Fashion Forward: Supporting First Nations Textiles and Fashion Design

As we approach the announcement of the Nominees for the 2021 National Indigenous Fashion Awards (NIFA), we’re checking in with some of last year’s winners..

Words by Camilla Wagstaff


Australian First Nations textile and fashion design is a super exciting, relatively new realm that’s only just beginning to scratch the surface of its potential. It all began with the 2008 GFC, which hit the Indigenous fine arts industry hard. Art Centres – ever the innovators in creating new growth and development pathways for artists and communities – turned to fashion and textiles as a way to attract new markets. And the First Nations fashion movement was born! 

The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair was one of the first promotional platforms that dared to pair First Nations textile design with fine art. At first it caused quite the controversy, with critics claiming the two practices should stay in their own lanes. But audiences had quite the opposite response, embracing the new movement with open arms. Today, there are more than 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Centres and women’s centres that produce fabric as a core part of their businesses, with national and international interest abound.

Seeing a need to support this burgeoning industry and create professional development and sustainable business opportunities for First Nations designers and artists, DAAF established its internationally acclaimed fashion show Country to Couture in 2016, following up with the launch of the National Indigenous Fashion Awards (NIFA) in 2020. The NIFA prizes celebrate the vibrancy and originality of Indigenous designers and artists working in the fashion industry. With a combined prize value of $60,000, NIFA provides an excellent platform to develop opportunities for First Nations designers, in turn promoting diversity and innovation within the wider Australian fashion community.

Image | Winners of the 2020 Community Collaboration NIFA, Bula’bula Arts, Photo by Savvy Socials.

The inaugural NIFA event saw 33 First Nations fashion creatives nominated from across the country, awarding winners across six unique categories. Maara Collective X Bula’bula Arts took out the Community Collaboration Award, which was co-presented with Northern Territory Government. “Bula’bula artists felt immense pride in realising that others valued their hard work, creative and technical skills, artistry, ingenuity and culture,” comments former Art Centre manager Hilary Crawford. She tells that off the back of the project, Bendigo Art Gallery commissioned and acquired a set of works for their permanent collection, which are currently touring Australia as part of the prestigious exhibition Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion. The show is on at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra until August.

Talented young designer Kieren Karritpul was awarded the Textile Design Award, co-presented with RMIT University and Ross Bonthorne. Since the award announcement, Kieren has been hard at work printing, painting and designing. He’s currently working on some collaborations, as well as a major exhibition to be announced soon. “I am excited for the future,” says Kieren. “This year many new doors have opened for me, it is very exciting what the future holds.”

Kieren Karritpul from Merrepen Arts, 2021, Photo courtesy of Cathy Laudenbach Merrepen Arts

Yerrgi Fishnet Textiles design by Kieran Karritpul, dress by Raw Cloth, model Charlee Fraser, 2020, photo by Georges Antoni for marie claire.

Bede Tungutalum, a senior artist working out of the Tiwi Islands, took out the Special Recognition Award, honouring exceptional contribution to the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander textiles and fashion. “I felt proud to have been recognised,” says Bede. “All the judges from other parts of Australia supported me to win. I am proud to have been chosen. It’s been a long road for me in art. Now I am 69 years old, that’s 50 years after we started Tiwi Design.” 

Bede is now embarking on an exciting new textile related project. “I will be meeting with my dear friend Diana Wood Conroy who I met in 1974. Diana … will soon be launching a new book on Tiwi textiles. We will be travelling to Melville Island together to see my Country.” Bede will also travel to New South Wales later in the year to stay with Printmaker Tom Goulder of Duck Print Fine Art. “COVID-19 can’t stop me,” says the artist. “I want to keep making new art and doing things that I like.”

Bede Tungutalum. Photo by Bill Hawker.

Arawunikiri, A Double Sided Spear used in ceremony, textile design by Bede Tungutalum, model Charlee Fraser, photo by Georges Antoni for marie claire.

The Fashion Design Award, co-presented with Country Road, recognises a commercial fashion label who has produced a minimum of two collections of original design of clothing, jewellery or accessories. Julie Shaw was awarded the inaugural prize, the judges commending the designer on her bold use of colour and elegant, contemporary interpretations of traditional stories.

“The NIFA win marked a significant milestone in my career, and it will always hold a very special place for me,” says Julie. “It was an honour to have been nominated amongst so many talented Indigenous creatives who work tirelessly not only for the aesthetics of their brand or art practice, but for family, community and cultural reasons.”

To say much has happened for Julie since her NIFA win is an understatement! The prize included a business mentorship program with Country Road, which Julie says “has been nothing short of amazing. The Country Road team have been incredibly generous with their time, knowledge and expertise, and are so invested in this mentorship program. I feel I’ve learnt so much from them already.” Julie has also been part of the DAAF David Jones Pathways Program alongside a number of Indigenous fashion labels, “which has been yet another excellent program of learnings and mentorship from within the Australian fashion industry”, she notes.

Currently preparing her forthcoming Resort 2022 Collection release and participation in the Indigenous Fashion Projects runway show at Australian Fashion Week in June, Julie has also been working with Indigenous artists Lucy Simpson of Gaawaa Miyay for a print collaboration, as well as Krystal Hurst of Gillawarra Arts for an inaugural jewellery collaboration. “Both have been beautiful experiences to work with and learn from these amazing Indigenous women,” Julie says. “All of these experiences help to build on knowledge, connections and expertise, which in turn strengthens the business and the positioning of the brand within the industry.”

Winner of the 2020 Fashion Design NIFA, Julie Shaw with models Charlee Fraser and Billie-Jean Hamlet, wearing MAARA Collective. Photo by Georges Antoni for marie claire. 

Needless to say, Indigenous textile designs hold deep meaning for artists and communities, standing as a medium that pushes the boundaries of contemporary First Nations culture. There is a freedom to this practice, seen in the use of the vibrant colour, and the new expressions of old stories, enabling artists to stretch to the limits of their imagination. We can’t wait to see what happens next!

Banner Image | NIFA 2020 winner Peggy Griffiths, Legacy dress, model Billie-Jean Hamlet, photo by Georges Antoni for marie claire


Join us for the NIFA in 2021

The NIFA ceremony will take place on the evening of Tuesday 3 August 2021 at the Darwin Convention Centre. The event will once again be broadcast by NITV.

Stay Tuned for Updates!


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