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Career Changers: Sarah Kelly

Molly McLaughlin

Going from spy to fashion consultant doesn’t sound like the most natural transition, but Sarah Kelly isn’t your average woman.

Growing up, the Red Hill resident dreamt of being an actor, but after attending business school at
 her parents’ request she was recruited to join the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and began a life of secrecy.

“ASIO was moving their headquarters from Melbourne to Canberra and they had to find staff,” Sarah explains. “They were looking for women like myself who could work in administration and I just thought, why not! I started in 1987 and I worked within many different areas of intelligence.”

Throughout her career, Sarah obtained high-level security clearances that allowed her to work in many intriguing situations, for example, within the British Ministry of Defence during the Iraq War.

“We were dealing with a lot of top-secret intelligence and it was a very exciting place to be,” Sarah says. “I was also being exposed to international designers and fashion around the world. People think that because ASIO is an intelligence agency you need to be discreet, but I was still able to be me because I wasn’t telling people what I did. I usually gave a cover story.”

Fashion has always been one of Sarah’s great loves and she was able to express this while travelling around the world in various positions, including working at Australia House in London and in the Australian Prime Minister’s office.

“When I went to work it was a chance for me to wear clothes that I loved, and everyone would always comment on my style. I thought I wanted to work 
as a fashion designer for a moment in my late teens but then I did some work experience and I realised 
I just wanted to wear clothes rather than design and make them.”

Sarah’s first official foray into fashion happened when she won Fashions on the Field at the Melbourne Cup in 2009. This led to a career as a fashion consultant through her business, Fashion Empire.

“I know when I feel beautifully dressed it’s just so refreshing and so exciting,” she says. “I think women celebrate themselves that way and it can be a reflection of the pride you hold in yourself. ASIO and that whole part of my career seems so long ago! In my current career I have been to New York Fashion Week, which is how I got involved in street style and now I’m writing about fashion for Canberra Centre.”

Although Sarah began officially working in fashion later in her life, for her it is a career of infinite possibilities and endless inspiration.

“I’m inspired by so many women who have a real passion for style and don’t apologise for it, like Iris Apfel and Diana Vreeland. They just go out there and say: this is who I am.”

You can read this article in full and more in our latest edition of Magazine: Break The Mould. Available for free while stocks last. Click here to find your closest stockist. 

Magazine Break The Mould Cover

Feature image by Martin Ollman. Magazine cover image by Kelly Tunney.


Molly McLaughlin

Molly McLaughlin was less than thrilled to move to Canberra a couple of years ago to study Arts and Economics at ANU, but she can confirm the city has grown on her since then. Along with writing for HerCanberra, she spends her time reading, eating noodles and planning her next adventure. More about the Author

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