First Nations fashion is taking a moment. A huge moment. And rightly so.
Importantly, First Nations peoples’ agency within the fashion industry is certainly growing. Artists, designers, and creatives are pushing the boundaries so that their voices are heard and included in the mainstream fashion narrative.
In 2021, AAFW included two First Nations runways for the first time in its 25 year history. First Nations Fashion and Design (FNFD) and the Indigenous Fashion Projects (IFP) both celebrated and elevated the work of First Nations designers and creatives, telling stories that have woven through the lands of Australia since time immemorial.
The shows highlighted and celebrated the work of many First Nations designers and brands, including: Ngali, Maara Collective, Liandra Swim, Amber Days, Clair Helen, Nungala Creative, Indii Swimwear, Kirrikin, Native Swimwear Australia, Grace Lillian Lee, Aarli, Sown in Time, Ngarru Miimi and Jarawee, along with the talent of many more First Nations fashion creatives including stylists, artists, dancers, models, hair and makeup artists.
Fashion industry key players, as well as the media and general public, have been moved by the experience, with many in attendance at the two shows brought to tears. While this is certainly a pivotal moment in history, we must continue to let authentic First Nations voices be heard to ensure this vibrant space only continues to thrive.
First, it is important to acknowledge that for First Nations people fashion is not a totally new concept. We have made cultural and ceremonial adornment pieces since time immemorial. Bold textiles have been produced in remote Aboriginal community art centres since the late 1960s. Both have been centered on customary laws, cultural stories and creativity, and are ways to express and share such things within our own communities.
But our arts practice can be contemporary and forward facing, and we have explored and integrated new media into our work. Now, we are seeing very new growth in the fashion space, which is encompassing so many new forms of creativity. In these contemporary and constantly evolving iterations of our cultures, not only does the artistic practice maintain connection to country and the stories as old as time, but it also shares some of this knowledge to the world. And sometimes it is just simply for the joy of art.
Fashion reaches across socio-economic divides and is accessible to the masses. For this reason, it’s power is undeniable. It can be a tool for truth-telling, education and understanding identity.
Creativity, some would say, is a space for soft diplomacy. In the creative sector I find that conversations can be flowing and more open minded, in terms of understanding and being empathetic to boundaries, breaking down barriers and improving diversity. The conversations are still hard, and we still have a long way to go, but we have been able to have fluid conversations to get started.
Perhaps the even greater impact of this growing space, and the increasing support across various platforms, is the strength and support it provides First Nations peoples. It can be a vehicle for change in even the most remote parts of the country. It is proof of how our stories hold weight, even in an ever-changing industry. It is proof of our resilience. And it will continue to inspire our people, because there are so many pathways available for us to sample and explore.
Corina Muir, founder of label Amber Days, is particularly excited about how she can inspire other women.
One of the biggest things is that I can inspire other women of colour to do the same. It’s so important to have these platforms to showcase to other young women what we have inside us. We have so much power as Indigenous women. We are often the glue in our communities, and to show that we can tap into this power and inspire others is an unstoppable force.
The entire fashion ecosystem provides an exciting platform for all people to walk together and build strong relationships that respect the very fabric of this country. First Nations creative excellence and our wealth of knowledge and diverse lived experiences, can bring so much richness to the industry as a whole. It truly is a space for meaningful two-way learning.
As we saw at AAFW, First Nations peoples’ agency within the fashion industry is certainly growing. So how can we ensure that this space continues to thrive? And that First Nations people are empowered to be an integral part of this industry? It is a two-way street if we all want to continue to see change, new ideas, and a different cultural aspect of Australia. This means respectfully acknowledging the intelligence, intellectual property and creative output of First Nations cultural expression.
This goes back to the policy notions of reconciliation. It is not about highlighting the divisions within our society, but committing to empathy and understanding so we highlight our unity.
First Nations people are open to sharing our rich and diverse cultures, and committing to learning and understanding the true history of Australia and our common ground. Sadly, so many Australians still know so little. These injustices are not a thing of the past, but a very real present for our people every day.
We are empowering ourselves and the fashion industry is on board.
As Perina states, the industry is opening up. "We can have our own voices and expressions, which is important to hear and understand. But it also empowers the industry as a whole, and can show that we are leading the way in improving the diversity in the industry," she says. "I am conscious that we are trending right now in terms of our integration. I have really started making conversations with people in the industry to let people know that it is really great where we are, but where will we be in 10 years. I am talking to leaders in the industry, because I do not want us to be a trend. We should not be a trend. Indigenous fashion is not just a trend. This is Australia and this is us."
So we need to open the conversation to what is after this. I think people in the industry are very aware that they do not want this to flop next season, but to be an ongoing part of the industry. So that Indigenous designers, like the ones in our show, have their very own runway or are stocked in big department stores, here and globally. So these are the conversations I am having, which says a lot, as the professionals in this space are wanting to support this growth.
First Nations peoples’ agency within the fashion industry is certainly growing. Artists, designers, and creatives are pushing the boundaries so that their voices are heard and included in the Australian fashion narrative. It is time for Australia to listen and learn.