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Fashion Comes to the Outback

In April, the first-ever Australian Indigenous Fashion Week will be held in Sydney. It's the brainchild Krystal Perkins, a marketing executive who hopes to bring Aboriginal art to a wider audience and teach indigenous women and girls to become models

by Carly Learson
Feb 17 2014, 1:00pm

Photo courtesy of Australian Indigenous Fashion Week

The Australian bush is vast, desolate, and pretty much entirely disconnected from the world of high fashion. But there are traditions of handcrafts and art amid all that emptiness, and where there’s art, there’s the possibility of turning that art into monetizable nuggets of fashion.

In April, the first-ever Australian Indigenous Fashion Week will be held in Sydney. It’s the brainchild of Krystal Perkins, a marketing executive who helped launch the country’s National Indigenous Television network. (She also happens to be the granddaughter of Charles Perkins, Australia's first indigenous university graduate and a prominent activist.)

The idea is to bring Aboriginal art to a wider audience and help young women who are tall and skinny and model-pretty but may live 20 hours from the nearest agency find work in the fashion industry and survive.

Krystal’s end goal is to get some Aboriginal faces into the lily-white world of high fashion. Other than Samantha Harris, a light-skinned Aboriginal model, there are basically no indigenous Australian beauty symbols. Of the 1,100 models signed to the country’s major agencies, only seven are Aboriginal, according to an article in CLEO, an Australian women’s magazine.

“I was struck by the lack of black faces in fashion, and wanted to try and balance things out a bit,” Krystal told me. She believes that by introducing greater diversity into the fashion world, indigenous girls and young women might be better able to see themselves as beautiful.

In advance of Indigenous Fashion Week, there will be a modeling competition for indigenous people of both sexes between 16 and 27. Of the hundred-plus entrants, 16 will be chosen to come to Sydney for training in business, deportment, and how to walk a catwalk.

Of course, modeling isn't a traditional pursuit for indigenous young people, and in many of the more conservative bush communities it's unheard of. Krystal told me that she wanted to be respectful of those attitudes.

“This has to be a decision for the entire community,” she said. “If a young girl wants to get into modeling, it's got to be OK with not just her parents, but the rest of her aunties and uncles in the community. You've got to be respectful.”

The fashion week will also include a design workshop for 16 indigenous female designers from across the country who will learn how to develop and commercialize their wares and have the opportunity to sell designs to labels. Krystal hopes some will follow in the footsteps of Jimmy Pike, an indigenous artist who started painting in prison and has gone on to create one-off pieces for Desert Designs and textiles licensed to Oroton and Sheridan. Both Zegna and Hermes have licensed designs by indigenous artists.

None of this is about helping indigenous people learn how to make art—they already know how to do that. It’s about helping them find a commercial audience for their work. While much of the focus of Aboriginal fine art is design and painting, there are other indigenous techniques that could easily find a home in the fashion industry. Artists from the Tiwi Islands in the Torres Strait have started incorporating the region’s weaving traditions into making bags and accessories; in southern Australia, the tradition of drying out the skins of kangaroos and possums to wear as coats, according to Krystal, could lead to a new fashion trend: There's already interest in possum fur coats in Europe and Asia. 

“The design initiative is about educating the industry on what's available, encouraging greater diversity, and setting up a better system of regulation to make sure designers get paid for their workm” Krystal said. “But mostly, it's about finding ways to translate art into fashion.” 

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