Indigenous fashion is the future

Indigenous fashion is the future

Australian fashion is taking notice of the country’s oldest design traditions – and we’re only just scratching the surface

Creative director: Rhys Ripper
Photographer: Max Doyle
Models: Nathan McGuire, Billie-Jean Hamlet, Alinta Carberry
Location: Wiradjuri Country, New South Wales

Original Article via The Guardian Australia



In an industry obsessed with both heritage and novelty, embracing Australia’s oldest – and most overlooked – fashion traditions makes sense.

Despite considerable Covid-19 headwinds, Piinpi – a first-of-its-kind exhibition of contemporary First Nations fashion design – opened in Australia at Bendigo Regional Gallery on 12 November. In consultation with Bendigo Regional Gallery, Guardian Australia has produced the photoshoot that accompanies this story. It features several of the exhibited artists – alongside other Indigenous designers and artists.

This year has also brought the launch of the National Indigenous Fashion awards; more representation of Indigenous designers and artists in magazines and through collaborations with mainstream brands; and the establishment of First Nations Fashion and Design, an Indigenous-led fashion peak body.

But to call this coalescing of events a “moment” would be doing an injustice to those who have worked to make it happen.

Here Grace Lilian Lee, designer and co-founder of First Nations Fashion and Design, and Shonae Hobson, the curator of Piinpi, discuss the present and future of Indigenous fashion design.



Grace Lillian Lee: I’m so proud of you, Shonae, for curating the Piinpi exhibition. It’s so important for our people. I think the fact that this is the first one of its kind is a really special moment for people to take notice, not just in Australia, but globally.

I think Indigenous fashion is the future of Australian fashion. It’s time for First Nations people to reclaim it.

Shonae Hobson: There’s definitely a lot that non-Indigenous people and designers can learn from Indigenous people, especially in terms of sustainability.

One of the really important things about Indigenous fashion – and I look at designers like Lyn-Al, and Julie Shaw with Maara collective, who’s done a beautiful collaboration with the women at Bula’Bula Arts – is sharing culture and passing on knowledge and storytelling through clothing in a really beautiful and elegant way.

Lee: Being left out of the Australian fashion industry – not only the narrative, but the whole industry – has hampered the expression of what fashion looks like in Australia today.

It’s also left out Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people economically. If things were different 50 years ago, I think a few First Nations designers would be household names.

Hobson: Unlike western fashion, which focuses on the product, there’s more to it with First Nations design. It’s really about the process.



Lee: I think a lot about what Leecee Carmichael (a Ngugi/Quandamooka artist and designer) speaks about, which is that weaving is the act of putting two fibres together and rubbing them on our legs. It has been happening for centuries, over 60,000 years. And this is the core essence of everything we’re wearing today.

The act of weaving is so simple, but so difficult as well, because it’s arduous and it’s repetitive and it’s long. Maybe it’s a bit like life – but then you can create this beautiful thing.

Hobson: Your practice is very much about traditional weaving techniques, and you do that through really beautiful and contemporary context. Can you talk to us a little bit about how you got to this point?

Lee: In my final year of studying fashion at RMIT, I took my grandmother back to the Torres Strait – she hadn’t returned for 57 years. I was very young, I was 21, and I was like, “What is going on here?”

My Nana asked: “What do you want to do about this?” And I realised I needed to make something to respond to it; the best way I knew how to react to the situation was through my creative practice. I created a collection called Intertwined, and I connected with Uncle Ken Thaiday.

Uncle Ken just kept inviting me back to learn more. I’d come in and bring my grandma, and they would have a yarn. Weaving with him was very organic. He wasn’t like, “I’m going to teach you this.” He was just doing it, and then I was like, “Ooh, can I have a try?”

Fashion was a way for me to understand my cultural identity and to be proud of that, because that was suppressed in my father’s upbringing.

Hobson: That concept of re-engaging with culture and community is so important.



Lee: Fashion is very tangible and relatable and accessible. I like to call it a soft entry into reconciliation and healing our people – not only our mob, but also Australians who want to learn and feel more connected to our Country. It is an act of preservation of our cultural knowledge; an act of being proud of who we are and where we come from – which is totally what I did, personally.

I think we have a lot of knowledge to share collectively, but it’s important to ensure that we’re doing it ethically. Is the industry actually thriving? Are the people actually earning the money that’s needed? Is the support there?

Hobson: I think that’s why what you’re doing with First Nations Fashion Design is so important. There has been a big gap in the market, and there hasn’t been that peak body representation for Indigenous people in Australia.

Lee: The fashion industry on a broader scale has been pretty much based on trends. And it kind of does feel like – unfortunately, because of the power of the BLM movement – it’s become more “fashionable” for people to engage with Indigenous artists.

The attention that we’re getting has been crazy, and we are trying to be very mindful of why people are pivoting, and why they are wanting to support this direction. If engaging is seen as just a trend, or just a “moment”, it’s not sustainable.

Hobson: You’re so right. It’s going beyond tokenistic gestures and asking the question, “What more are we doing with communities to ensure sustainable livelihoods?”

It is really about self determination. Not just, “I feel fulfilled now that I’ve worked with Indigenous people and now I’m going to go back and just keep doing what I was before”.



Lee: I think a lot of Australians are lost, and I think they’re probably lost because they don’t feel connected.

The reason why First Nations work can be so powerful is because we are connected to our Country. So when we bring people that aren’t connected to this Country, and they come out on to Country, it’s a very special moment for them. But it can be a bit glorified and not really thought through.

I get tired of the fact that everyone expects Indigenous fashion to look like Indigenous art. I think that’s really marginalising us into a category that’s restricted. I think that if artists are only being utilised – and utilised is the word – for their storyline and Aboriginality, it’s not really ethical.

Hobson: There are so many things I don’t think a lot of people think about when they think of Indigenous fashion. Like when you go into a community, there is a style. The Indigenous jerseys, that people wear with pride, and the beautiful island dresses. It’s something that’s super important, and that I think Indigenous people have inherently made their own.

The rise of social media has been a good avenue for people to get their brands out there and be entrepreneurs. We’ve got Teagan Cowlishaw’s Deadly Kween jumpsuit in the exhibition. She’s been a really important voice in this space, building her brand Aarli.

For me to be able to wear something like that is just so empowering and uplifting. I think for young Indigenous people as well, it’s good to have that visibility within the colonial space. I think she’s been really great in that sense of reclaiming black identity through fashion, and empowering young black people to feel confident in themselves and their culture.

You’re right, Grace, designers need to be met on the other end as well.



Lee: We are already changing the face of what Australian fashion looks like. Now it’s about being more immersed within the industry, and more acknowledged within the industry. Without having these foundations that we’re building on right now, we’ll be back at where we were 50 years ago.

The more people that are benefiting from the economic stimulation that the fashion industry creates within our nation, the better.

I do know a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who don’t want to be the artist and the storyteller. The ecosystem of the fashion industry is huge. It consists of textile designers, printmakers, cutters, sewers, pattern markers, drapers, trend forecasters, makeup artists, photographers, models, modelling agencies. How do we encourage the growth of all those different things?

There’s a lot that could be further explored or just expressed through fashion, and it doesn’t have to be so literal in a sense. I think that we’re just at the beginning of what that looks like. I think we’re just scraping the edges.



About the creative team

Rhys Ripper is a creative director, stylist and model scout. He is the founder of Cobber Magazine, and contributor to GQ. He is a proud Yorta Yorta man currently based in Gadigal Country.

Max Doyle is a fashion and portrait photographer, and cofounder of Doingbird magazine. He has shot numerous covers for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and others. He is a non-Indigenous Australian living on Gadigal Country.

Billie-Jean Hamlet is one of the fastest rising stars in Australian modelling. Raised in the remote community of Ngurtuwarta in Fitzroy Crossing, the Walmatjarri/Yamatiji woman is the face of Country Road and recently shot her first Vogue editorial.

Nathan McGuire is one of Australia’s most in-demand male models. After returning to Australia from London, the Whadjuk Noongar man has starred in campaigns for Sportscraft and Country Road alongside numerous editorial shoots.

Alinta Carberry was signed to Chadwicks models just one month before her shoot with Guardian Australia, she’s a Gumbaynggirr/Dunghutti woman from the mid-north coast of NSW and is one to watch in the modelling industry.


Production: Carly Earl, Alyx Gorman