Last week was fashion week in Sydney, and while the local ladies were glamming it up in whatever they bought for the occasion (an alarming number of birkenstocks with socks apparently), and comparing who had the best ombre color, across town a more diverse event was going on.
On Friday Sydney hosted Australia's first Indigenous Fashion Week, showcasing the work of artists and designers from 13 different indigenous communities across Australia and the Torres Strait Islands. With runway shows, panel events, and a market stall set up in Town Hall, the event was an opportunity for designers and aspiring models, some of whom had never visited the city before, to network, meet buyers, and strut their stuff in some awesome outfits.
Along with professional models, both indigenous and non-indigenous, the festival featured a selection of competition entrants who were chosen from across the country to learn about the business. Marlikka Perdrisat, one of the models, grew up in a community that had just three houses, outside Broome in Western Australia. She said her only exposure to fashion was the magazines other girls showed her at boarding school, and those never had indigenous models. "You see what they want, and that's not black," she said. "It's a hard industry, and it's particularly hard when your look isn't mainstream. We want to make our look mainstream." Claire Cooper from Byron Bay spent her childhood in a combi driving all over the country. Now she's having meetings with Victoria's Secret reps.
Grace Lee's designs were one of the highlights, and one of her dresses was worn by supermodel Samantha Harris during the show. Grace had found herself in the final year of a university degree without quite knowing how it had happened or what she would do next. Lacking direction and passion she took a trip with her grandmother to the Torres Strait Islands and connected with family she'd only ever heard about (her Grandmother hadn't been back in fifty-seven years). While she was there she watched the old men weave together palm leaves to make the decorations used in traditional ceremonies. She had some lessons and then moved to Melbourne to study design, wanting to incorporate what she'd learnt into contemporary fashion.
Four years later Grace has launched two fashion labels and, using traditional weaving techniques and a process of trial and error, discovered the perfect lightweight materials to bring to life extraordinary designs inspired by the ceremonial dress of her people. They're complicated—one of the necklaces she designed uses 30 feet of cotton rope woven together.
Margaret and Gloria Torren, and Janelle Duncan from Casino's Aboriginal women's artist group Wake-Up Time in the Bundjalung region have been working with local weaver Katrina Kelsey on a project to recreate designs that were common up until the 1870s. The Wurra Wurra, Boombi, and Dulloom bags are being made based on documents and samples found at the British Museum—our colonial forebears had a habit of taking culturally significant artefacts back to the motherland for "safekeeping." The ladies also do some pretty cool silk prints, and while they were happy to see their designs worn by the models, their highlight was the ripped male models in nothing but indigenous printed briefs.