Joining the Dots

Australian Indigenous Fashion Week

It is clothing that tells a story. Patterns drawn from the cloudless sky, the sunburnt land and the windswept sea. Colours inspired by Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef, droughts and flooding rains…

Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait fashion is a dynamic niche that has been making waves recently. Indigenous owned and managed events company, All The Perks, has organised Australian Indigenous Fashion Week (AIFW) set to be launched in April 2014. The two-day event will feature a diverse scope of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fashion, textiles, furniture and visual arts, celebrating the best in traditional, contemporary and collaborative design.

AIFW aims to improve the economic status of Indigenous individuals and communities nationwide by providing a new outlet for business with a specific focus on fair trade links. The event will connect artists and designers with buyers, industry VIPs, the media and the public. Upcoming and established designers are busy sharpening their business skills in the lead up to the much-anticipated event. If the lineup of creative talent on board is anything to go by, AIFW is set to put Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait fashion on the map.

Glitzy Gatherings

AIFW has been organised to create networking opportunities for people from all facets of Indigenous fashion and to support the industry. Over two dozen artists, designers and performers have come together to make the inaugural AIFW one to remember. The Industry Preview Runway Event will take place on Friday 11th April, and the invitation only affair will grant industry VIPs, PR agents and the media a look at the latest collections from established Indigenous designers. Attendees will also have the opportunity to check out the collections created by the artists and designers who have completed the AIFW Design Training and Mentoring Program. The collections will be on show immediately afterward at the General Public Runway Event, and a glamorous after party where people can mix and mingle will wrap up the first day of events.

Aboriginal supermodel Samantha Harris (who many people will recognise for her work with Australia’s oldest department store, David Jones) is going to be the AIFW ambassador. The iconic runway and catalogue star is the perfect fit to promote the ethical and economic aims of AIFW. Indeed, there is a lot more to AIFW than just the glitz and glamour of the runway. While there is no shortage of style and creativity from Indigenous artists and designers, a gap in business experience often prevents individuals from turning a hobby into a successful brand. The AIFW Design Training and Mentoring Program (AIFWDP) is a series of classes led by industry experts designed to enhance the fashion design, business and marketing skills of participants. Existing and emerging artists and designers from around the country have been selected to take part in workshops being held from May 2013 until March 2014.

There have been reports in Australia, America and England of prominent fashion brands ripping off Indigenous designs. AIFWDP participants will be educated in Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property rights (ICIP) frameworks to protect their work from exploitation. Participants will also have the opportunity to show approved pieces on the AIFW runway and the Design Trade Fair. The Design Trade Fair will be held until the second day of AIFW, displaying the work of the artists and designers who completed the Design Training and Mentoring Program. The creative work of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will also be exhibited. There will be a wide range of art, fashion, textiles, accessories and even furniture on show, with some items available for purchase.

Earthy Creations

The AIFWDP has brought together a diverse range of creative minds young and old. There are contemporary fashion designers like Caressa Sengstock and Lilla Gagliano on board, and award winning silk artist Eva Wanganeen. Eva Wanganeen is renowned for her colourful creations that are a part of many public and private collections. Another fascinating individual is entrepreneur Shelley Monkland, a Bundjalun and Gubi Gubi woman who has transformed her lifelong passion for textiles into a sustainable business with personality. Djarainj means ‘rainbow’ in the Bundjalun language. Using sustainable fabrics and artisan techniques, Shelley designs practical home furnishings and fashions, mixing vivid colours with natural textiles including bamboo, hemp, organic cotton, silk and wool. For Shelley, operating an environmentally friendly business in the remote town of Ti Tree in the Northern Territory is her way of looking after the land.

Connecting with the land and the Dreamtime or Dreaming is a major source of inspiration for many Aboriginal fashion designers like Caressa Sengstock, an AIFWDP participant who lives in Western Sydney. Caressa interprets Dreamtime stories into paintings that inspire her to create clothing for her self-titled label Caressa. Caressa is a women’s casual wear and party dress label that is trendy but has its roots in a timeless past. The first collection, Spirit Tree, tells the story of how souls transition from death to heaven by passing through the Spirit Tree. Caressa contrasts the sacred with the everyday, creating spiritually inspired pieces suited to today’s modern woman. Through her work, Caressa hopes that she can inspire others to connect with their own stories and feel a greater sense of connection and belonging to humanity.

From the other side of the country comes Kaninda, a women’s resort wear label from the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Lilla Gagliano, another standout designer from the AIFWDP, established Kaninda in 2004. A Banyjima woman of Aboriginal and Italian descent, Lilla named the label after her daughter Kaninda who was named after a Pilbara waterhole. Kaninda means ‘beautiful place’ in the local Marthudunia language and Lilla is inspired to create by the Pilbara landscape and her heritage. Like Caressa, Lilla merges Aboriginal art with on-trend styles. The debut Kaninda collection turned heads at Perth Fashion Week 2012, featuring flowing kaftans, printed maxi dresses and hand painted silks. This year, Kaninda has mixed prints inspired by Aboriginal dot paintings with one sleeved dresses and body hugging silhouettes.

Global Interest

Authentic Aboriginal and Torres Strait fashion and textiles have a unique appeal, a distinct rawness and vibrancy that capture the spirit of the land. In some cases, the dyes used to colour a design are extracted from grinding and boiling the bark, roots or leaves of certain plant species collected from the bush. Ochre may also be used to apply colour, although this is a much rarer practice nowadays. The fabric prints carry rich cultural symbolism and sometimes tell a Dreamtime story which has been passed down by word of mouth for generations. Pieces are often handmade by the designer, within his or her local community, and knowledge that would otherwise have been lost gets a new lease on life when skills like dyeing and weaving are shared with the youth. Buying authentic Aboriginal fashion and textiles, traditional or contemporary, helps preserve a living culture that continues to evolve.

While AIFW is already causing a buzz and generating media interest, it is ironic that foreign markets tend to show the most interest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait fashion. Australian Indigenous fashion may never be mainstream, but it is diversifying and crossing more borders than ever before.

The popularity of online shopping means that Indigenous designs now have a much broader customer base. E-commerce enables Indigenous artists and designers living in remote locations to enjoy a global reach; many Indigenous artists and designers maintain a business website and are keen bloggers. Even artists and artisans from older generations are posting on Facebook and tweeting to engage with customers; it is all about establishing a brand following and spotting emerging fashion trends.

Indeed, Australia has not witnessed such a resurgence of interest in Aboriginal fashion and textiles since the 80s when industry pioneers like Bronwyn Bancroft and Linda Jackson set the bar high. Although today’s Indigenous creatives are increasingly going online to sell and network, industry events like AIFW play a vital role. Melbourne’s Indigenous Fashion Unearthed event received a warm reception at this year’s L’Oreal Fashion Week, and AIFW 2014 is promising to be quite spectacular, a blink-and-you’ll-miss it event where designers can be inspired, be challenged and rub shoulders with the fashion pack.

Organisers have their fingers crossed that AIFW will develop into a week long event as the years go on; and who knows – maybe the future Bronwyn Bancroft and Linda Jackson is somewhere out there waiting to make their debut?

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December 16, 2018, 6:40 AM AEDT