-dollar industry and it could be taken more seriously,” she said.
James, who once dreamed of becoming a flight attendant, hopes within five years to have her own fashion brand and show at Mercedes Benz Australia Fashion Week.
“I want to be someone who inspires the African culture. I want to get into Fashion Week and people to know my story and who I am,” she said.
Ellery said the advice she gave James can apply to all aspiring designers.
“You have to have a strong work ethic, talent, and really really love what you do. Just don’t give up. And don’t listen to people who say, ‘Oh, you’re not a doctor?'”
Melissa Singer is Fairfax Media’s Deputy Lifestyle Editor and fashion columnist.
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