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Change by design: the fashion evangelist who's making a difference

13 Feb 2020

It is certainly a long way from Moreton Bay to New York. But for Deborah Fisher, it was a longer way back again.

A fashion studies and design lecturer at USC, Deborah will be in the first wave of academics to be embedded at USC’s new Moreton Bay campus. It is something of a homecoming, because Deborah is a girl of the region: her parents met at Beerburrum, and after farming for a time at Windoan in western Queensland, settled on 600 acres on the Pumicestone Passage at Toorbul when Deborah was four. It was paradise for the youngest of five children.

And while returning to her stomping ground is in a sense going back where she began, Deborah returns with a wealth of experience.

Before she committed to guiding the next generation of designers as a scholar, Deborah was out and amongst it in the fashion world, working as a designer, stylist and forecaster in New York.

She held lofty positions in the US, including Fashion Director at Van Buren Carr, Product Manager at Liz Claiborne and director of Product Development at ES Sutton. At one time, her professional life was a whirlwind of travel as she consulted to factories in 13 nations.

It was a world away from Caboolture High School, something Deborah says surprised everyone but herself.

“I think I have always had an attitude of ‘why not? New York is the ultimate for fashion so to New York I shall go’,” she says. “It was quite naïve, I suppose, because I had no idea what I would find, but I must have done something right because I stayed and made what was a very good life there.”

Deb Fisher

Deborah Fisher, Lecturer in Fashion Studies and Design

Life and fashion are not always black and white: you don’t need to just have one or the other in anything.

As a teenager, the always-creative student found a purpose for her passion while doing speech and drama and dance as well as school musicals at Caboolture State High School. After Year 12, she was in the Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht at Twelfth Night Theatre and the wardrobe mistress broke her leg. Deborah answered the call for help with costumes – she had done home economics at school – and something in her ignited.

A love of garments, clothing, creativity and artistry came together for her as a sonic boom.

She had applied to NIDA, but she hedged her bets and also applied to study fashion at the Queensland College of Art because they did not have a costume design course. She rejected the subsequent NIDA offer, threw herself into fashion and never looked back.

Soon after graduation, she and a business partner reached the pinnacle of success, being named Queensland Fashion Design of the year. They were selling in boutiques nationally, but Deborah felt the needy gnaw of change and a need to know more about the business side of fashion.

Dreaming big, she applied to highly-esteemed Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and was accepted into the Bachelor of Fashion Merchandising and Management degree. She was embraced and was ensconced in the community, partly courtesy of the Australian fandom created by Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee.

On a field trip with Pratt, she was exposed for the first time to a fashion buying office, a unit that predicts trends and links outlets with fashion lines. She volunteered for a year as an assistant to Van Buren Carr director Linda Hays and at the end of that was employed.

She had truly arrived in the New York fashion scene.

Elizabeth (Jane) Fynes-Clinton

Author: Dr Elizabeth (Jane) Stephens

Lecturer, Journalism

The fashion industry might be fickle, but despite rising globalisation, the digital revolution and changes in consumer spending habits, it continues to thrive. It is almost as if the seismic shifts have catapulted it forward, and data compiled in the Fashion and Apparel Industry Report indicates worldwide revenue will rise from $481.2 billion in 2018 to $712.9 billion in 2022.

But it is not just window dressing.

Deborah was working for Liz Claiborne when her son, 2, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. On a neurologist’s recommendation, she investigated therapeutic nurseries to find the right kinds of support for her son’s needs.

“I left my fancy fashion office at 3pm and I found a world of physiotherapists and occupational therapists who were making such a huge difference in children’s lives. It was so important and what they did was so tangible,” Deborah says.

“I felt destroyed. I felt so fickle that my world revolved around problems such as which colour pink was in vogue.”

When Deborah attended the next appointment with the neurologist to develop a plan for her son’s care, she burst into tears, saying she felt shallow.

“She said to me ‘Deborah, yesterday I spent 16 hours in surgery separating Siamese twins. When I got home, my husband said he wanted to take me out to dinner. I had a shower and put on a dress – a dress made by Liz Claiborne. My husband told me I looked beautiful and I felt amazing. That is what you do. What you do gives that to people like me.’

“It was one of those epiphany moments where I thought I can’t devalue the role I play in this industry, but what can I do that helps to grow good? And so I started to find social justice causes to do with fashion.”

Deborah’s projects have included working with a weaving cooperative in Guatemala to attract younger members, going into juvenile detention centres in Los Angeles to teach screen printing, rejuvenating a factory in Eastern Europe to transition from making white singlets for military personnel to coloured t-shirts that eventually were taken up by Gap.

In recent times, she has been called a fashion evangelist because of her approach to fashion as a vehicle for change or good.

“The last of my concerns in sustainability is climate change, and I know that sounds odd,” she says. “The human cost in making clothes is huge – from the creation to the consumer to what happens after a person is finished with it. I am a proponent of considered design and support changing this notion that fashion is something that is to be disposed of.”

Deborah returned to Australia to more actively parent her two sons, away from the whirlwind of long hours and extensive travel. She took up sessional work in the design studio at QUT, taught in the fashion program at TAFE and this year will teach design at USC Moreton Bay.

Deborah also has a PhD underway – a study that will explore how fashion represents and incorporates people with disabilities – and her research areas include fashion and identity, women’s relationships with clothing through material culture, personal branding and design thinking.

She promotes her hashtag #fuperfect (fed up perfect) and encourages diversity of representation in fashion.

 “In the reality of the world, there are not just two sides. There is not just the face that is photoshopped into something it wasn’t and the plain, crinkled, unmade-up look,” Deborah says. “Both are realities, both are valid, but there is a great deal of in between and that should be acknowledged too.

“Life and fashion are not always black and white: you don’t need to just have one or the other in anything.”

Deb Fisher looking through portfolio
Deb Fisher