Alumna in Focus - Venessa Cowell

7 April 2011

Venessa Cowell has made a name for herself in the fashion world. The 27-year-old Arts and Social Sciences alumna, who took philosophy and art history during her time at Sydney, decided in 2006 to follow her passion and start a boutique shoe label, christening it Venessa Cowell Design.

Today her business is thriving and her designs are regularly featured in fashion magazines. She is equal parts designer, businesswoman and social conscience. For a number of years she has worked with Dinari, the Indonesian partner of Opportunity International, a not-for-profit organisation that uses a business approach to eradicating poverty.

Rather than a simple handout, the organisation provides microfinance to some of the world's poorest people, so that they can create and grow their own businesses. Cowell and her business hope to enable a longer-term solution to poverty by engaging Indonesian communities in aspects of footwear production, giving them the skills and the opportunities to pull themselves out of poverty.

Cowell's life and business approach seem to be a lesson in aesthetics. She continues to hunt for unusual and beautiful fabrics from around the world for use in her collections. On her website she blogs about design and beauty, and shows the inspirations for each unique shoe design.

A Conversation with Fashionista Venessa Cowell

What are your happiest memories about your time here as a student?

My happiest memories would be the social side of uni and the chance to study across broad areas, from art history to philosophy subjects, which opened my mind to other cultures and helped make up my mind to travel and experience other lifestyles.

What inspires you?

Beauty in all forms inspires me, from stunning natural environments and flowers to beautiful light installations. I try to take the beautiful objects and landscapes I see in the world and distil them in my designs and the fabrics I use. In terms of fashion, Valentino is my biggest inspiration. Everything he has designed is beauty to me.

Who was your favourite professor whilst you were a student at the University of Sydney and why?

She's not a professor, but my favourite lecturer was Dr Fiona Hibberd, who taught theoretical and philosophical psychology. I loved the philosophy of psychology as a subject, and the thought that you can choose which philosophies to live by. I also loved art history because it opened my eyes to how culture is reflected in the art and fashion of the day, and that's something that I notice constantly.

What is your proudest achievement?

My proudest moment was the first time I saw someone I didn't know wearing my shoes!

Tell us more about Venessa Cowell Design and how you started your business and why shoes?

It started with a long-held desire, and what I saw as a need for shoes that were elegant and feminine, yet affordable and wearable every day. My great grandfather was a shoe maker; my mother was a strong footwear retailer and designed her own ranges as well as importing from Italy. Although I had other plans to work as a psychologist I realised footwear design was where my passion lay. A lot of my time is taken up with the business and marketing side rather than the design side of the business. I have found that I like both aspects equally.

What is the mantra you live by?

I live by the idea that beauty is everywhere but sometimes you must open more than your eyes to see it.

What has been the most memorable success you have had?

My most memorable success was when Ruby and Min sold out of one of our styles over the first weekend they were in store.

I am also very proud of our relationship with Dinari as we have been able to engage struggling communities in Indonesia to help with the production of our footwear and ultimately help to build their capacity. You can visit or for further information and to support the program.

What advice would you give anyone keen to start their own business?

My advice is to build your business slowly and try to learn each aspect yourself. Where possible try to do things yourself instead of outsourcing. When you start out remember there is always a way of doing things that doesn't affect your cash flow. Most importantly it is important to have someone to motivate and support you, such as a mentor, or even a friend who is also starting their own business. Try to meet up once a week and go through where you are up to and what tasks are on the agenda for the next week. Having someone to update and check in with is a huge motivating factor.

What are your plans for the future?

My future plans are expansion to more stockists as well as online. My longer-term goals are to increase brand awareness and open stores in Bali and Sydney.

What drives you?

The desire to create a beautiful and wearable product that people will get pleasure from wearing.

What advice would you give to students graduating from the University of Sydney?

If you find something you enjoy don't be scared to stick with it. Don't stress if you don't know exactly what you are going to do yet as things take time to fall into place and become established in your mind. I'd also say, be open to different opportunities—by doing Arts and Social Sciences there are many rich opportunities out there. Not to lose heart and do what you love - that's the key!