The Significance of Indigenous Designers in Australian Fashion

Since the success of the textile design within Indigenous communities, Australian luxury fashion has been transformed from Country to Couture. For example, with big fashion names such as Gorman collaborating with Aboriginal artists. However, this stems deeper as it has also signalled a way forward, grounding community relationships for Indigenous fashion design which is vital for the grounding for Australian society in its historical roots.

Firstly, in order to recognise why it is so important for Indigenous designers in Australia to be recognised, and celebrated, one needs to understand Australian history.

Many do not realise that Indigenous Australians have influenced modern Australian dress for a long time. Since stealing, purchasing, borrowing and wearing Indigenous materials for over two hundred years, Europeans have been fascinated with Indigenous skills and aesthetics ever since Australia was discovered. For instance, from possum skin cloaks and booka kangaroo capes to shell necklaces in Tasmania (that are the staple item of jewellery to every wannabe surfer globally). 

Although traditional dress practices of the Aboriginals were banned by the colonisers, along with other practices such as their ceremonies and language. However, influential fusions of fashion also appeared expressing revolutionary signs of resistance during oppressive times. This is as the Colonialists taught western-style leatherwork and needlecraft which the Indigenous people fused with their own techniques to create a new unique style in Australia. 

Aboriginal fashion flourished in mid-20th century when missionary nuns in North Australia allowed Indigenous women to craft their own textiles. Although it is preposterous that they were denied to do so from the start, this allowed brightly coloured fabrics to be used with unique amalgamations of themes. As Indigenous Art Centres were established across Australia during the 1970s, the fruitful hybrid of art and textile design generated solely new looks which lead to the Indigenous textile revolution. This prominently features in Australian design nowadays.

With Australia’s dark history of the treatment of Aboriginal people, it is extremely important that Indigenous culture is remembered and celebrated. Therefore, it is inspiring that Australia’s indigenous fashion industry is thriving today. This allows those who once suffered for being Aboriginal to be empowered within some of the biggest Australian fashion brand collaborations. 

One of the most prominent examples of Australian brands collaborating with Aboriginal designers is Australia’s fashion brand Gorman. In their upcoming season, they teamed up with Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency in Western Australia, producing a collaborative collection (Mangkaja x Gorman), which will be launched at the Museum of Contemporary Art in NSW and Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair. The Collaboration is Gorman’s first with Indigenous artists which does raise the question of why this collaboration was not carried out sooner? However, such collaborations may take a while to finish, as ‘Mangkaja x Gorman’ took two years to complete, it is fundamental that all cultures and human accomplishments are exhibited.

Model Shaniqua Shaw on location at Fitzroy Crossing, WA.

Styled by Lisa Gorman, photographed by Charles Freger.

One of the artists collaborating with Gorman was Lisa Uhl, her spoken language being Wangkajunga and country being Kurtal. Through her abstracted paintings, Lisa, showed her love of her country that capture the stories from her elders. Although Lisa had never been to the country she had inherited from her ancestors, as she was limited by her physical disability, her works are a tapestry of empirical experience referring to the rich colour of the Kimberly. This can be relatable for those who observe her work as many who view her paintings have not been to the country that they grew up on, yet learn of its past and history from those who lived before them.

Lisa passed away at a young age due to kidney failure. A condition that restricts so many people within Aboriginal Communities due to the lack of healthy food, expense and poor water quality. Her grand talent should illustrate that it does not matter who you are, or where you come from, everyone is capable of something incredible. They should not be stopped because society demands them to stay invisible. Their talent should be celebrated. No This is why these collaborations between Australian brands and Aboriginal designers are so important. Not only does it celebrate Indigenous culture, but allows people’s legacy, such as Lisa’s, to live on in her incredible artwork. 

Such collaborations should also illustrate that everyone is the same. Thus, everyone deserves the same chances in life which includes basic human necessities such as healthy food and medical expenses. Let these collaborations demonstrate that much more needs to be done to show equality between Aboriginal people and Australians so that the wounds that were crying out can be healed.

Images sourced from the Australian Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)

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