The first thing I thought when I saw these lookbook images was: gorgeous. The second was, why are they so unusual? Why don’t we see more images of indigenous fashion design? And I don’t mean of the culturally appropriated sort.
Obviously, an expansive global view is a good thing but it’s crazy not to celebrate and respect the deep vein of talent we have right here.
This model Adena is from the Bayulu community at Fitzroy Crossing, about 400 kilometres east of Broome in WA, and she’s wearing pieces from a cross cultural fashion project called Design Within Country. Last week it debuted at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair.
It’s the collective work of Amanda Smith, Lee-Anne Williams and Natalie Davey from the Marnin Studio at Fitzroy Crossing, in collaboration with three indie Melbourne labels: Lois Hazel, Post Sole Studio, the handmade shoe company run by Myra Spencer and Breeze Powell, and jewellery brand Lott Studio.
“The runway was great, we had a big crowd,” Smith tells Marie Claire from Darwin, “we’ve been starting to get some good orders. I think because what we’ve created is a bit different from the usual stuff here.”
Lee is an expert bush dyer. “What I do is go out country and collect different barks, leaves and sometimes mushrooms to dye natural fabrics,” she says.
It’s a community focused practice – family members get involved and the process becomes about connection not just to land but to each other.
For Lois Hazel designer Lois McGruer-Fraser the sustainability factor is another obvious drawcard. “Amanda is going to dye some of our silk pieces for my next collection,” she says. “Her skills are amazing. This is something so strong about Australian culture but we don’t see enough of it. It shouldn’t be this rare, notable thing to value these skills; it should just be normal.”
In pursuit of that, the Melbourne crew went to work at Marnin, and Smith, Williams and Davey spent a week in Melbourne working with the designers there.
“We swapped ideas, we learned from each other,” says Williams, a block printer whose distinctive designs take inspiration from the natural world.
“Like many Australians I’d never been ‘on country’,” says McGruer-Fraser.
“I was kind of ashamed about that. We’ve messed up; we’ve separated society so far from what it used to be here. There’s this distance beyond the geographical and we need to do more to bridge that gap. But it can’t be condescending. There’s nothing worse than being this city idiot going in there like: I’m going to help. It has to be about walking side by side, learning from one another.”
The project was Jenny Layton’s idea – she’s an old-school Melbourne fashion insider who mentors young designers as part of Curated.
“I’ve been working for about nine years with a women’s resource centre in Fitzroy Crossing called Marninwarntikura,” she says.
“They run the Marnin Studio as a social enterprise. There’s loads of talented, smart creatives there but a lack of opportunity to develop skills and showcase them beyond the community. This project is about opening up a two-way skills highway, where young designers and artists from Fitzroy can mix with young designers from Melbourne.”
“The future is about a continuous flow of ideas,” says McGruer-Fraser. “Wouldn’t it be so cool if the Melbourne Fashion Festival had an indigenous runway next year?” Indeed it would.