Heidi Middleton on building the Sass & Bide empire, and what came next

You may recognise her as one-half of Australian design duo, Sass & Bide, but dig a little deeper, and you realise that Heidi Middleton's philanthropic impact is just as great as that of her fashion.

To celebrate International Women's Day, we speak exclusively to the formidable Heidi Middleton about what she's been up to since departing her fashion label, moving to Paris and her beautiful family.

Who was your first female inspiration?

"I would have to say my mum. I had the great fortune of having a naturally maternal mum who was very demonstrative with her love. We were always wrapped up in her arms and that constant and steady outpouring transferred into a deep self-love.

This is something I'm constantly grateful for as it's been a gift to carry that feeling through life - a wonderful and unfailing resource."

What advice did she give you that you have passed on to your daughters?

"She always reminded me that no matter how bad my day, there were people in harsher circumstances. We need to be reminded that although our sadness, frustration or disappointment may feel overwhelming, it's often not as 'end of the world' as we think.

She would remind us to treat others as we would like to be treated. We were taught early on the value of being compassionate to ourselves and others. She felt strongly that love has to start with yourself before it could be given outward."

Who else inspired you?

"I have one blood brother Matthew, who I love deeply, and my parents also fostered many children throughout my childhood - so I inherited some wonderful siblings that inspired me greatly.

The way they pushed through their adversity and chose to break the cycle of abuse that they received as children - what incredible feats of courage and strength.

I also loved and admired my Aunt Ginny. She moved to Paris on her own at age 18, fell in love with an Italian and had three beautiful children. She worked at the OECD as an economist and was extremely bright, independent and competent, but also very loving and fun.

She was strong and always positive, and I know this had an effect on me growing up. For all of these reasons, I was completely devastated when she passed away from rare cancer at age 38. I was 15 and away at a school camp and will never forget when I received the news of her passing."

Was there a light bulb moment when you realised gender equality was important in your life

"Because I was raised in a very gender equal environment I never even really understood the concept of gender inequality until I was into my late teens. My mum had always instilled in us that 'anything was possible' and we grew up believing that people, of all gender and race, were equal in every sense.

I had one very misogynistic boss when I worked at an advertising agency in the early nineties. His behaviour was abominable. We would arrive at work in the morning, and he would proceed to make insulting and lewd comments concerning our sex lives!

One particular day, I'd had enough and ended up in his office having a pretty heated argument. I ended up quitting on the spot. I remember feeling satisfied telling him what I thought of him and leaving that toxic environment. I'm sure this experience contributed to the desire to create such a positive and empowered, largely female, work culture at Sass & Bide years later."

As a young woman, what attracted you to your Sass & Bide partner Sarah-Jane Clarke?

"I first met Sarah-Jane when she was 18, and I was 21. Our boyfriends were best friends and our connection was instant. She was adventurous and had a light spirit, and we made each other laugh. She also had an amazing sense of style which stood out in suburban Brisbane!

We both held such strong conviction in our dream to build an international brand. We loved the idea of taking the unconventional road, breaking the rules along the way. Not for the sake of rebellion but because we believed in challenging some of the constraints of a formulaic approach to building a business."

Can you tell us about some of the philanthropic work you then went on to do throughout your time at the helm of Sass & Bide? How did you choose what you got involved in?

"SJ and I are most passionate about supporting women in need and the protection of children. Even before starting Sass & Bide, I was working with Barnados as a volunteer.

We also supported the Make a Wish Foundation and have raised over a million dollars towards this amazing organisation.

I am also an ambassador for Fashion Revolution and Bravehearts. [Bravehearts founder] Hetty Johnson is one of life's true heroes and definitely someone who has inspired me greatly throughout my life.

How did you manage to create such an empowering work environment for women at Sass & Bide? 

"The culture we created at Sass & Bide is probably the legacy that I am most proud of as I believe it was unique. We had a zero tolerance approach to politics and bullying and encouraged a positive energy throughout the team.

I still believe this is one of the stronger contributing factors to the brand's success. The goodwill and light energy was tangible and infectious and inspired us all to be the best we could be."

Today, as a mother of two beautiful daughters, how do you guide them? What do you hope for them?

"I try to guide our girls with love and truth at the forefront of everything and to lead by example as much as I can. I do my best to engage and be present and always to show them love.

I think listening to our children is so important too as we often forget to hear and feel their needs. I'm reading a great book by Naomi Alford at the moment called Raising our Children, Raising Ourselves and I highly recommend it to all parents. 

What has being a woman in business taught you?

"Anything boys can do, girls can do better!"

What does the future hold for Ms Middleton?

"I'm very excited to start several new creative projects - the first being a 250-year-old stone home in France that requires a big hug and quite a bit of work. The renovations are almost complete.  I am also in the process of setting up a new creative project where I will design and sell fashion and art via an online site and I plan to make the product locally in France and ship worldwide.

I am also in discussion with an Australian based publisher about creating a book based on my creative life in France."

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