Interviewed by Sasha Sarago Photography by John Pryke
Recently launching her new website and SS17 ST KWEEN collection – a fashion collaboration with Haus of Dizzy and OCC Apparel, there is no doubt Teagan Cowlishaw came into 2017 guns blazing.
Teagan’s fashion brand AARLI aims to pioneer sustainable and ethical fashion, and is in line with her drive to empower her community. We spoke with her about the importance of providing opportunities for her mob, while still maintaining her vision. We wanted to find out about her design processes and get to know the woman behind the brand
When I was four or five years old, Mum was dragging me out to do modelling and deportment, and to be involved in a lot of fashion events, until I was about sixteen years old. I didn’t realise how much she was teaching me and helping me grow to become the woman I am today, who just loves fashion. Now it’s my life.
I was surrounded by so many deadly designers, like Ron Gididjup, Aunty Francine Kickett and Aunty Lenore Dembski … this mob was the inspiration for me back in the eighties and nineties.
My second mother, Mrs Eva Wanganeen, I love that woman – she’s amazing. In the eighties and nineties, Australian and international designers would purchase textiles and artworks from these communities and create collections, which would appear on major catwalks. But there would be no compensation, no commission, or even recognition for the artists.
I don’t think the designers at the time understood they were using personal Dreamtime stories from specific communities, which have been passed down from generation to generation and are quite special to these families. I want to touch on that aspect, that we need to recognise this. We barely have thirty active sustainable brands in our Australian Indigenous fashion industry.
Yes and no. Our generation, twenty-five to thirty-five year olds, understand that. It’s our duty to understand what our parents, our Aunties and Uncles had to go through for us to have the opportunities they never had. It’s about educating the current and younger generations, and also the wider community.
When I talk about the numbers on my clothing people laugh. For example, the ‘67 Referendum, people see it as a joke. But it was only forty-nine years ago that my Aunties and Uncles were classified as flora and fauna. People don’t seem to realise that. I feel like it’s my duty to create awareness through commercial means. Numbers have power, and I feel like the right people will get it. But why doesn’t Australia know about Australian history?
I’ve created this collection as inclusive, and show it more as sportswear. I’m not going to throw it in your face or point the finger at you, but here’s a fact. Let’s show our journey, but also what we’re doing is revolutionary – we need to be the next generation leaders.
Since day one, especially because climate change is affecting my community and our land. To really consider future generations, we need to see this as the norm and not the niche.
If you talk about the sustainability aspect it can kill the romance and excitement that fashion brings. Everyone wants the fantasy, to look good and feel fabulous. I wanted to create a commercial product that has quite a powerful story.
People don’t really get the sustainability aspect. They say it’s just a trend. But streetwear labels such as Nike – they’ve just brought out shoes made from ground up old shoes. Other streetwear labels are creating products using yarn made from ocean plastic. I think it’s the future. How do you make the term ‘sustainable’ sexy?
It comes down to being such a recycler – how can I save landfill? That’s one of the major issues with the textile industry. We’re the second largest polluters after the oil industry. I’m using leftovers or materials that are innovative, made from recycled plastic bottles or that are organic.
But there’s an issue with upcycling: there’s only so much I can make because I’m using leftovers and remnants. I try to supplement with organic fabrics, which are dyed correctly and produced fairly, so I have enough to produce wholesale for a wider market.
I’ve been having a lot of issues with trying to manufacture in Australia. For the last three years, we’ve decided to step back from ECA (Ethical Clothing Australia) accreditation because we haven’t had enough products. We specialise in small quantities, so most Australian manufacturers don’t want to work with us.
I want to create programs that will upskill my community – create sustainable business models and industry workshops so my mob can make money without leaving their community. I’ve noticed that the younger generation aren’t as interested in learning traditional techniques.
I contacted my cousin, who works for a training organisation. He told me they were starting up art centres, with Elders who were willing to teach traditional dyeing techniques. The issue was lack of funding for fabric and textiles, and that no-one was turning up because they weren’t motivated.
I wanted to create an impact in my community, so I thought partnerships would be a great thing. I approached OCC Apparel in Sydney because they are ECA accredited, and had a screen printer and did manufacturing. They had a lot of offcuts and deadstock they couldn’t use, and said we could have them as a donation. That solved the issue of funding, and to solve the issue of lack of motivation I thought of creative industry workshops, targeting both emerging and established designers, linking up the Elders who had the knowledge.
The projects are in development at the moment, and I know all these things are the seeds I need to plant that will make things happen.
Those stressful times are motivation for me. I feel obligated to honour our ancestors, our Elders, and my family – they will always be my drive. I’m doing something, but it’s not enough. I see the struggle. Let’s be the people who create change.
I need a community to make a collection. It’s not a short process! It takes a community to build a family, the same as it does to build a business – coming together as creators.
With upcycling I could never create a wholesale product, only a quantity of about twenty. I thought we needed to do collaborations every year, to link up with and support Indigenous small businesses – power to my sisters. I love that Kristy Dickinson (Haus of Dizzy) taps into zero waste in her collections, and they are handmade in Australia.
Deadstock from OCC Apparel can be used to make baby clothes, for example. Mangrove root creates intense purple dye using a traditional technique – it’s so deadly. What we have is so incredible that the international market will want it. Unfortunately, in Australia we don’t quite appreciate what we have in terms of our Dreamtime stories and our culture.
It’s huge overseas. My pitch to ACCELERATE was the fact that in the UK, London are the pioneers of sustainability and upcycling, in particular denim. Here, I stand out in the crowd because barely anyone is upcycling, even though it’s the norm internationally.
It might not be impacting us now, but it will soon; fast fashion is killing the world. We have to band together to achieve this ultimate goal.
We’re resilient and determined. Our ancestors would be looking down, saying, “Nah uh, you get up, you do this now, come on.” You can never run away from it, ever!
My mentor has been making me think about what my purpose is, why I’ve been put on this earth. Only I can answer that, those deep and personal questions. I know it’s not just about me, because otherwise I wouldn’t keep going.
I’m only at the start of the journey. I know I have such a long journey, but that’s what keeps me excited. I know I’m going to be doing something greater, even if it’s the legacy I leave for my family and my mob. That keeps me going.
The end goal, when I talk about these creative industry workshops and partnerships, all these networks, I want to create Australia’s first Indigenous creative industry incubator – no pressure or anything! I need help, I need information from an Indigenous and community perspective, and help with funding. Let’s do this, let’s create a revolution together.
Ms Grace Lillian Lee – that woman is incredible – talking to her, it’s not going to be a quick fix and won’t happen now, but all of us deadly girls connecting together will make a revolution for our mob.
Model: Shania Hunter @shanialee_model
Sasha Sarago is the editor of Ascension Magazine. She is a proud Aboriginal woman of the Wadjanbarra Yidinji and Jirrbal clans ‘Rainforest People’ of Cairns, Far North Queensland. She is also of African-American, Malay, Mauritian and Spanish descent. Sasha’s dream is to savour the breathtaking views of Positano; Moscato in hand as the founder of a globally inspiring lifestyle and media company.