gLillian Lee breed is used to standing ovations; Australian Fashion Week is not. On Wednesday, June 2, the designer and creative director of First Nations Fashion and Design, along with her CEO and designer colleague Teagan Cowlishaw, made history with the first show featuring only First Nations talent: on the podium, making clothes and behind the scenes.
First Nations Fashion and Design is an Indigenous non-profit corporation dedicated to supporting the growth of the Indigenous fashion industry, with self-determination at the heart of its mission. Lee, who has ties to the Torres Strait that she explores through her work, and Cowlishaw, who is related to the Nyikina people and fatherly ties to the Bardi and Nyul Nyul peoples, founded the organization. in 2020. They have been running the FNFD on a voluntary, almost full-time basis since, and both say the project has been in the works for years.
Lee has over a decade of experience curating fashion shows, at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair and in communities across the country. During these events, an egalitarian party atmosphere is essential. “It’s Grace’s signature,” Cowlishaw says. “Grace isn’t known for a top-down track. You come for an experience, you come for a performance… what she creates on stage is magical.
This magic, which included three live musical performances (three more than is typical of an Australian fashion show), two dancers, five artists, 21 models and seven designers moved several seasoned industry professionals at the both to tears and to feet at the height of the show.
As Electric Fields performed a cover of From Little Things Big Things Grow, the models and dancers stood up, each with an outstretched hand, and let a handful of sand flow through their fingers. It was a tribute to the historic moment in 1975 when then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam poured sand into the hands of activist and Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari.
“This is the movement to return our lands to their rightful owners,” Lee said of the gesture. This too is atypical for a fashion show.
Before 2021, Indigenous representation at Australian Fashion Week was rare, beyond a handful of models. This year, at least 12 designers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin paraded in two group parades and a student showcase; the event also hosted a Welcome to Country to open the week, and several round tables.
Taryn Williams, founder of talent booking platform The Right Fit, says demand for First Nations modeling talent has also exploded. “During 2020 we saw a tenfold increase in jobs posted seeking First Nations people for printing, TVC [television commercials] and fashion, ”she says.
Williams attributes much of the increase to the black life movement. “I think it sparked a dialogue with brands and marketers that potentially hadn’t happened before,” she says. Williams says the ‘twofold’ combination of unprecedented internal conversations and a broader societal shift that has led audiences to hold brands to account through social media “makes me hope it’s not just about ‘a trend “.
This hope was also expressed at the First Nations Fashion and Design Show: the step and repetition (the backdrop against which show attendees pose for photographs) were stamped the words “This is not a moment. It is a movement ”.
On May 28, Mexico’s Ministry of Culture released a statement accusing fast fashion brands Zara and Anthropologie of cultural appropriation. At Australian Fashion Week, as the spotlight finally turned the spotlight on the early traditions of Australian design, the specter of appropriation was not far from the minds of designers.
“For a long time we’ve been associated with boomerangs at $ 4.99 – no more please,” says Amanda Healy of Kirrikin, who paraded as part of the Indigenous Fashion Projects show on June 3. Healy, a Wonnarua woman who lives in Western Australia, creates stylish resort wear with prints from contemporary Indigenous artists. “We’re top of the line, our artwork is amazing, it’s an ancient and beautiful culture that has such depth.”
Denni Fransisco from Ngali, who also showed as part of the IFP track, said: “We always guard ourselves as much as possible against this, because there is so much cultural appropriation taking place.”
“To be honest, this has happened to us once before,” Fransisco said. “All we can do … is have as much transparency as possible around authentic indigenous design and indigenous products,” she suggested, adding that a certification system, similar to the “Australian Made” labeling could help combat the problem. The responsibility also lies with buyers, she said, hoping “conscious consumers will have that respect.”
Indigenous Fashion Projects is a program of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation, with explicitly commercial objectives. This showed in their presentation: a simpler track experience where the emphasis was firmly on clothing. The storefront was developed in partnership with retailer David Jones, who paired six already established Indigenous designers with founders of Australian brands stocked at David Jones, to facilitate the growth of their businesses.
Natalie Cunningham, owner and director of Native Swimwear Australia, who showcased a colorful collection of swimwear, jewelry and athletic wear – all made with recycled marine plastics – has been running her business since 2006. Although she has already on display at New York Fashion Week, she compared the IFP program to “getting the keys” to grow into wholesale. “In 15 years, I have never had such an opportunity.
While she was quick to point out that not all of the designers included in the IFP were interested in wholesale, Brigid Veals, general manager of women’s clothing at David Jones, said after the show, “Absolutely if the creators are interested in wholesale and working with David Jones, there’s no reason we shouldn’t.
Speaking at a panel discussion on the growth of the First Nations fashion sector on Thursday, First Nations fashion and design model and mentor Nathan McGuire said that while the Australian fashion industry wanted to progress in its inclusion of First Nations talent, consistency was vital. He underlined the need for companies to develop reconciliation action plans and allow First Nations creatives “to have these moments of autonomy”.
In the same panel, Lee confessed that she had been skeptical of how the First Nations fashion and design show would be presented. “It was not easy, but for that to change people have to believe in us as creatives,” she said. “I really hope yesterday proved this point.”