ON GADIGAL LAND in the cavernous Gallery I at Carriageworks, the Indigenous Fashion Projects (IFP) runway brought diverse interpretations of Country to day two of Afterpay Australian Fashion Week. A spinoff of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation’s successful Country to Couture runway show, the runway — presented by Afterpay and David Jones — showcased the easygoing resort and swim wear of five leading First Nations designers: Julie Shaw of MAARA Collective; Denni Francisco of Ngali; Natalie Cunningham of Native Swimwear Australia; Amanda Healy of Kirrikin; and Liandra Gaykamangu of Liandra Swim.
The runway’s theme, ‘Connection to Country: From River to Sea’, was conceptualised by the runway’s Creative Director, Shilo McNamee. She says she was inspired after her early discussions with the designers around the inspirations for their collections.
“A common theme that I noted was the way in which the designers all referenced Country. They were inspired by special places, by colours of the sand, earth and water. I wanted to tell that story,” she told me prior to the runway.
The show kicked off with the chic resort wear of MAARA Collective. Woven braided detailing peeked out from structured tailoring; silky dresses and shirts flowed in ochre gradients; and relaxed fits offered a sense of ease and calm. The sleek capsule offered understated pops of colour and elevated resort basics that make you dream of a summer’s day. A debut of effortlessly cool menswear was led by Mob in Fashion founder and model Nathan McGuire.
Designer Julie Shaw turned to Pitjantjatjara artist Alison Lionel of Ernabella Art Center in the remote Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands for her feature collaborative print, which evoked “the movement of light on trees in her surrounding homelands of the remote APY Lands”.
“Much of my inspiration also comes through nature, so I feel there is a beautiful synergy between the way that we each work creatively,” Shaw told BAZAAR.
Of her participation in the show, she added that her hope is for guests and the wider industry of fashion consumers to “see that Indigenous fashion can exist at a high level of design aesthetic and execution. I hope that they enjoy our contemporary take on ancient cultural influences and see that the Indigenous fashion sector is dynamic and it is thriving”.
Next up, renowned Australian model Sam Harris hit the runway for Ngali, sporting a patterned overcoat featuring detailed wavy quilting representing Songlines — the significant First Nations walking routes that cross the country, linking important sites and locations and carrying laws, stories and culture for over 60,000 years.
Detailed patterns and layering made the collection feel at once contemporary and timeless. Designer Denni Francisco says that her time spent on Country inspired the ‘Miya’ collection that was displayed.
“Miya translates in Wiradjuri language to ‘together’. Togetherness sits at the heart of Ngali as a brand, a business, and a design ethos,” Francisco explained to BAZAAR. “I was conscious … of creating pieces that would go as seamlessly as possible with pieces that have come before and be a pathway for pieces yet to come. I see each collection as part of a journey — no stop and start — but a continuum.”
Resort wear turned to swim and activewear as Native Swimwear Australia hit the runway. A hero print with pebble-like patterning also found inspiration from the natural world. Silky prints rippled like water off the bodies of models, with the colour palette turning from natural earthy warm tones to electric, 80s-esque vivid hues of blue, pink and yellow.
Designer Natalie Cunningham turned to Ikuntji artist Keturah Zimran to create the collection’s hero print motif.
“I’ve invited Keturah to share this experience and walk beside me down the runway. Keturah will be traveling down from her home in Haasts Bluff — an Aboriginal community in Central Australia of the Northern Territory,” Cunningham said.
The label also celebrated sustainability through its collection, which featured digital textile printing on ethical materials like regenerated nylon from discarded ghost nets.
“I am blessed to have opportunities such as this that allow me to share my culture through my fashion designs,” Cunningham reflected. “Aboriginal art is the artist’s story; it’s their Dreaming that shares ancient stories passed down from generations of living on Country.”
Next on the agenda, Kirrikin designs strutted down the runway to the tunes of Indigenous rapper Baker Boy.
The collection featured oceanic patterns: abstract coral shapes crawling up dresses and murky blues swirling on tailored jackets and flowing maxi dresses. But the collection’s name, ‘Ripples’, has a meaning that runs deeper than the watery designs.
“My inspiration for this is the social change we are seeing in relation to our people, the deeper acceptance of our culture and history. We still have a way to go, but things are definitely improving with more of Australia taking interest in our artwork, our gorgeous Country, our stories and deep connection to our place. We are now seeing the ripples of change here, maybe my next collection will be called ‘Waves’,” said designer Amanda Healey.
“I hope [guests] get a glimpse of the incredibly beautiful richness of our culture, and it inspires them to seek out more information, find the true stories.”
Liandra Swim closed out the runway with its similarly water-inspired Deep Sea collection, whose print story “was inspired by the Mariana Trench and tectonic plates”.
“There are elements there that have been inspired by how the thriving nature of ecosystems deep below the surface, but also how tectonic plates fit, connect and create,” designer Liandra Gaykamangu said of the collection, which featured swimwear with nods to 60s silhouettes — boy shorts and halternecks — while asymmetrical cover ups added a touch of playfulness to the affair.
“I hope people realise that Indigenous Fashion has truly made its arrival,” she further reflected. “We are high-end, we are dripping in culture and we are here to stay!”
The show wasn’t over just yet, though — as the models made their final turns around the runway, iconic singer and Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair ambassador Jess Mauboy took to the stage with a high-octane, pitch-perfect performance of her new single ‘Automatic’.
“Having been brought up on Country in Larrakia Nation in Darwin and knowing and understanding incredible talent that lies within Indigenous communities all across Australia, it’s definitely a proud and humble moment where I get to serenade these incredible designers going above and beyond delivering their love for fashion and telling their stories through textiles,” Mauboy told me over the phone days before her performance.
“I’m just so proud to have this opportunity to showcase my art in the space of fashion,” she added.
And as a prominent figure in Australia’s creative landscape who has witnessed the gradual culture shift towards greater inclusivity firsthand, she explains that her hope for the future of Indigenous fashion and arts is onwards and upwards.
“I dream about like, walking into a commercial shopping centre and seeing [Indigenous designs] come to life in that space,” she said. “It’s getting there. I see a huge future for Indigenous artists.”
MAARA’s Julie Shaw echoed the sentiment on the designers’ behalf, noting her pride in the culmination of hers and her fellow IFP designers’ (her “sissies”, she says) hard work.
“We will no doubt continue to rise together, and I can’t wait to see where we go next,” she said.