Reflecting the voices of Australian fashion – ArtsHub

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Whether you dress for comfort or it’s part of your identity, fashion is undoubtedly a vital part of our culture. That’s why it should also reflect the diversity within it.

‘Fashion is something that – I really, really strongly believe – should be reflecting the culture of a place,’ Dave Giles-Kaye, Manager of Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair’s Indigenous Fashion Project (IFP), told ArtsHub.

He continued: ‘What we actually see, particularly with Indigenous fashion – but also across the board culturally – is we don’t see the different sort of cultures reflected in the fashion industry.’

RMIT Lecturer in Fashion Design, Dr Daphne Mohajer va Pesaran, agreed that sometimes Australian designs, especially from large brands, ‘are often disconnected from cities in which they live and the people they are actually selling to. What is the Australian DNA in that kind of design practice?’

These are the questions being asked in her open call project, Radical Fashion Practices: a workbook of modes and methods, co-organised with Dr Laura Gardner.

Read: 20×20: Diversity is a white word

‘The book will be a tool for design students, designers, writers, and practitioners of diverse disciplines to challenge fashion as a commodity and industrial system in these times of uncertainty and upheaval,’ said Mohajer va Pesaran. 

‘We wanted to invite contributions that embrace interdisciplinarity, experimentation and aesthetic play to critique fashion’s politics and economics, destabilise its hierarchies, and widen its horizons as a medium for expression, embodiment, and sociality,’ she continued. 

Independent fashion writer and curator Michelle Guo, said some of the complexities around fashion comes from a mix of its commercial identity, subjectivity, and fashion in the scope of art – much like food culture.

‘The way people talk about food is very personal; the line of appropriation is really vague, people already have it in their lives, and the way they think about it is usually not too deep, but you want people to know more deeply about it,’ said Guo.

That’s essentially what fashion writers, researchers and curators have tasked themselves with in a field that is slowly shifting from its eurocentric and exclusive model.

Grace Rosendale, Seedpods dress 2019, shown as part of Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion is presented at Bendigo Art Gallery. Courtesy of the artist, Hopevale Arts and Cultural Centre and Queensland University of Technology. Model: Magnolia Maymuru. Photo Bronwyn Kidd.

THE GLORY OF BLOCKBUSTER FASHION EXHIBITIONS

While the blockbuster exhibition model remains contested, fashion exhibitions at museums and galleries tend to remain in that zone, often featuring decade-long surveys of luxury brands and famous haute couture designers.

From Giles-Kaye’s perspective, ‘the connection between art and fashion is the strongest I’ve seen.’

Inclusivity should be part of a brand’s modus operandi, not only its image.

RMIT Lecturer in Fashion Design, Dr Daphne Mohajer va Pesaran

So why aren’t major museums and galleries supporting emerging designers like they do emerging artists?

It comes down to historic validation and commerce, said Guo, who has heard that some museums in Australian even go so far to say that they never want to put on a fashion exhibition.

‘I think part of that is, at least in the museum space, there’s a search for legitimacy – why fashion deserves to be in big museums. The way you establish that, is to bring forward your best players and your most established designers.’

‘[In addition], the fact is that a lot of the garments in these exhibitions are lent out from private collections, especially from the brand itself, then it becomes a business decision where [museums and galleries] want the brand to be on board, in order to have access to their archive,’ said Guo.

Read: How blockbusters can usher new thinking

Even the Met Gala, possibility one of the largest events in the world intersecting art and fashion in the museum space, tends to stick to the big names.

‘The Met Gala this year had a really interesting dynamic going on where, in the actual exhibition about American fashion, the curators incorporated a lot of up-and-coming designers and new designers alongside the big powerhouses,’ Guo revealed.

‘However, at the Met Gala itself – which gets a lot more publicity – a lot of those designers weren’t invited, even if their garments were in the show.’

It was the F1 racing star Lewis Hamilton who booked out an entire table to invite young Black designers to the party.

Guo continued that people need to manage their expectations on what museum exhibitions can achieve. ‘This could also be where journalists and writers step up [with a more critical perspective] and not put all the onus on the the gallery and the museum, because those museums are obviously trying to foster ongoing relationships.’ The history however is against this transparency.

‘It’s pretty common knowledge in fashion, that fashion critics have been blacklisted from runway shows for saying bad things.’

Independent fashion writer and curator Michelle Guo

But Mohajer va Pesaran thinks there is great potential in these spaces: ‘Simply put, universities, museums, galleries, fashion events can be curious, be open, and invite people to join the conversation.

‘Institutions such as these are in a position to shape culture by creating opportunities to produce new work or provide a platform for discussion … They also have the capacity to host international events held here in Melbourne that brought designers from all over the world together to connect emerging and established designers,’ she added.

HOW FASHION CAN TAKE ON A NEW LOOK

Giles-Kaye named two obstacles for Indigenous designers in Australia, one being the focus on the sensation of trailblazers (and the difficulty of becoming one), another ‘the gap that has existed between Indigenous and non-Indigenous for more than 200 years.’

Lack of representation in the industry means that, ‘we can only see the opportunities that are presented before us,’ said Giles-Kaye, adding ‘there just haven’t been many role models [from diverse backgrounds] for young people to really latch onto.’

However, the rise of social media has offered a beacon of hope for emerging and diverse designers to showcase their talent and gain an audience. ‘People can see what’s possible and want to get involved,’ Giles-Kaye added.

We can see the possibilities of change, said Mohjar va Pesaran. ‘Something has been happening here in Australia, which is a shift towards institutionalised acknowledgement of racial injustice against Indigenous people. These Acknowledgements of Country are incredibly important as a first step towards inclusion. Can this model be adapted in order to move towards even more inclusive, and effective direct action in fashion practice specifically?’  

Designer, brand founder, and participant of the 2020 Country to Couture program, Liandra Gaykamangu, is one of those trailblazing models. A Yolngu woman from north-east Arnhem Land in NT, Gaykamangu said: ‘My canvas is the human body and my gallery is the world, or the beach, the pool – it’s wherever you wear [the label] Liandra Swim.

’We have signature prints which are hand drawn, inspired by culture, and share stories too, but there’s a lot of time and energy that I’ve spent into letting people know that it’s okay to wear them,’ said Gaykamangu.

Bendigo Art Gallery’s Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion – now travelling to Paris Fashion Week in 2022 – is another example in the museum space. In an earlier interview, First Nations curator Shonae Hobson told ArtsHub: ‘Fashion is a good entry point to learn about our culture and to learn about Ancestral storytelling through a contemporary medium.’

Country to Couture 2021 Runway as part of the Indigenous Fashion Projects, hosted by Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair.

‘Fashion media in Australia are also in a strange place right now,’ said Guo, ‘publications and magazines writing about emerging designers are really important in giving a boost to their careers, but in Australia it’s really decentralised.’

‘Having a more robust kind of fashion media landscape for these [emerging] people is one of the factors of what’s missing in trying to diversify fashion, especially if you want people to not just look towards brands they’ve already heard of,’ offered Guo.

Giles-Kaye echoed: ‘It’s really hard for consumers to find a trusted source to know what’s sustainable and what is ethical’ in the context of supporting a healthier industry. ‘That’s why it’s really important to find and get to know the designers behind the labels, and know where their stories are coming from – it’s also about bridging the cultural divide,’ he added.

Mohajer va Pesaran added these missing infrastructure leads to ‘a lack of public interest in what fashion can be and do.

‘While there are some grassroots publications that are embracing diversity (such as POCC Magazine), the community would benefit from government funding, internships, design contests, material/manufacturing sponsorships, networking opportunities, and scholarships set aside specifically for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) citizens to promote education, access to skills and tools in order to develop new fashion cultures and spaces unique to Australia.’  

The Fashion and Race Database is another great resource, initiated by US fashion educator Kimberly M Jenkins, who worked as a consult to rehabilitate big brands on diversity and inclusion. The site says it is shining a light on ‘one of fashion’s most critical topics facing us today.’

Some of the initiatives that are creating a safe space for diverse designers in Australia include DAAF’s Indigenous Fashion Projects, Modest Fashion Runways at Melbourne Fashion Week and Sydney’s Pacific Runway.

While diversity is absolutely crucial and signals better representation, Mohajer va Pesaran cautioned: ‘Fashion’s commitment to diversity is positive but can be dangerous – on the shiny side of the coin is the self-congratulating, opportunity-sharing diverse image of an industry, but on the other darker side of the same coin, are tokenism, wage inequality, and obfuscated sites and means of research and production.

She added: ‘Inclusivity should be part of a brand’s modus operandi, not only its image. But sadly, that takes work.’ 

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