‘Red is my favourite flavour’: Caroline Ralphsmith’s passion for fashion

Key points

  • Caroline Ralphsmith was appointed as chief executive of the Melbourne Fashion Festival in August last year. 
  • The Melbourne Fashion Festival runs from March 3 – 11. 

It’s easy to spot Caroline Ralphsmith at the entrance to the Stokehouse restaurant in her towering platform sandals, cornflower blue dress from Melbourne designer Joslin and oversized sunglasses.

Ralphsmith, known almost universally as ‘Ralph’, was appointed as chief executive of the PayPal Melbourne Fashion Festival last year and there is a certain expectation to dress for the job.

Caroline Ralphsmith took on the role of chief executive of Melbourne Fashion Festival in August last year. Credit:Scott McNaughton

It’s no hardship for Ralphsmith, who says she loved fashion from a young age working part time at Sportsgirl while she was studying at Melbourne University and making her own outfits for black-tie university balls.

However, sitting down in a booth at a linen-clad table with a panoramic view of the shimmering water of Port Phillip Bay, Ralphsmith says Melbourne’s fashion designers can rest easy.

“I look at the photos now and I am mortified at some of the things I made,” she says. “There were these massive, green lurex puffy sleeve things, very ’80s. But the reason I did that was I loved the creativity associated with it and I particularly loved the idea of ‘no one’s going to be wearing what I’m wearing, I can be myself, I can be a complete individual’.”

Saltbush and vinegar potato cakes from The Stokehouse in St Kilda. Credit:Scott McNaughton

While she doesn’t have a background in the fashion industry, Ralphsmith is enthusiastic about cementing Melbourne’s reputation as Australia’s fashion capital through the festival.

Over glasses of white wine and the Stokehouse’s luxury version of the humble potato cake topped with saltbush and laced with vinegar, she outlines her vision for the festival, which returns this year to the Royal Exhibition Building.

“What I really aspire to do is make the fashion festival a true major event,” she says. “I’d love it to be much, much bigger and much more of a celebration of creativity than even we do now. Just thinking about Melbourne as the major event capital, most of those major events when you think about them are sports – how do we make sure that the arts and culture side of Melbourne can be as elevated and how do we ensure that happens?”

This year’s festival is going to be shorter than in previous years but Ralphsmith says organising it in a short timeframe has been a “baptism of fire” and her plan is to bring in international designers and expand the festival in years to come.

“We’re never going to be a Paris or Milan and I don’t think we should have to be,” she says. “But I think there’s this essence of being a true consumer festival that I think we can harness even more than we have in the past and celebrate that.”

Caroline Ralphsmith poses ahead of the launch of this year’s launch of the Melbourne Fashion Festival (wearing Sydney label Michael Lo Sordo) with models Jay Coolahan (wearing Reigner) and Clare Walker (wearing Paul McCann).Credit:Simon Schluter

It’s this emphasis on consumers and a desire to democratise fashion which is behind Ralphsmith’s decision to bring on discount store Kmart as the sponsor of the festival’s family runway.

“What’s fantastic for a true major event is that everyone’s welcome,” she says. “We’re not Australian Fashion Week, we’re not an industry event.”

While Kmart’s inclusion raised some carefully microbladed eyebrows in the fashion industry, Ralphsmith emphasises that the family runway is “one of 109 events” across the festival.

She’s cognisant of keeping the not-for-profit festival afloat financially, with major sponsor PayPal two years into a three-year deal and government funding not slated to increase.

“To be honest commercial partnerships have bounced back well, but there’s still a way to go,” she says.

The Stokehouse’s Kingfish crudo with apple cucumber. Credit:Scott McNaughton

Overlooking the bay it seems appropriate to eat seafood and Ralphsmith starts with kingfish crudo, the fish lightly cured and topped with seaweed and apple cucumbers.

The Stokehouse has long been a favourite for Ralphsmith, from eating pizza and drinking beers downstairs to flying back to Australia to celebrate friends’ weddings.

“No matter what stage of life you’re in I quite like that it’s the perfect restaurant,” she says. “It’s lovely being in Melbourne but also being relaxed, there’s a sense of when you are here you don’t feel you are three kilometres or whatever we are from the city.”

Caroline Ralphsmith says a partnership with the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival could be on the cards. Credit:Scott McNaughton

Ralphsmith lived overseas for several years, completing an MBA in London and then spending time as a management consultant in New York.

She has a varied resume which critics have noted does not contain any fashion industry experience. Festival chair Laura Inman has focused on her new chief executive’s “depth and breadth of expertise”.

Most recently Ralphsmith spent five years as the general manager of customer engagement at the Victoria Racing Club and then just over a year as the chief executive of Federation Square.

It was while she was in New York that Ralph met her husband, Dion Werbeloff, now chief executive of the Gandel Group, which owns Chadstone Shopping Centre.

They first got together when Ralphsmith was on a blind date with someone else and a mutual friend suggested she meet up with her and Werbeloff for drinks.

Ralphsmith spent time raising the couple’s three children and working at NAB but her career took off when she went to the VRC, where she says “my role was everything but racing, really”.

She was in charge of entertainment, food and fashion, creating a new precinct for fashions on the field at Flemington which she says was “a huge amount of fun”.

Receipt from lunch at The Stokehouse with Caroline Ralphsmith.Credit:Cara Waters

Her tenure as chief executive of Federation Square was more challenging, trying to lead the precinct through the COVID-19 lockdowns. Ralphsmith recalls launching one installation in the square and by the time the night finished there was another lockdown.

“For a period of time we were actively deterring people from coming because the government, and rightly so, was trying to avoid public gatherings,” she says.

In the end it was Federation Square’s transition from a standalone organisation to becoming part of the broader government-run Melbourne Arts Precinct known as MAP Co, which includes the Arts Centre and NGV International, which prompted Ralphsmith’s departure.

“It was a different job by the time I left than [when] I’d started,” she says.

Ralphsmith says Federation Square was “not particularly well funded” because it operated as a corporation, which put pressure on prioritising commercial outcomes over art.

She thinks the transfer to MAP Co was the correct outcome even if it meant the end of her role there: “I do think it’s a public space and I think it should be celebrated as such.”

Steamed snapper on sauce vierge at The Stokehouse. Ralphsmith says red is her favourite flavour. Credit:Scott McNaughton

Our waiter brings our main courses and Ralphsmith is delighted to see that her selection of steamed snapper is resting on a tumble of bright red sauce vierge made from tomatoes and basil.

“I think red is my favourite flavour,” she says. “Red lollies are my favourite, I love tomatoes, raspberries, pomegranates, red wine.”

Ralphsmith says in the future she’d like to see a partnership with the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, also held in March, to highlight Melbourne’s vibrant dining culture.

“I think we can start to think about how we can partner perhaps in the future and making some fantastic opportunities to showcase food while you’re enjoying fashion and vice versa,” she says.

The Melbourne Fashion Festival was staged with restrictions during the COVID-19 outbreaks with a runway at the State Library in 2021. Credit:Getty

When I ask Ralphsmith what her stamp will be on the Melbourne Fashion Festival, she says it’s a focus on art and ideas.

“The concept of fashion being absolutely at the core, but also art and ideas being part of what we bring to the fore,” she says. “Fashion is wearable art in many cases anyway.”

At the festival’s launch at Government House last month, Ralphsmith says she tried to inject whimsy and creativity, with artist Tanzer singing while draped from a balcony and the ornate garden fountain filled with brightly coloured tulle.

“I wanted to embrace Melbourne’s creativity because there’s a lot of it and I think the last couple of years we’ve let that go a little bit,” she says. “I think there’s a real need for us to come out of the gun with a bit of a bang and then we will get bigger and better after that.”

Tickets for the PayPal Melbourne Fashion Festival, March 3-11, are now on sale at melbournefashionfestival.com.au

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