Australian fashion leader leaves the runway behind – The Age

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One month before models return to the runway for the Melbourne Fashion Festival, dynamic chief executive Graeme Lewsey is taking an early bow after 11 years in one of the industry’s most coveted roles.

Lewsey has survived numerous wardrobe malfunctions, the demands of supermodel guests Doutzen Kroes, Helena Christensen and Ashley Graham, along with Celeste Barber and actress Melissa George, three major sponsors, three chairmen and the challenges of COVID-19.

Retiring chief executive Graeme Lewsey with models backstage at the 2019 Melbourne Fashion Festival.

Retiring chief executive Graeme Lewsey with models backstage at the 2019 Melbourne Fashion Festival.Credit:Lucas Dawson

“That’s 11 years of sitting front row at almost every show, feeling incredibly excited and absolutely terrified,” Lewsey, 53, said. “There are so many things that can go wrong, and sometimes they did. I feel privileged to have been at the helm of the most successful and longest-running consumer-focused fashion event of substance in the world, but it’s time to pass the baton on.”

By focusing on inclusivity and sustainability, Lewsey’s reign at the not-for-profit festival moved conversations in Australian fashion beyond air-kissing into activism. At the beginning of his tenure public debate focused on whether skinny models could walk in high heels and the horror of stray Band-Aids on the runway, progressing to the challenge of making everyone feel seen on the runway.

“From the beginning we had the clear vision of creating fashion-tainment that included everyone, but there were not always confident models of different sizes and nationalities to accommodate that. Thankfully the system has changed, and it’s not just what you see on the runway. It’s the audio-described shows, working with guide dogs and helping new voices emerge. I’m super proud.”

Celeste Barber in 2020, L’Oreal ambassador and supermodel Doutzen Kroes with Jay Alexander from ‘America’s Next Top Model’ in 2009 and actress Melissa George in 2011. 

Celeste Barber in 2020, L’Oreal ambassador and supermodel Doutzen Kroes with Jay Alexander from ‘America’s Next Top Model’ in 2009 and actress Melissa George in 2011. Credit:Simon Schluter, Lucas Dawson

In January 2020, Lewsey was diagnosed with head and neck cancer, taking leave to undergo surgery and chemotherapy, before returning to the chief executive role a year later and working two days a week with the support of chief operating officer Yolanda Finch. He is currently in remission and works as an ambassador for Head and Neck Cancer Australia.

“Anyone who has been through a traumatic experience understands post-traumatic growth. It’s opened my eyes to how I can approach my future.”

Lewsey will continue as a consultant to the festival, with Finch acting as chief executive while the board searches for a replacement.

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