Words by Yatu Widders Hunt Photography by Prue Aja Steedman & Stella
Walking into Sydney’s iconic Town Hall on 11 April 2014 felt a little surreal.
Models were having eyeliner meticulously applied amid hurried fittings and last minute touches. Nervous designers stood by their clothes racks, anticipating the biggest runway show of their careers. Journalists scurried through rooms, hoping to get that elusive quote or candid shot, capturing the essence of Australia’s first ever Indigenous Fashion Week (AIFW).
As the commotion continued backstage, the runway was calm by contrast. The sound of the didgeridoo echoed through the hall as the lights dimmed, signalling the significance of what was about to happen. Scattered with celebrities, the front rows were filled with fashion heavyweights there to see Indigenous designers hold their own, and, perhaps, get a glimpse into the future of Australian fashion. Buried in among a pack of jostling photographers, it dawned on me just how special AIFW was.
Indigenous design, often seen as a sidebar of the fashion industry or something that happens ‘in art centres out in the desert’, had a once in a generation opportunity to take centre stage. AIFW was bringing a wealth and depth of talent from all around Australia, into a format that demanded attention.
It is hard to describe exactly what ‘Indigenous fashion’ is, perhaps because the diversity of styles that graced the catwalk have never really been articulated in this manner before. There were vibrant colours on tight fitting togs, earthy tones on flowing maxi dresses and native flowers infused into eye-catching accessories. Glittering pieces that wouldn’t be out of place at a royal reception mixed with cool streetwear you could imagine in the gritty playgrounds of New York.
But despite the difference between designers, the thing that bound them all together was the way they gave a nod to ancient traditions – the wellspring of their inspiration. In some ways this was obvious, like goanna shaped embellishments on cocktail dresses; in other ways it was subtle, such as representing the scales of a barramundi, or the blades of grass in our bushland.
This uniqueness is something truly Australian, and what AIFW founder Krystal Perkins hopes will see Indigenous designers gain international attention. “This is just the beginning. The world’s fashion and textile industries should be tapping into Australian Indigenous products and artistry, as the stories and designs are so unique,” she said.
Supermodel Samantha Harris headlined the event, giving the week the gravitas it deserved. In her role as ambassador, she had frequently commented that Indigenous people were widely known for being ‘good at art’, and she was excited by the idea of how this could marry up with the world of fashion.
And it did. Beautifully.
What AIFW showed me, and what I hope it showed others, is that Indigenous culture is thriving, evolving and communicating in the most contemporary of ways. For me, as an Indigenous person who grew up in urban Sydney, it was refreshing to see something that resonated with my world.
Fashion is a way of expressing and respecting our culture in accessible, fun, relevant and positive ways. It keeps Indigenous culture alive and strong for all Australians, and it provides a way for us to truly ‘wear our stories’.
Byron Bay designer Mia Brennan describes her label Mimi Designs as ‘walking between these worlds’. Her modern, innovative label blends earthy fibres and textiles with a sophisticated and contemporary edge. With her roots firmly set in her ancestry, she draws from concepts of adaptation, connection and growth within the environment, and brings sustainability to the forefront of fashion. Known for her striking and unique designs, Mia says her dreams extend beyond Australia’s borders:
“For me, AIFW is an opportunity for Indigenous artists and other designers to put story onto print, into wearable contemporary pieces. I’d love it to skyrocket and take it to Europe and other places overseas, to show just how much diversity there is here and how we use our colours and fibres here in Australia. We have a really beautiful culture here and it’s great for people to be able to see it.” Mia Brennan, Mimi Designs
Bursting onto the Indigenous menswear scene is Cape York designer Shaun Edwards and his label Wild Barra, a luxury swimwear and lifestyle line. Shaun says he wants to promote male sensuality and beauty through his designs. Also dabbling in womenswear, the label is all about making people feel beautiful. Although the designs are modern, vibrant and cutting-edge contemporary in design, Shaun says what he is doing is simply continuing tradition:
“I have always showcased the vibrant energy of my homelands: its culture, its language and its heart. What people see in my art and design are reflections of me and my country. Nothing has changed. I’m just a Kokoberrin artist living in 2014.” Shaun Edwards, Wild Barra
Bringing style to the streets is upcycled label AARLI, which has just made history by becoming the first Indigenous label to be ethically accredited by Ethical Clothing Australia. Specialising in women’s upcycled fashion and accessories, the label was founded by Western Australia’s Teagan Cowlishaw, who creates cool as can be collections from vintage and second-hand garments that have been redesigned and embellished with recycled trims and vintage fabrics. A true entrepreneur, Teagan has partnered with Nobody Denim to create new designs using their dead stock denim. Teagan comments that the opportunity to be part of AIFW was invaluable for her label, and that she feels privileged to be among such amazing talent:
“What an experience and what an opportunity! I feel so blessed that I was chosen. I opened the Industry media preview showcase which featured only six labels and which the Editor of Vogue Australia attended. The diversity of talent we have is incredible – some Indigenous labels to watch out for include Grace Lillian Lee, Flannel Billy, Wild Barra and Eva Wanganeen.” Teagan Cowlishaw, AARLI
Coming in from Cairns was Grace Lillian Lee, who creates bespoke cultural designs – practising cultural craftsmanship into contemporary forms, to inspire and inform. Grace is probably best known for her work within Australian Indigenous communities to help translate art into fashion, creating stunning pieces including colourful woven necklaces. She has collaborated with communities on Darnley Island in the Torres Straits, and worked alongside communities in Darwin and Cairns, to create a platform for Australian Indigenous design to be seen in a contemporary way. As well as participating in the inaugural AIFW, Grace has also showcased in San Francisco, New Zealand and Melbourne.
“My collection is based on the Torres Strait Islands, drawing from my culture. It’s my interpretation of what I have been taught and the techniques that have been shared with me. It’s been a real personal journey of my own going deeper into my roots, learning more and giving me more inspiration for my clothing.” Grace Lillian Lee
Yatu Widders Hunt @yatuwhunt is a communications consultant and eco style writer from Sydney. She now regularly blogs for Peppermint Magazine, US based conscious culture website EcoSalon and is a monthly guest on the ABC Radio Show, Speaking Out. Yatu is of Indigenous, British and Irish heritage and is passionate about social justice, environmental issues and the South Sydney Rabbitohs.