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Indigenous fashion week: putting the bush into boutiques

The traditional handicrafts of a 60,000-year-old culture found a very
modern interpretation on the catwalk in the first ever Australian Indigenous fashion week. With hand-printed silks, woven fabrics and street clothes, Indigenous designers
showcased their creations in an ode to their cultural heritage. Sydney Town
Hall transformed itself into a ceremonial ground-like runway with a cinematic
backdrop of traditional dancers. The audience, a mix of industry and community
people, created a celebratory atmosphere.

Indigenous cultures have a rich craft custom from which modern fashion can draw, and a new generation of designers have referenced the possum coats, emu feathers, shell jewellery and weaving that were an instrinsic part of
Aboriginal culture, along with the bright printed batik-patterned cloth
characteristic of islands such as Tiwi, off Darwin.

The smorgasbord of styles reflected
the diversity of Indigenous cultures across Australia. Indigenous design and handicrafts inspired bold prints,
chunky knotted and woven fabrics, carved and painted soft leathers and
references to the dhari, the striking
ceremonial headdresses of the Torres Strait Islands.

fashion has, to date, been largely a cottage industry with its largest impact being
in the area of fabric design. Australian Indigenous fashion week hopes to
assist an evolution to take this trade into its next phase. The brainchild of
entrepreneurial Indigenous woman, Krystal Perkins, it has developed a programme to
assist 16 emerging Indigenous fashion designers, helping them to think
about a business strategy and bringing
them into contact with the industry’s leaders.

Indigenous fashion week
A model wearing an outfit by Mia Brennan on the catwalk. Photograph: Anna Kucera for the Guardian

Mia Brennan, who began her career
in fashion by up-cycling scraps of discarded cloth into bags and currently has had a
market stall in Byron Bay, sees Indigenous fashion week as an opportunity to work towards her dream of
shifting to retail space in the city and an online store. The silks and leathers of her label Mimi Designs are inspired by the
textures of nature in the bush and sea of
Byron Bay – tracks, barks, leaves and sand patterns. “I take
photographs when I walk into the bush and try to replicate what I see in my
fabrics,” she says.

Brennan also experiments with buried
fabric, entombing her material in the ground so it goes through a kind of
composting. The process creates a delicate panel on an elegant backless, short-frilled dress, not at all evocative of the pungent earth
where it had its genesis. Brennan is fascinated by traditional
weaving, knitting and macramé, crafts which inform the flourishes on her pieces – a woven back on a delicate silk-sheath dress or the thick corded straps of a mini.

Indigenous fashion week
The Industry Runway show at Australian Indigenous Fashion week. Photograph: Anna Kucera for the Guardian

Lyn-Al Young, an Aboriginal woman
from Melbourne, became interested in fashion through watching old movies,
particularly the elegant femininity of Audrey Hepburn. If Young’s
inspiration is part old-style Hollywood glamour, the execution is deeply
imbedded in her Aboriginal heritage. Her collection, From Tree Carvings to Silk Markings, sees her delicate hand-painted
silk sheaths decorated with painted leather harnesses over the breast or
the hips.

The leather goods in her collection,
including the coolamon bags of kangaroo leather, are made by her family, who
are artists and carvers. Her clothes shield and protect the female form: “I want young women to respect their bodies through
the elegance and modesty of the clothes they wear,” she says. Young has
already developed an entrepreneurial streak, securing the funds for her
first collection through a crowdsourcing campaign.

Indigenous fashion week
Designer Shaun Edwards (left) puts the finishing touches to a model’s outfit. Photograph: Anna Kucera for the Guardian

Shaun Edwards
is an Indigenous artist who has transferred his designs onto his Wild Barra range of street
smart and frisky swimwear, short shorts and matching T-shirts. His pieces
mix prints inspired from his home in far north Queensland – the shiny
scales of the barramundi, the lapping tidal water – with the aim of creating a
range that can be worn on the street and at dance parties. The highlight of his
collection are accessories inspired by the traditional bailor shell necklaces and the feather fans that are traditionally a decoration
for the arms. Shaun has transformed these important male cultural objects into
a contemporary form without losing the feel of the ceremonial: “I am reworking
cultural stories and practices. I am keeping that culture alive.”

From the age of 12, growing up in Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia, Letticia Shaw dreamt of glamorous
gowns: “There was no place to buy the dresses I wanted to wear where I lived, so
I would design make them myself.” Her flowing satin and sequined
gowns pay homage to evening glamour, but the recurring goanna motif represents an animal her family would hunt and eat. Her goal is to see her label Ticia sold in Sydney’s designer boutiques.

Indigenous fashion week
Model wearing designs by Letticia Shaw. Photograph: Anna Kucera for the Guardian

Thanks to nationwide search for aspiring young
Indigenous models, 25 of whom walked the runway for the first time, the diversity of the models was as great as that of the clothes. One of them, Grace Atkinson, grew up in Shepparton,
Victoria, with no images of Indigenous people in the fashion magazines she
“We see lots of Aboriginal
heritage in music and art,” she said. “It’s good to see it in fashion as well.”

Although Indigenous designers aspire to show the
vibrancy of their culture to the rest of Australia, they are also keen to see other Australians
embrace it, too, through loving their clothes; to celebrate Indigenous tradition and the stories that
are incorporated into their designs. All of them hope to take us one
step closer to a moment when Indigenous fashion is a central element of Australian

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