A partnership between one of Australia’s best know lawyers and an American menswear behemoth might not be the norm on face value, but that’s exactly what Van Heusen are going for with their continued program The Mentors. In lieu of square-jawed fashion models and celebrities flaunting perfectly tailored suits, The Mentors puts some of Australia’s most inspirational and successful men together on the same platform, with shared stories and real-world advice for a marketplace hungry for more than just inspired looks, but also palpable pointers for genuine success.
Deng Adut, for those of you unfamiliar, is one of Australia’s great success stories. Originally from Sudan, Deng was taken from his mother when he was just six, marched to Ethiopia and forced into slavery as a child soldier, being subjected to the harshest brutalities and being stripped of his youth by a cruel regime of rebels. When he was just twelve years old, he was shot in the back, and discovered by his older brother, who hid him beneath sacks of corn on a truck and smuggled him out, where he found respite in a UN refugee camp.
As a teenager, he made his way to Australia’s shores as a refugee, and taught himself English by reading the bible and the Quran over and over again. When he finished school, his brother arranged for him to be able to attend university, where he studied accounting and, eventually, law, whilst living out of his car. Having quietly overcome so much by this stage, it wasn’t until his story was shared in an ad for Western Sydney University that people started to pay attention to this incredible feat – and word quickly spread. The ad went viral, and all of a sudden Deng’s story was no longer a quietly held personal achievement.
“Every time I wake up every morning, I realise that I’m quite lucky and I realise that I cannot reverse the future, the past – whatever. I cannot reverse that. I realise even if I talk about it and complain about it, it’s never going to change, so behind me there’s a bush fire, meaning everything behind me is ugly, burning, but in front of me there’s a future. That future excites me in another way, even though sometimes I can fall into [a] negative mood. For me, it’s a lot about taking on responsibility”, Deng tells me.
We’re sitting in a cavernous empty restaurant on Castlereagh St, his deep voice and thick accent interrupted only by the occasional ‘ting’ of cutlery as the staff set up for dinner service. Casually slumped in a chair, it’s the style of the 33 year old Adut that is, at first, notably unique. Designer-ripped jeans, a black paisley blazer and scarf with a fedora, garnished with a feather – this is the look of somebody heading to Pitti for a week, not your typical criminal lawyer and human rights activist. I get a few minutes to interview him before he gets whisked off to the dressing room to be decked-out in Van Heusen for the evening, where he’s to be joined by a panel of other mentors from the program.
“My idea about style, my idea about a dress code is simple. When you want to wake up in the morning and you want to get up out of [the] dark, your house, you want to go to work or wherever you want to go, if you want to feel good and you want to perform extra well in your life, you need to have a confidence in you. You need to wear a good suit. It’s a renewal. You just went to bed. You went to sleep. Now you wake up, you’re a new person. Did you know that you were going to wake up? No, you didn’t know that for sure. That is basically something that will make me happy all throughout the day, throughout every day.
“When I get home and then I change and then a new cycle begins.”
When Deng arrived in Australia at the age of 14, he had nothing. He was taken in by a family in Sydney’s western suburbs, but his lack of English meant that initially he felt isolated. He worked literally hundreds of different jobs, and eventually found himself working the night shift at a petrol station while he
“Everything’s from Australia. Even my style came from Australia. One of my good mates, Lamin Colley, he used to work as a manager. When I first came in, I came in 1998, met him in ’99. Then basically he had money. He used to take me shopping and then he’d get me something. I started to think about how my style could actually change. So I think the way I dress is simply this: When I walked from my mum’s house to Ethiopia, I was naked. I spent maybe three, four years naked. Maybe wearing one pair of shorts. That eventually became body armour, when I used to get caned. I used to put the cardboard in the back of the pockets, just to make sure when you get caned it doesn’t shatter your bum.
“Yeah, so yeah. That is one. I walked through Ethiopia barefoot. Didn’t have shoes. So when I came to Australia, I got opportunity to go to a store. I got money. My idea is to compensate myself, to compensate other people, for everything that I have lost, back through the years.”
Perhaps it’s the walking barefoot that makes Deng insist on telling me that good socks are the absolute key to a good outfit every morning, a point he makes repeatedly throughout the style-focused part of our interview, and always in good humour.
It’s this good humour that is so infectious – Deng has mastered the Australian art of using humour as a tool of disarmament, and could talk for hours about just about any topic (though by this stage he’s getting whisked away to a dressing room to be fitted in his Van Heusen suit for the evening, where he’ll be joined on stage by paralympian Kurt Fearnley, swimmer James Magnussen and cricketer Mitchell Starc).
As sage wisdom is dished out from the four mentors, the purpose of Van Heusen’s innovative initiative is cleverly fulfilled: this isn’t an ad campaign, it’s a pro-active way for men to connect with other guys who’ve found success, perhaps through not-so traditional methods, but all through hard work and by overcoming obstacles along the way.