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Australian Fashion Week

Australian Fashion Week opened on the 31st of May on Gadigal land with a Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony by Muruwari Elder and scholar Matthew Doyle—the first in its 25-year history. Another highlight was the event’s first all-Indigenous runway, curated and showcased by First Nation Fashion and Designers’ (FNFD) founder and Meriam Mer woman, Grace Lillian Lee.

“It’s a very momentous occasion for us as First Nations people to be really hitting the ground and showcasing how beautiful and rich our country is; not only through our textiles but also through our beautiful models” said Ms Lee, speaking to ABC News.

Models strutted through a hall of kaleidoscopic colours and lights, while the beats of Adelaide duo Electric Fields pumped overhead. Models and dancers alike held out their hands to allow a trickle of sand to fall through their fingers as an homage to a pivotal moment in Indigenous land rights, when in 1975 Gough Whitlam poured sand into the hand of Gurindji leader and activist Vincent Lingiari. It was more than a fashion show—it was a production and a statement which set the tone for the rest of the week, and a welcome return to the creativity and imagination which had been absent from so many past fashion week shows.

Historically, fashion week has been plagued with stagnant attitudes and accusations of cultural appropriation.

Istanbul-based fashion label Les Benjamins launched a luxury sportswear collection at Paris Fashion Week in 2017, titled “1788”. The designs featured dot paintings, native animals and the number ‘1788’, marking the year European settlers colonised Australia. This same year, international fashion powerhouse Chanel (founded by outspoken Nazi sympathiser Coco Chanel) launched a $2000 boomerang, which featured its iconic branding and was quickly snatched up by influencers. Furthermore, the industry has come under increased scrutiny for wreaking havoc on the environment, using massive amounts of gas, electricity, and water to sustain rapid production rates.  Australian consumers send 85% of the textiles we purchase every year to landfill, with fabrics like polyester, nylon, and acrylic potentially taking thousands of years to biodegrade.

NAIDOC Week 2021

This year’s NAIDOC theme is ‘Heal Country’, an expression of commitment to protect land, water, air, and sacred sites from exploitation and degradation. More than a statement, it is a call to arms to pay attention and make a stand to protect both our environment and Indigenous cultural heritage for future generations. It is precisely this action that 2021’s fashion week is inspiring us to take: to not only shop with the natural environment in mind, but through a lens of appreciation for authentic Indigenous designs.

Designers to look out for

Cairns-based label Sown in Time specialises in hand-printed textiles, designed by artist and descendant of the Dharrba Warra Clan, Lynelle Flinders. Her designs shone on the runway at the FNFD showcase, with stark reds and complex patterns draped across the models’ shoulders. The earth toned garments of Ngali (designed by Denni Francisco) were emblazoned with organic forms and shapes, their patterns resembling an aerial view of Australia printed gracefully on silk. Emerging powerhouse MAARA Collective proved that sophisticated and elegant fashion can be consciously designed and produced, with an ongoing commitment to the Buy1Give1 program that makes their exquisite garments all the more welcome in any fashion-lover’s wardrobe.

Image credit: Fashion Journal

Other Indigenous brands which showed their collections at AFW this year included luxury resort wear brand Kirrikin; striking swimwear brand Liandra Swim; and eco-friendly Native Swimwear Australia—the first Aboriginal fashion brand in history to showcase at New York Fashion Week in 2015.

Outside fashion week, Indigenous brands like Ginny’s Girl Gang and Clothing The Gaps have made waves in the Australian fashion industry for their unique and accessible designs—even including indicators for which pieces are exclusively for those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, or for anyone who wishes to show allyship and support.

Beyond fashion week

The opening ceremony and FNFD showcase did more than highlight the wealth of Indigenous talent that exists in Australia’s fashion industry. It proved that high-quality, sophisticated fashion can be ethical and sustainable; that Indigenous stories and culture belongs in the realm of haute-couture. What matters now is that this momentum is continued—by consumers, as well as the industry.

Model and First Nations Fashion and Design mentor Nathan McGuire addressed the need for consistency in one of several panels during the event. In his column for GQ Australia, McGuire emphasised the need for industry reconciliation plans, praising the inclusion of the traditional Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony as a first step in the right direction.

Consumers also have the power to celebrate Indigenous designers, namely by supporting businesses through ethical and conscious decision making. Instagram accounts like @ausindigenousfashion and @blakbusiness are an excellent resources to find Indigenous designers and brands like the ones mentioned above, as well as tools for educating consumers on supporting Indigenous designers and making conscious shopping choices. Following the swell in global support for Black Lives Matter, buying from Indigenous designers and brands (and calling for their designs to be supported by the industry) is just one of the ways to demonstrate allyship.

Going forward

This hear’s NAIDOC Week calls us to Heal Country, in a sense both physical and cultural. As Australian fashion begins to adapt and change in alignment with demands for more eco-conscious choices, it is imperative that attitudes towards Indigenous fashion must also change. Indigenous fashion is connected to thousands of years of heritage and culture; it is also at the forefront of Australian design. Australian Fashion Week may be over for 2021, but the event’s (and the industry’s) commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander designers must continue.