The first time I laid eyes on Valerie Yum was in the sweaty back room of an infamous, now sorely missed Sydney party called Gay Bash. If memory serves me correctly she was being photographed climbing across a black leather couch on all fours, throwing her long hair back over her head, wearing an American flag leotard and no pants. There is a photo of this somewhere on the internet, but in the interest of preserving our friendship I’ll leave it up to your imagination. Not much has changed since then, although both of us have sensible bobs and Val’s gone from occasional DJ sets at underground gay parties to being the first person you call when you’re putting on a fashion event in Sydney. Here’s how she did it:
What were you doing before you started DJing?
I was working at Shakuhachi. I was managing their retail and looking after all their marketing, their blog…
And you just fell into that, didn’t you?
I did! I always worked in retail growing up — my first retail job was at Escada, which is kind of weird! (Laughs) People usually work at (Australian chain store) General Pants or something first, but anyway… That was amazing training, that high level of learning about the fabrics and the techniques and all that, so it was really cool. So, I always kind of worked at places like Escada, (Australian luxury retailer) Belinda, Hugo Boss, and it was always really nice stuff, but I didn’t want to work in retail forever so I went into interior textiles. I did that for two years and I loved interiors but I felt a little bit bored, and always thought I could go into interiors later in life. So then someone recommended me to do some trend forecasting for Maurie and Eve on the side while I was working in interiors.
How does trend forecasting work?
Well, I’d basically be researching past trends, trends that are on the verge of coming back, and looking at back catalogs of fashion and also vintage, and my own personal inspirations. And then I’d compile trend reports and send a week — or a fortnight, I can’t remember!
That’s a lot!
Yeah, but I really enjoyed it so I thought, “I need to get into fashion again.” I put it out there through friends, and Shakuhachi’s designer, Jessie White, was interested because of the trend forecasting, and also the fact that I could do the marketing side of things — I was good with Facebook and Instagram and all that sort of thing. And then a month or two into the job they were like, “We’re going to go into retail and we want you to manage that as well.” That ended up being a really intense job and I did it for about two years, but during that time was when all these really big, important parties started happening, like Gay Bash, which I always looked forward to because I loved dressing up. And then Nick Sweeney, who is now living in New York but used to run Gay Bash, got in touch with me and a bunch of other people who always went to the parties and who he felt could maybe give something back. They asked me to do a guest DJ set, and I was like, “I have no idea!”
So how did you prepare for that very first gig?
I just got all the music that I loved — he said, “I’ve seen you posting music on your Facebook wall; I really like what you post,” so it was a mixture of pop and yacht rock and whatever, from INXS and Bryan Ferry to Rihanna. My friend used to play there a bit, so I had him stand by me and tell me where the play button was and how to fade it in and out… but that started my crossfading career! (Laughs)
Fade in, fade out…
Which went for a long time! I only started mixing — wanting to really learn how to mix — at the beginning of this year.
And was it hard to learn?
I’m still practicing. And I can tell you now, I’m so not a natural. People that have been educated in music, which I haven’t been — I naturally love it, but… even just friends of mine who know about the 16 bars and whatever, they’re like, “Val, even when you dance you should stick to the bars so you’re not dancing weirdly,” and I was like, “Really?” I had no idea! These are all things that don’t come naturally to me and that I’m not educated in, so even with mixing I’m practicing all the time but my progress is very slow. The skill of DJing never seemed that important to me because I just enjoyed playing music. Then I started playing in restaurants, and at first I was playing club music because I had no idea, but that gave me the biggest understanding of creating a vibe and a mood and how sensitive those environments can be — whether they’re brightly lit, or dark and dimly lit…
Whether it’s daytime or nighttime…
Exactly! I’ve been in Topshop before when there’s a DJ playing the wrong sort of music, and I’ve watched people literally lose the shopping vibe and walk out!
Now that you’ve learned to mix, what’s next?
I think I’d just like to continue refining my DJing, because I really enjoy it, but I always want to have another job so I’ll keep doing that too!
What’s your 9-to-5 job?
I’m a model agent in the men’s division at Priscilla’s.
Do you think looking after boys is harder or easier than looking after girls?
Initially I thought it was easier, but now at times I think it’s harder. Guys don’t automatically take the job as seriously as girls do; it’s more of an experience and some easy money for them. It’s definitely challenging, but at the same time I can get really inspired by watching people grow. Because you’re kind of there from, like…
You’re like their mum.
Yeah, you’re like their mum! You’re there from when they were 16 and now they’re 18 or 19 and they’ve grown as a human — a lot of them are really beautiful humans inside and out, and then some of them… well, that’s just life, right? (Laughs)
Do you want to get into producing music?
It’s something I’ve thought about, but at the moment it’s baby steps! If I hear something really great I think, “I’d like to make something like that.” I want to be able to create the same feeling that I get, and that’s what I love about music — how it can connect with you and create a feeling. And that’s pretty ultimate: to be able to create a feeling with a piece of music, or even when you’re DJing.
What about if you could do anything?
I would definitely like to get into sound design. It’s something I think that — even just having had some experience doing it for my friend Dion Lee’s label — would satisfy my need for creativity as well as there being that feeling of accomplishment.
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