Model Magnolia Maymuru wears Grace Rosendale's 'Seed Pods' dress, 2019. As featured in the 'Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion' exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery.

SYDNEY — COVID-19 might have scotched plans for the first Australian Indigenous fashion showcase at this year’s canceled Australian Fashion Week, but another multibrand First Nations fashion show just went ahead as planned in Cairns, Far North Queensland.

Staged at Cairns’ Bulmba-ja Arts Centre on Friday and Saturday evenings, the “Walking in Two Worlds” show featured five sample collections developed by the First Nations Fashion + Design incubator since the not-for-profit industry body’s launch in August 2019 at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair.

Showcasing the work of emerging designers Lynelle Flinders, Elverina Johnson, Emily Doolah, Nickeema Williams and the Waringarri Aboriginal Arts center, the event also featured an all new faces cast of Indigenous models who had been scouted and mentored over 10 days on Country at Yarrabah, FNQ, by Indigenous model Charlee Fraser, who has walked for Prada, Balenciaga, Chanel, Alexander Wang and Celine, among others.

A look from the Walking in Two Worlds show at Cairns’ Bulmba-ja Arts Centre, December 11, 2020.  Colyn Huber

“The shows are fantastic, [but] really the foundations of the work are about ensuring that there are educational pathways and platforms for people to learn more about how to get into the industry in a sustainable way. This is not a moment, it’s a movement and we want this to continue on,” said FNFD founder Grace Lillian Lee, an Indigenous artist and entrepreneur, who has overseen a number of Indigenous runway shows around Australia in recent years.

Two looks from the ‘Walking in Two Worlds’ Indigenous showcase at Cairns’ Bulmba-ja Arts Centre, December 11, 2020.  Colyn Huber

Walking in Two Worlds capped off something of a breakout year for the Indigenous fashion sector.

In March, Lee unveiled the formation of the First Nations Fashion Council, which is led by the all-Indigenous board of Lee, Aarli designer Teagan Cowlishaw and communications professionals Yatu Widders Hunt and Jirra Lulla Harvey.

August saw the launch of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation’s inaugural National Indigenous Fashion Awards. The following month, DAAF unveiled its own Indigenous fashion incubator program with the David Jones department store.

Then in October, Victoria’s Bendigo Art Gallery revealed the first major survey of contemporary Indigenous Australian fashion — “Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion,” which runs until Jan. 17.

Model Shantel Miskin in Grace Lillian Lee’s woven “Body Armour — A Wave of Reflection, Pink and Orange,” 2018, part of the Bendigo Art Gallery’s “Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion” exhibition.  Wade Lewis

This year’s Australian Fashion Laureate Awards, moreover, featured their first Indigenous nominee: Maara Collective.

While most initiatives had been in the pipeline for some time, not to be underestimated has been the impact of Black Lives Matter, according to Lee.

The U.S. protests, which placed renewed scrutiny on Australia’s longstanding Indigenous deaths in custody problem, also helped supercharge interest in the Indigenous fashion sector, she said, culminating in significant additional media interest and a greater dialogue with the mainstream fashion industry.

Australian Fashion Week organizer IMG confirmed the company has been in discussions with Lee about how to further spotlight First Nations fashion talent in 2021.

“Definitely there’s more media interest,” said Lee. “I think everyone’s wanting to interact and understand more about our Australian Indigenous people and fashion is a very tangible and accessible way to do that.”

“I think that it [the interest] has been a long time coming,” she added. “I think that BLM maybe fast-tracked everyone’s awareness for people to be more accountable and understanding that there is a space for us. We’re definitely being invited to the table more now, which is fantastic.”

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