Interview: Therese Moussa - Creative Stylist Extraordinaire

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When I lived Down Under, towards the end of my experience there, this place opened up on the fringe of the city. It was called “The Grounds” and, from memory, it began trading without fanfare or hype but word soon began to spread that this was a place worth checking out. You had to make the effort to go there, but it was worth it. It occupied an old industrial warehouse space and created somewhat of an urban oasis in the middle of a grungy side of town. It served exceptional coffee and a simple menu using fresh produce grown on site from the garden they had lovingly created out of planter boxes and crates. The place was lush and over spilling with greenery, despite its concrete surroundings. Best of all, it had a resident pig called “Kevin Bacon” - say no more. It became an institution and I have watched with admiration and awe as it has gone from strength to strength.

A large part of its success, and what it has become known for, is the way it has embraced theatrics with elaborate and awe-inspiring set design. The space, depending on the season or what’s going on in the creative arts, will constantly transform itself into living breathing worlds. Whether it is an enchanted forest setting, dripping in florals and moss, for valentines day - or a sparkling snowscape to celebrate the release of the Nutcracker: Four Realms movie - guests are transported to another place and another time the moment they step through the doors. This is entirely down to the savvy employment of Therese Moussa, Creative Developer and Stylist - who is responsible for creating huge displays and sets that would not look out of place on the set of a Hollywood blockbuster.

The styling part of the work I do was just taking off and evolving in the UK as Therese’s work was becoming more and more celebrated back in Sydney. People were understanding the importance of such a skill and recognising the commercial benefits of investing in such niche expertise. A talent and service that historically has been viewed as a “money hemorrhaging exercise of whimsy”, or a luxury that could be afforded by only a few companies because really “where is the return of investment?!” was finally being understood. In the hospitality and entertainment industry the ability to take people on a journey, to make them feel the butterflies of childlike wonder and escape from the realities of their world for the brief time they are with you - is what true service is about. It’s something that, if you get right, people will come back for time and time again.

In a world that can be so very dark and serious, it is a great gift to be able to help people forget for a while. Allow them to embrace the more colourful side of life and celebrate the power of imagination. Let them bask in a sea of creativity so they leave a little lighter than when they entered. When I set up my freelance business, my personal vision was to make everyone I worked with “feel like a rock star”. I wanted to do this through the way I treated them, the ideas I shared with them and the hand crafted experiences I created for them. Here’s a chick that is doing just that, and it was a pleasure to chat to her about how she weaves her unique spell of magic on eager and grateful Sydney-siders.

For the people who haven’t heard of the space (us Brits) can you explain what the Grounds is about and the idea behind the space?

The Grounds was inspired by our director Ramzey Choker’s vision to create an inner city community with animals and a luscious garden for families and friends to catch up over good food and coffee. The Grounds cafe and garden was born in 2012, but over the years we have added multiple silos to the business ie; more food offerings & venues, events spaces, an offsite coffee roastery, wholesale business and catering.

What is you specific role there and how did you secure this position?

My role at The Grounds is Head Stylist & Creative Developer. 

The relationship came about during the time I was freelancing as a stylist. I met Caroline Choker, Interior Designer for The Grounds, and worked with her on multiple projects before she introduced me to her brother, Ramzey Choker. My freelance role developed into a full position and I’ve now been with the company for six and a half years! Time flies when you’re having fun!

How did you get into the line of work you are in (I get asked this all the time, people just haven’t heard of styling as a profession)

I must say when I became a full-time stylist for The Grounds I myself thought it’s kinda odd for a venue to hire someone full-time, however they way we move is rapid! We are constantly changing displays, activations, events and all sorts of items in the background that need attending to eg. sourcing serveware for all the different venues, styling multiple photo shoots for our social media, sourcing furniture or pots for plants, researching and coming up with new ideas for installations etc. so it only made sense for me to become full-time in this role.  But for anyone starting out in a creative field, my number 1 advice is WORK FOR FREE AND LEARN! Interning was definitely something I did for a couple of years at multiple companies, It’s the best way to learn the ins-and-outs of a creative field. Oh and networking.. Networking is very powerful. You never know, who you need to know, until you need them!

Your installations and creations at the Grounds are completely transformative experiences  - how do you go about bringing these sorts of concepts to life? What is the creative process for you?

My process is extremely visual and mental. If i can imagine it all in my head then I know it’s going to work. If things seem a little blurry and odd, I know it’s not going to work. I absolutely LOVE researching. I research the hell out of each and every detail to try and get the most authentic effect so our customers really do feel as though they’re entering into another world. I create visual storyboards for each separate area at The Grounds and piece it all together to make sure the spaces flow well together.

Mary Poppins

How many people would be involved in a large scale project (like the Mary Poppins one for example)? What are their specific roles as part of the whole team? i.e. are you the ideas person and operational staff do the build etc or do you step in at every level?

I am VERY lucky to work with such beautiful, positive-minded people in our creative team. Nothing is possible by yourself, you always need a team to bring anything to life. There are roughly 7 people who help create and build the installs. I create the overarching idea of what we are going to do, then go into sourcing-mode. Then I'll brief-in our graphic designer and creative build team to jump on board to help with the signage, vector drawings and any graphic elements. Then the building and construction boys will come into full-effect which is led by Ramzey (who loves building!). I am literally there from the beginning to end of a project. I stay up late helping and guiding the construction guys even if it’s till 3am, we are all pretty exhausted in the end!

What is your favourite project or design you have worked on and why?

Going to have to say our first collaboration with Disney for Christmas 2018 was definitely a magical one! Working on Disney’s Nutcracker was really fun as we were given a budget by Disney to bring to life The Nutcracker through 3 of our laneways, so I decided to style each lane as the “realms” in the movie; The Land of Snowflakes, The Land of Flowers, and The Land of Sweets. Seeing it done and the amazement on customers faces was priceless. 

What does an average day in the life of you look like?

On a typical day, I’m:

- Researching (the most important thing)

- Creating mood boards

- Sourcing

- Styling photoshoots

- Working with Ramzey on new upcoming projects

- Checking all the venues through The Grounds to make sure they’re looking good!

As a creative person where do you get your inspiration from and what motivates you?

I find my inspiration in art, colour theory, colour palettes, interior/exterior design, set design, cartoons, fashion runways and quirky film makers such as Wes Anderson and Tim Burton. Their process of thinking fascinates me and I used elements of their techniques to assist me with my work.      
Nurseries! I love plant shopping. I’m also obsessed with textiles and look at fabric houses. After I studied, I worked for 3 years in a fabrics and wallpaper company, and I love bringing out that passion in my work every day. I’m obsessed with paint charts and Pantone charts. I often find a lot of inspiration in cartoons and animation, the people that work on these have some serious creative talent & imagination - this also serves the big kid in me who can’t go past a killer flick!

Nutcraker

What has been the biggest challenge you have come across working in the industry?

Deadlines and working with budgets are challenging at times but the most frustrating thing I find is that in Australia we have quite limited resources. Sometimes I wish we were in America or London or Paris so that we’d be able to get out hands on a more beautiful variety of items. This is why we have to customise so many things at The Grounds, we struggled to source beautiful, unique pieces off the shelf.

If someone wanted to pursue a similar career what advice would you give them?

I have had so many people ask me how to get where I am today. I actually spoke about it at The Grounds of the City a little while ago and did a little wrap up on my career advice and tips. If you’re interested, you can read about it here: https://thegrounds.com.au/ask-me-anything-therese-moussa/

 What are your top three tips for styling a table or space?

  1. ALWAYS style with a theme first, so start researching!

  2. Create different heights or depth or textures and layers, to make it interesting to look at.

  3. Add colour! Colour is power.

If you were not doing the job you are doing, what would you be?

An artist or a set designer. Hard to pick from those two!

Does your work life overlap into your private life – i.e. do you pay the same level of consideration into the feel of your home, your own meal times and the way you dress?

That is such a great question!nYes and Yes. My home is FULL OF PLANTS. I love to paint at home. I love to cook and put thought into food presentation (whenever I get the chance, which isn’t too often since I’m always working!). I keep my dress sense with pops of colour here and there, love a good floral and polka-dot number. 

Lastly, I’ve been doing a lot of work around mental health recently and making a celebration out of the simple things in life meal times with friends and family – what makes you the most happy / fulfilled and what are you most grateful for?

That my family is so supportive and loving. I don’t get to spend as much time with them as I’d like but  I am super grateful for the time that I do get to spend with them (whenever I can).

Therese