Indigenous fashion (finally) steps into the limelight

She has been advocating for Indigenous fashion designers since 2013, when she co-founded the Fashion Performance event at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF). That annual showcase, and another similar event at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, are fast becoming must-sees for those interested in First Nations design.

Simone Arnol’s voluminous men’s trousers feature colourways and prints that reflect her cultural heritage. 

“Last year, for example, we had 15 collections, but within that, we had something like 60 artists and designers involved, and they’re all Indigenous, passing on their stories,” says the co-curator of this year’s Cairns event, Simone Arnol.

Descending from the Gunggandji people through her father and inheriting Sicilian heritage from her mother, Arnol has been showing her own work at the Cairns fair for the past five years and co-curating the fashion event for the past three. Her voluminous men’s trousers and smart-casual womenswear feature colourways and prints that reflect her cultural heritage.

“Fashion has given me the opportunity to connect back to country,” she says. “My partner’s mother, who has now passed away, taught me how to identify plants on country that can be used to create dye.”

Arnol now shares that knowledge with the models who showcase her garments. “Before the models wear the clothes, I take them out on country and teach them about the dyeing process,” she says, adding: “I’m rich because I’ve had the opportunity to pass that culture on.”

This year’s Cairns event will be broadcast online on August 21, as part of a special socially distanced CIAF.

At the 2019 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair “we had 15 collections, but within that, we had something like 60 artists and designers involved, and they’re all Indigenous, passing on their stories”, says co-curator Simone Arnol. 

Another designer who focuses on pattern and colour is Melbourne-based Lyn-Al Young, whose painted silk wraps caught the eye of former David Jones CEO David Thomas in 2018. “We met at a launch party for the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival and straight after he invited me to come and meet the David Jones team,” Young recalls.

At that meeting, Thomas offered Young a role as David Jones’ inaugural emerging designer – a gig that has led to coverage in Australian Vogue and even an audience with Anna Wintour in 2019. “David Jones opened doors and connected me with the industry,” Young says. “It’s been a really beautiful relationship.”

Young, whose mobs are Gunnai, Waradjuri, Gunditjmara and Yorta Yorta, believes the time is right for Indigenous designers to step forward. “There are more pathways now than ever,” she says. “For the most part, I’ve had a positive and welcoming response, although I do think there could be more opportunities created to help mob get into the industry.”

Indigenous singer-songwriter Thelma Plum wears a dress by Lyn-Al Young, whose role as David Jones’ inaugural emerging designer led to coverage in Australian Vogue.  

Shaw, of Maara Collective, is hopeful but hesitant about the future. “I really hope that what we’re seeing now is not just a ‘trend’ but that the industry is genuinely moving towards a more inclusive future with more diverse representation on the runways and within fashion publications and media,” she says. “It can’t be just about casting an Indigenous model in a one-off campaign.”

One such model, Nathan McGuire, says he is booking more work now than ever before. “We are moving towards better representation within the fashion industry, which is exciting,” he says. “There are many more Indigenous models being signed to agencies and fronting major campaigns for brands in our industry.”

Part of the collection from Denni Francisco’s Ngali label. 

Heartened by growing visibility of First Nations people in Australian fashion, McGuire himself is moving into design, prepping the launch of an Australian Fashion Council-supported menswear label, Ochre By Nathan, for late 2020. “Our stories and artwork translate so beautifully with fashion and make Indigenous culture more accessible,” he says. “It helps non-Indigenous people experience our culture in a way all people can understand and take in.”

Denni Francisco, a descendant of the Wiradjuri people and the designer behind the National Indigenous Fashion Awards-nominated label Ngali, agrees. “It’s a really good way to enter into that space and learn more about us, and a great opportunity to celebrate what First Nations people bring to the table,” she says.

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