News & Runway

Australian Indigenous Fashion Week Isn’t Just Pretty Prints

Models walk the runway at the Desert Designs show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia 2014

Models walk the runway at the Desert Designs show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia 2014 at Carriageworks on April 7, 2014; image: Getty

Of all the schedule newbies that made their Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia debut this year, one of the most anticipated was Desert Designs.

Desert Designs might be a new label, but its story goes back to a Fremantle Prison art class in 1896. Art teachers Stephen Culley and David Wroth were so impressed with the vivid felt pen drawings of inmate and Walmajarri artist Jimmy Pike that they had the idea of marketing the prints on fabric.

It launched afresh last year, and last Monday, top Australian models including Ollie Henderson, Myf Shepherd and Rachel Rutt paraded its rich and colorful designs down an on-location runway that was enthusiastically Instagrammed to the world.

But Desert Designs wasn’t the only example of Australia’s oft-ostracised Aboriginal culture making its mark on modern fashion. After the last shows of MBFWA official had wound down, the inaugural Australian Indigenous Fashion Week picked up the baton with a showcase of indigenous culture and design that will hopefully become one of the premier events on the Australian fashion calendar. (“It’s not just dots…” reads the tagline on its website.)

Speaking to Business of Fashion on Tuesday, AIFW founder Krystal Perkins spoke of moving the international perception beyond pretty patterns and towards the Aboriginal fashion community’s equally authentic approach to construction. “In terms of Aboriginal and Torres Straight islander art, the mediums have always been visual – hieroglyphics and landscapes, sculptures and canvas,” she said. “What we’re doing is trying to nurture the next level, which is textile design, fashion design, and the manufacturing of fashion and wearable accessories.”

This includes establishing a mentoring program for indigenous designers, utilising the skills of remote block printers and silk weavers via an “indigenous-made” garment supply chain and developing an intensive design program for young indigenous designers at Sydney’s Whitehouse School of Design.

The question wasn’t whether there was talent. Mia Brennan, who has previously shown at New Zealand Fashion Week, is clearly cut out for bigger things than just the upcycled bags she’s known for. Friday saw her experiment with silks and leathers inspired by photographs of natural scenery, and with traditionally crafted embellishments. The question is, how to market them to fashion globally. Success stories aren’t unheard of: Designs have managed to marry history with high fashion, while other niche designers like Camilla have proven you can build a business off doing one thing well. And as fashion is increasingly willing to turn its head on trends in favor of investments (well, except for this season’s bedazzled Birkenstock craze), maybe replicating what’s happening on the international runways doesn’t mean no success can be found in international markets.

It’s ironic that an Aboriginal fashion week could find its footing on the same day Coachella was gearing up for its annual showcase of American Indian headdress appropriation. But it’s also a beacon of hope. Let’s hope next year’s runways reach a bigger audience.