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WA designer brings The Apprentice to Perth

WA designer Betty Tran plans to repay the Perth community for the blessings she's received since relocating from Vietnam by bringing her own version of The Apprentice to town.

WA designer Betty Tran plans to repay the Perth community for the blessings she has received since relocating from Vietnam by bringing her own version of The Apprentice to town.

Just six months after showing her first collection at Perth Fashion Week, Tran has already shown her collection at New York Fashion Week, has New York boutiques interested in stocking her designs and will see her clothes in upcoming editorials in fashion bibles Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

She's just finished taking part in Catwalk for a Cause – a fashion fundraiser for a Ugandan all-girls school – and now she's working on a project that will pit university students against one another to win a one-year internship in the fashion industry.

"Change can start to happen from one little thing," she said.

"That's what I'm passionate about. I started off as a student myself and I know how hard it can be. I came here from a third world country and couldn't even speak English so for me, it's giving back, creating that opportunity and that's what I enjoy doing.

"I hope it inspires a lot of people to follow their dreams. People get close to getting what they want but give up because it gets too hard and they have to pay their bills and pay the rent. Obviously that's life, but I want people to be able to do both."


Just like in The Apprentice, hopefuls will have to complete a series of tasks, including putting together a fashion show in three days and raising money for charity, but Tran's version is tweaked.

"I'm going to do it differently with more mentoring," she said.

"It's not about being judged, it's about me giving them what they need so they can perform."

It's a world away from where an eight-year-old Tran thought she'd be at 25 years old; despite inheriting tailoring by blood, she never wanted to work with clothes.

When she left Vietnam seven years ago with her mother, who was pregnant with her younger sister, they need money to pay bills and that was what sent her into the workplace.

"The majority of learning has been from my mother," she said.

"I was five years old when I helped her doing the orders. So I grew up tailoring with Mum. I started with unpicking stitching and I hated it so much when I was eight years old I said to her 'I can't do this; this is too boring for me!'

"She is a very inspirational woman to me because she learned to become a tailor by doing it. She's a doer. She taught herself how to sew and she did it with such dedication, passion and commitment and that's how I grew up, seeing my mum like that.

"She would stay up til 4am finishing an order because she's given her word to someone. I inherited that from her. She probably worked 10 times harder than I do now, but it was a natural progression for me, to become a doer. I've watched her way of working my whole life and that was in my blood as well."

Tran had to learn English quickly and it was the 'doer' attitude she inherited from her mother that got them by with work with Pierucci, Morrison and Aurelio Costarella.

"She had a business in Vietnam but we moved to Perth and had to start from scratch again. She was pregnant with my younger sister and wanted to bring her somewhere nice," she said.

"Mum did what she was good at and I went out and got the jobs in for her.

"I just knocked on peoples doors and asked for jobs to do. I said 'If you give me a small order, I'll do it for free and show you how good I can be'. I didn't know what I was talking about back then, I don't know how I said that, but I just did it."

It was two years at university studying communications and public relations that made Tran realise she was moving in the wrong direction. She returned to what she knew and while she was studying three years of fashion and textiles she launched the label Betty Sugar – a sleek clothing line for younger women.

But when the global financial crisis hit Tran almost gave up.

"We're all human and life can come back at you at any time," Tran said.

"When I was doing Betty Sugar it got to the point of all stores closing down and I had to ask myself 'Am I going to keep going, or not? Because I'm not making any money at all.' I had bills to pay, my rent to pay, everything to pay for.

"Whatever money I earned in retail I put back into developing my new collection. It was my hobby, my dream and it completed me when I did it.

"Mum thought I was crazy, making clothes without a store to show them in but I said 'You'll see Mum, you'll see'. I showed Betty Tran at Perth Fashion Week and people loved it."

Four weeks ago, the entrepreneur opened her flagship store in Perth's new Raine Square development.

"It's all happened so fast," she said.

"We've done incredibly well and it's become a global brand in a very short amount of time."

Tran insists that her life story is sewn into the fabric of every piece and believes that is what people connect with in her clothes. She credits the opportunities she's been given with pushing her to succeed.

"I came from not having very much to start off with and starting from scratch it was very difficult for me to be in a position where I was successful," she said.

"I was always longing for opportunity to become successful and express myself to the fullest and I couldn't find that [in clothes] anywhere. I'm a busy person. When I was working in retail I worked three jobs a day. It was too fussy for me to change from this to that and I couldn't find anything; there was nothing out there for me. It was too dressy or too casual.

"It's my life story in that label. It's a system of dressing women to be empowered in what they do. It doesn't matter what job they're doing."

Tran names the ultimate Betty Tran woman as Michelle Obama, but also finds inspiration closer to home in Perth's Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi.

"She's an absolutely amazing leader," she said. "What I got inspired from is a woman like her; a woman actually making change in a small community and then on a bigger scale, to the world. That's what she's doing and that's what I want to do, give women the strength to do that."

Winning a university internship to work in a country of her choice gave Tran the motivation to keep pushing forward in the fashion industry, but her own version of The Apprentice was inspired by the Cartier Women's Initiatives Awards – which handpicks and supports female entrepreneurs – in which she was a finalist.

"I think it's amazing what they're doing, I was one of the finalists and I want to do the same thing," she said.

"I love the mentoring. People really underestimate how important that is. People make mistakes but if you've got the mentoring you will fast track and learn so much if you take it on board.

"In one week they'll have to perform a lot of tasks including putting up a fashion show in three days, or raising some money for a really worthy cause.

Tran hopes to open applications for the Betty Tran Entrepreneur of the Year in February to university students studying fashion, marketing and public relations, but said the successful applicant would need to be business-minded.

"I know how many people want to be in the fashion industry, but you need business sense as well as creativity," she said.

"You can't be an artist without knowing how to run a business, to become successful. You don't want to be Van Gogh and die before people start selling your paintings."

An industry panel will help Tran decide on the winner, but she believes they will be easy to identify.

"We'll structure the tasks and challenges in a way that will show their creativity as well as their business skills," she said.

"If it's not in their blood, it will show through the competition.

"If you're an entrepreneur, you'll always have the spirit in you, it doesn't matter what you're doing."