“This is not a moment. This is a movement.”
The banner at the First Nations Fashion and Design show during Australian Fashion Week said it all.
After decades of underrepresentation, First Nations visibility in the fashion sector is on the rise and the designs are as varied as the motivations of their creators. There are now several great swim and resort-wear brands using their own original prints, while others showcase the work of indigenous artists and textiles artisans with an approach that sits more in the cultural space.
Ten thousand years and still trending, on the eve of NAIDOC week (July 4-11) here are five of the best First Nations designers who showed during Australian Fashion Week.
Kirrikin is an Aboriginal word that roughly translates as “Sunday’s best clothes”, and for founder Amanda Healy that Sunday is best spent poolside. Breezy kaftans, maxi-dresses and fluid jumpsuits were among the highlights of the collection that featured indigenous art works printed onto sustainable fabrics made from wood pulp and recycled plastic bottles. Founded by Healy in 2014 with a focus on silk and cashmere scarves and ties, the brand has since expanded into a fully-fledged resort label enjoying popularity in the US and Europe as well as Australia.
With garments in the collections of the NGV, the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Museum of Arts and Applied Sciences, Grace Lillian Lee creates wearable art and exquisite adornments. For AAFW she took a more commercial turn, showing pretty silk mini dresses with tiered necklines and sleeveless maxi dress slit at the sides, teamed with silk visors tied at the back of the head. In a vibrant palette of jade, cobalt, burnt orange and pink, the most arresting ensemble was a high neck bodysuit with an exaggerated concertina breast plate snaking around the neck and across the shoulders.
Natalie Cunningham, the owner and director of Native Swimwear Australia, showed a colourful collection of swim, jewellery and activewear – all made with recycled marine plastics.
In 2015 Native Swimwear became the first Aboriginal brand to show at New York Fashion Week, and Cunningham’s eye-catching designs featuring prints drawn from the work of indigenous artists made it easy to see why she was selected.
Based on Gubbi Gubbi country in the subtropical foothills of the Glasshouse Mountains, her bold and colourful swimwear reflects its origins on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, from where she has refined her poolside-glam aesthetic.
Few designers at Australian Fashion Week distilled the concept of resort wear better than Lillardia Briggs-Houston. Easy tan wrap dresses, billowy bottle green blouses with silky wide leg trousers and midriff-baring print tops with cotton miniskirts were among the pieces the Wiradjuri Yorta Yorta Gangulu designer showed as part of the First Nations Fashion and Design runway.
Each Ngarru Miimi garment was hand-dyed and hand-painted, featuring motifs passed down to Briggs-Houston over three generations on country. She now plans to establish a screen printing facility to employ and upskill the local community.
“The ethos of Ngali is that you can wear the clothes anywhere.”
So says Denni Francisco of her easy wrap dresses, flowing trousers and button-down shirts, all featuring prints translated from artwork by Lindsay Malay from the Warmun Art Centre in Ngali.
In a soft palette of dove greys, ochres, taupe and sky blue, several of the garments featured collars and shoulder straps embroidered by artisans in India. Accessorised with long print scarves that fluttered as models made their way down the runway, the silhouettes and shades of Francisco’s collection as part of the Indigenous Fashion Projects runway show were indeed as wearable as she promised.