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Caren goes from the catwalk to the classroom

Growing up around fabric and sewing, Caren Stevenson was destined to work in the fashion industry one day. 

"My parents worked in a suit factory in Christchurch, New Zealand. Mum always sewed one-off garments at home, and that's where my passion for sewing came from," explained Caren.

“Dad was a fashion apprentice at Anthony Squires Suit Makers, and there's little he doesn't know about garments from pattern making and cutting to construction.”

"We stored fabric under our lounge suite, and my mum taught me the sewing techniques needed to make coats, dresses, suit jackets, and trousers, from welt pockets to complicated collars and inverted pleats. I had hands-on fashion training growing up."

Starting her career in various administration roles, Caren could only use her creativity on weekends.

"If I wanted to go out for the night, I'd make an outfit the day before – which I found easy," she said.

Moving to Toowoomba and eventually the Sunshine Coast, Caren focused on raising her five children, leaving little time to pursue a career outside of being a parent.

When her daughters joined Girl Guides, she met a guide leader who mentioned an online Hat Academy that piqued her interest.

"I then met the owner of the Hat Academy, Elaine Mergard, and revived my love for fashion by exploring millinery," she explained.

Millinery quickly became her passion, and Caren created unique hats around raising her daughters. When her children left home, she had more time to focus on refining her millinery skills and gained the confidence to enter fashion shows.

"I applied to show my hats at the Sunshine Coast Fashion Festival, thinking I'll never get in, but they accepted me, and I've done 11 shows since 2015."

When she decided to take her fashion career to the next level, she had no hesitation in enrolling with TAFE Queensland.

"I thought Elaine was excellent, and because she had taught at TAFE Queensland for 40 years, I knew where to learn fashion from the best, and I love it."

Enrolling to study the Certificate II in Applied Fashion Design and Technology (MST20616), Caren learnt how to produce garments, create patterns, sew designs and draw fashion sketches.

Based at Mt Gravatt's Fashion Centre of Excellence, Caren's classroom is a simulated workroom where she uses industrial sewing machines and cutting-edge equipment.

She then studied the Certificate III in Applied Fashion Design and Technology (MST30819), enhancing her learning and teaching her to electronic fashion design tools.

Helping her master her craft is TAFE Queensland's highly experienced and passionate teachers, who give her the guidance needed to understand modern fashion techniques.

"The teachers impart their professional knowledge and encourage us, and I'm around amazing classmates I can bounce ideas off," she said.

"Everyone is talented and supportive and wants to do their best, which is great for my learning – particularly when using CAD and Illustrator to design for the first time!"

A vital component of the industry she is learning about is the sustainability aspect of fashion.

"Sustainability in fashion is massive. Knowing which dyes to use such harmful chemicals don't leach into our waterways, and not buying plastic coat hangers because they're detrimental to the planet.

"This course has opened my eyes, and I'll focus on doing one-off, small custom hat and garment orders and upcycle outfits where I can," says Caren.

Another pillar of Caren's style is inclusivity, with hats being perfect for anyone, at any age, with any shape, able to wear them and feel empowered.

"For my millinery, you don't need to be a size eight or six or fit another person's perception of perfect."

"I also support diversity in size and height as we're not all tall or the perfect shape. I recently showed size six to 12 outfits at the Ravishing Fashionistas Show, which was fabulous."

Caren has a lifetime of moving countries, working in various roles and industries and raising a family; she appreciates how education allows people to turn their passion into a career.

"Education is the passport to a rewarding career. If you've got a passion for something, follow it, study it and then go out into the world," she concluded.