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Julianne Wheat has the kind of job many people dream of: designing a fashion line that results in sophisticated workwear for women across a wide range of industries.
And she’s pursuing the role with twins at home, having recently returned from two years maternity leave.
Wheat’s the design manager for the NNT catalogue, working three days a week on the ready-to-wear range in a small team that forms part of a much bigger employer: Wesfarmers.
Her day-to-day work involves everything from sketching and design work to garment fitting, testing fabrics and analysing sales trends. The role also includes plenty of research, which means overseas trips to identify upcoming styles in retail.
The two extensive catalogues Wheat works on a year are then shared with small and medium sized businesses and organisations that are looking to explore reliable, well-made and on-trend uniforms for staff. Many will go on to develop a range for staff from the catalogues, with their brands monogramed on the different pieces.
“We go overseas on trend forecasting trips and have a look at what’s out there. We’ll buy various samples and really focus on the longer lasting trends that are occurring, rather than the fast fashion,” Wheat says on what her work involves.
“We need to know the trends have longevity. Our rule is that anything we put in our catalogue will be in for the next 24 months.
Wheat’s therefore in an excellent position to share some advice to Australian women on what they can next expect to see in workwear. She’s happy to say that prints and silhouettes are getting softer and more feminine, and that “power dressing” ideas of the past may finally be on their way out.
“There is this sense that you don’t need to look like a man to be strong at work anymore. You can wear these floral fabrics and by no means does it show a demure person,” she says. “Femininity is now associated with strength and power.”
The key is to pick pieces that make you feel comfortable and confident, rather than following the latest fast fad. She says that while staple colours like black, white and grey remain, we’ll also see a greater shift towards florals and poker dots – pieces she says that can make an outfit feel a little more “exciting”. Wheat is also seeing workplaces becoming more casual, and NNT design their catalogue to include pieces that can be dressed down.
“If you buy pieces that you squeeze into, thinking it looks good, but you actually feel uncomfortable in, it’s just going to sit unworn in your wardrobe,” she says. “Look for pieces that will last, that will look great on you – rather than looking great in a magazine or on a model online.”
Wheat’s been with NNT since she finished her bachelor of arts in textile at RMIT, starting as a design assistant in the then small privately-owned company and working her way up through the business as it was later acquired by Pacific Brands and then again by Wesfarmers. She credits a number of great mentors with helping her appreciate and develop the business and management side of the work she does, as much as the design and creative side.
Wheat says much of her knowledge comes from learning from others, surrounding herself with good people and staying open to learning how to best manage others to get the most out of them, particularly when working with creatives. She always loved the deadline driven environment, the fast paced and reactive nature of the work, and the push to respond to client needs and tenders quickly.
So much so, that she worried how she’d cope at home when she took a two-year career break to have her babies.
“Having kids was definitely the hardest thing I’ve done: the constant worrying was so confronting and overwhelming, but the reward was this new feeling that these are human beings, not garments I am creating,” she says.
She found the experience at home incredible, but then was concerned about how she would return to work, given the all-consuming nature of the role she had.
“I wanted to work part time, but I didn’t know how that was going to work,” she says. “Also, one of the senior designers had stepped into my role while I was on leave and they were doing really well in it. I didn’t want to come in and knock them off that career trajectory. That was important to me.”
Meanwhile, given the business had sold to Wesfarmers during her time on leave, a lot had changed, including Wheat’s senior leadership team. She worried if the ten years she’d spent trying to make a name for herself would count.
Julianne Wheat met with her new head of department and was quickly told how much they appreciated her work and wanted her back. Her maternity replacement continued managing the corporate side of the business while Wheat took on a new role managing the NNT catalogue.
Now settled into her new role with NNT, she’s ready to help get more women dressed for work or their own businesses in the coming months. “Feeling confident is so powerful at work. The garments you wear should facilitate that,” she says.
This content is made possible thanks to our Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards partner NNT, check out their latest catalogue for stylish, simple, workwear.