Kate Iselin – founder of PAVO and Vanity Project

Australian entrepreneur Kate Iselin

Kate Iselin is a writer, clothing designer, and troublemaker from Melbourne. She studied fashion design at the Melbourne School of Fashion and the Whitehouse Institute of Design before leaving to start her own clothing label, PAVO. She is the founder and editor of online magazine Vanity Project, and writes about arts and culture for The Modern Connoisseur. She is also the creator of the viral ‘You Are Welcome In Australia’ campaign supporting asylum seekers, one half of the digital publishing school Leader Of The Pack, and has most recently spoken about feminism with Laneway Learning as part of the Found Festival 2014.

Ask more questions than you answer. Nobody knows everything, but everyone knows something you don’t.

vanityproject.com.au @kateiselin

Tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen? 

Vanity Project is my ‘fashion meets feminism’ project. When I left university and started writing freelance, I had a lot of publications receive my articles and tell me that they were great but that they weren’t looking for a feminist to write about the latest trends, or that they didn’t want a clothing designer to be writing strong political articles. It staggered me how many people thought that feminism and fashion couldn’t coexist, so I created Vanity Project to fill what I thought was a really glaring void in the world of feminism and journalism: people thought that it was impossible to use pop culture as a lens through which to examine more serious issues, and I was determined to prove them wrong.

Please explain your business model.

The wonderful thing about online publishing is that it’s almost free! Vanity Project took so little money to set up and costs virtually nothing to run, which is fantastic as it means almost anyone can do the same thing I am. We make money by running ads on the site; and when we’re not partnered with an advertiser or an advertising service I’m happy for the website to exist as a not-for-profit venture. My eventual goal is to be able to pay the writers for every piece that we publish, but I have no plans to become a millionare from Vanity Project.

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next three months? 

The next three months are going to be pretty huge for me. I’m teeing up some features for Vanity Project that I’m super-excited about – the people who are interested in speaking with us, especially for interviews, are becoming more and more influential and well-known, which is wonderfully encouraging. I’m also really excited to start planning the second term of Leader Of the Pack, which is the digital publishing workshop I run with fellow writer Iolanthe Gabrie. The first term generated so much interest and positive feedback that we’re itching to get started again.

How do you make ideas happen? 

With magic and glitter! And also a whole lot of self-belief, coffee, ego, and a complete unwillingness to listen to anyone who says I might fail.

What does your typical day look like? 

There’s no such thing as a typical day for me, and that’s what I love. On any given day I could be looking at samples for a collection, planning a runway show for fashion week, writing an article, conducting an interview, or – when I get some downtime – going for a long run as part of my training for the Melbourne Marathon.

Australian entrepreneur Kate Iselin's workspace
Kate Iselin’s workspace

What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia? 

Aside from the challenges every businessperson faces – the long hours, the loneliness of working by yourself, and of course the coffee machine that stops working when you need it most – one thing that really shocked me was how unprofessional some large businesses are when working with younger people, or people just starting out. I’ve had orders forgotten about, emails unreturned, and entire folders of pattern work and sketches go missing because someone just didn’t place the same value on my work that I did. Having things like that happen taught me how important it is to be your own champion and be really vocal about how you want your work received; and that if people don’t share your standards then you have to walk away. You have to fight for a lot in business, but you should never have to fight to show people the value of your work or your time.

What is one idea you are willing to give away for free? 

The best idea or advice I could give to anyone is to be firm if you can’t be polite, be polite if you can’t be nice, and be nice as often as you can! Also, ask a lot of questions. Ask more questions than you answer. Nobody knows everything, but everyone knows something you don’t.

What people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry, in Australia at the moment? 

One of my favourite Australian companies is the clothing label Romance Was Born. Not only do I have half a wardrobe full of their dresses; but they are always innovative and they constantly take on side projects like costume design and museum installations! Sometimes if I’m feeling a bit lost in my business I ask myself, “Is this a thing Romance Was Born would do?” and if the answer is no, I try to re-think what I’m doing.

What about internationally? 

There are so many people who inspire me from all around the world! One of my latest inspirations is Jamie Oliver. We work in totally different industries, but I love that when people think of Jamie Oliver, they don’t just think of his cooking show – they think of his restaurant, his cook books, his dedication to healthy living, his on-screen persona – he’s managed to cross so many mediums while still doing what he loves, which is cooking. I’d love to become a similarly respected name, but in the fashion industry.

What role do you think business can play in affecting social change? 

A huge one, if not one of the main ones! Everyone patronises a business, every day. It might be the place you buy your coffee, your mobile phone provider, a television channel, a cereal brand…our lives are surrounded by companies and businesses trying to push a product. If those same businesses carried the values and goals we have as people and tried to improve the world in the same way that individuals did, imagine the change that could be made! Social change comes from people and businesses making sure that they are operating ethically, kindly, and ‘invisibly’ – meaning that a hundred years from now, there should be no trace of your product in seas or in landfills! If every business took just a bit of time out of their day to ensure this, we would live in a much healthier and happier world.

Speaking of affecting social change, we’ve teamed up with Shout for Good to encourage readers to ‘shout a coffee’ to charity by clicking the button below. Is there a particular charity you’d like to support? 

Absolutely! I must suggest RISE, an organisation run by and for Refugees, Survivors, and Ex-Detainees. They provide so many resources and services to refugees and asylum seekers in our community; their work is amazing.

Name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers. 

The Quiet Place for a shot of Zen, Tiny Buddha for even more Zen, and Vanity Project! Not for Zen, but because I love a good self-promo.

Name 3 Australians we should follow on Twitter.

Kon Karapanagiotidis, the CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre – he tweets at @Kon__K.

Indigenous X, a rotation account for indigenous Australians – they tweet at  @IndigenousX.

Lastly, James Brechney, who is an activist and the founder of the DIY Rainbow project. He tweets at @breko.

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?

Definitely! If you’re reading this and you have something to say about feminism or pop culture or (even better) both, send me an email and tell me all about it. I’m always searching for new writers for Vanity Project, whether it’s for a once-off feature or a series of columns.

We’re aiming to build a community of Australian idea makers helping each other. If you could have one question answered about startups, marketing, social media, accounting, monetization, product development etc., what would it be? 

How can independently-owned clothing labels work together to get the same amount of market-share as labels owned by big companies?

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant? 

 Sydney’s Baxter Inn is probably my all-time favourite bar because I love being surrounded by copious amounts of whiskey and bearded men; but when I’m at home in Melbourne, Cabinet and Honey Bar are my go-to spots for a drink. If I can get a seat at the bar, order a dirty martini, and spend the evening pondering my place in the universe, I will be a very happy drinker indeed.

We thought it would be cool to crowdsource an annual prize to award to the interviewee’s choice (each person interviewed gets one vote) winner for the year’s best interview. Are you willing to kick in a prize? 

Sure! I can promise a copy of the You Are Welcome In Australia comic; and I’d be happy to take some time out with the winner and share some of my social media savvy.

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