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Hottest ticket in town Karon Photography
FASHIONS ON THE FIELD NEWS

Hottest ticket in town

From glamorous lunches to stylish soirées, the Melbourne Cup Carnival offers opportunities to revel in both racing action and fashion. In a fusion of sport and style like no other, it has always been synonymous with celebration, with some reaching iconic status, such as the VRC Oaks Club Luncheon.

Andrew Lemon 18 August 2023

The famous VRC Oaks Club Luncheon, traditionally held on the day between Lexus Melbourne Cup Day Tuesday and Kennedy Oaks Day, has a reputation of being the hottest ticket in town during spring carnival time. It all began in 1991 with 100 guests invited to a marquee in the gardens of historic Como House in South Yarra.

The following year, it moved to a venue in Albert Park; in 1993 it was held at the Melbourne Hilton; and the next three years at the Santè brasserie at Crown’s temporary casino, when Crown first became a major VRC sponsor. The event moved in 1997 to a breathtaking setting in the new Crown Palladium with room for more than 1000 women. Still it grew, and tickets were in hot demand. With good reason. Apart from its lavish promotions, giveaways and prizes, the VRC Oaks Club Luncheon in its three-decade history has featured superstar speakers and performers from the worlds of fashion and millinery, racing, media, stage and screen. Let’s drop a few names: Zandra Rhodes, Stevie Nicks, Sarah Jessica Parker, Olivia Newton John, Gai Waterhouse, Sigrid Thornton, Linda Jones, Perri Cutten, and international milliners Frederick Fox, Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy. Chris Isaak sang ‘Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing’ and women of all ages were dancing in the aisles.

There is a grain of truth, but one grain only, that the VRC Oaks Club Lunch was conceived of as a feminine riposte to what had begun as a men-only Derby Eve Lunch held in Melbourne since the 1960s by the Carbine Club. The real imperative for the Oaks Club Lunch was to create an unmissable event, as focus shifted from the Cup to the fillies’ classic.

Here was an added incentive for interstate and international visitors to stay on, to enjoy Melbourne Cup Week to the full. Throughout the 1980s, a decade of modern promotion of Melbourne’s Spring Racing Carnival and more particularly the Melbourne Cup Carnival itself, laid the foundations for the VRC Oaks Club Luncheon.

Sue Lloyd-Williams AO, later Deputy CEO of the VRC, was General Manager Marketing during those years and was instrumental in so many initiatives to place women at the forefront of Cup Carnival promotions and engage visitors for the entire week.

The Oaks Club Luncheon has always been the perfect mix of fashion, racing, entertainment and celebrities. Pictured here is TV personality Kerri-Anne Kennerley and the inaugural winner of Fashions on the Field in 1962, Margaret Wood. (VRC Collection)

A decade later she outlined the story when addressing the 1999 Australian Harness Racing World Conference on the topic ‘Growing the Female Factor in Racing’. Yes, there had been the first Fashions on the Field competitions at Flemington back in the 1960s, not without backlash from sports media at the time. Sue always bristled at the much-reported line from Melbourne Herald racing editor Jack Elliott, “Let’s make the Cup a day for nags, not rags.”

Sue’s inspiration came from the policies of a century earlier. “The VRC’s first Secretary, Robert Bagot and his successor Henry Byron Moore found ways to adorn Flemington’s famous lawns to give racing a softer image, capturing a basic truth that ‘where the women go, the men will follow’. These words became a personal motto for me, and help explain the success of the modern Melbourne Cup Carnival. In particular Oaks Day, as Ladies’ Day, saw crowds more than treble from 1978 to peak at 110,000 in 2004.”

Under Sue’s leadership, her team in the early 1990s transformed the VRC Oaks Club Luncheon to align with VRC sponsors so that everyone shared the benefits. Simon Ondaatje was a very young Marketing Executive at the VRC at the time, later moving to Crown. Reminiscing about the origins of the Luncheon, he recalled that the label of ‘VRC Oaks Club Luncheon’ came from him, with the ambition of aligning it with support from sponsors. From there, it was built on hard work and a sense of fun.

“Everybody in the VRC Marketing Department pitched in – there was a strong team ethos. Sue was able to procure the main speaker and we had a wide range of giveaways to ensure that every lady left the event with a bag full of goodies. Success has many parents. We brought it to life with help from colleagues Brendan Ford, Deslee Kennedy, Sue Fennell and Sue Lloyd Williams, and a whole raft of sponsors who backed us.”

Sue sums it up.

“For 30 years the potent ingredients of fashion, racing, VIP entertainers and celebrities have proven a winning combination. It’s no wonder that the VRC Oaks Club Luncheon has become a blockbuster event and the hottest ticket in town.”

To be part of an afternoon of glamour and excitement at one of the most exclusive and time-honoured traditions on the Melbourne Cup Carnival social calendar visit vrc.com.au.