The culturally rich world of First Nations fashion offers a unique opportunity for all Australians to celebrate Indigenous creativity, culture, and craftsmanship. By supporting First Nations fashion, we can foster cultural exchange and economic empowerment to build a sustainable future for Indigenous fashion designers.
Since Australian Fashion Week presented its inaugural First Nations runway in 2021, there has been an increase in presence and opportunity for First Nations designers to showcase their work. This growth reflects not only the diversity of Indigenous talent and culture, but also the increased social appetite for supporting Indigenous creatives. And while the sustainability of the First Nations fashion sector relies in part on non-Indigenous customers, there are a few considerations that non-Indigenous people should reflect on to ensure they engage with Indigenous fashion in ways that are respectful and appropriate.
Words by Nick Harvey-Doyle, May 2023
What is First Nations fashion?
First Nations fashion is inherently political. Indigenous designers do not create for the wider fashion industry, but rather use their designs to shed the shackles of colonisation, share stories of culture and Country, and provide a nexus for healing through clothes that increase Indigenous visibility in modern Australia. It is more than a mere commercial transaction.
Prominent Aboriginal social enterprise, Clothing the Gaps, is known for its political activism. Co-founded by Gunditjmara woman, Laura Thompson (who took home the Business Achievement Award at the 2022 National Indigenous Fashion Awards), the brand encourages people to wear their values and realised a huge win when their sustained activism resulted in the copyright being removed from the Aboriginal Flag in 2022 – a significant political milestone for Australia.
“First Nations fashion is also about sustainability, cultural ethics, and caring for Country,” said Michelle Maynard, a contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal designer and manager of Indigenous Fashion Projects.
“It’s a contemporary medium for the transmission of story, and to give expression and voice to our stories in diverse ways whether through print on a garment, or traditionally inspired story art, or a contemporary collaboration.”
Michelle Maynard, Photo by Dylan Buckee
When non-Indigenous people wear First Nations fashion, they are participating in an expression of allyship and support of Indigenous people. The generosity in First Nations designers sharing their culture through fashion is a privilege that non-Indigenous people should not take lightly.
Why is it important to support First Nations fashion?
“Supporting First Nations fashion supports us in our cultural ways of being in this contemporary world,” said Michelle.
“It supports cultural survival and makes a real contribution to closing the gap by increasing opportunities for sustainable employment and economic development in our communities.”
Supporting Indigenous fashion means driving cultural expression, economic outcomes, and greater opportunities for First Nations people. Fashion also provides young First Nations people an incredibly visible platform to engage with role models and the celebration of their culture.
Customers should also ensure that their support is going to ethical businesses. “The ethical purchase of First Nations art and fashion ensures that artists are paid fairly, and funds go directly back to communities, as art can often be one of the only sources of external income in some remote communities,” said Michelle.
Is this a genuine First Nations business?
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for businesses that “look Indigenous” to be owned by non-Indigenous people, so it is important to check that you are supporting a genuine First Nations business. “Some of the ways people can buy ethically is by checking authenticity,” says Michelle.
“Check whether an artist, designer, or brand is registered with agencies like Supply Nation, Trading Blak, or the Indigenous Art Code.”
KAMARA, David Jones Indigenous Fashion Projects Runway, Afterpay Australian Fashion Week, 2023, Photo by Katherine Azzopardi, Citigraphica Media.
Can I wear this?
Embrace cultural appreciation, not appropriation, by understanding the sacredness of Indigenous designs, their cultural significance, and who the designs are intended to be worn by.
Clothing the Gaps makes it easy for non-Indigenous customers to shop their designs. With “Ally Friendly” and “Mob Only” collections, the brand provides clear guidance on who their wares are made for. According to the brand, “We invite everyone to wear our Ally Friendly collection as long as it aligns with your values, and you feel equipped for the conversations it may spark.”
Through their streetwear designs, the brand aims to create fashion that encourages non-Indigenous people to educate themselves on the issues and causes reflected on their clothing to not only remove the onus on Aboriginal people to educate others, but to ensure that allyship is genuine and transparent.
In short, be genuine in your support of First Nations fashion businesses and if you are unsure if the brand is intended to be worn by non-Indigenous people, just ask. As Clothing the Gaps say, “if you don’t understand the use of the lingo on the tee… then it’s probably not for you.”
Miimi and Jiinda, David Jones Indigenous Fashion Projects Runway, 2023, Photo by Katherine Azzopardi, Citigraphica Media
The First Nations fashion sector has a variety of choice for all consumers. A simple internet search of “Indigenous fashion brands to support” or social media accounts such as @ausindigenousfashion will steer you in the right direction.
At the recent Afterpay Australian Fashion Week, seven First Nations brands were
shown for the David Jones Indigenous Fashion Projects runway. The brands on show
were incredibly diverse and deeply personal (learn more about them here). They
JOSEPH & JAMES
Miimi and Jiinda
“They [the designers] are all so incredibly talented, inspiring, and gorgeous people and it was such a proud moment to shine the spotlight on them this year,” said Michelle.
“I think when you look at First Nations fashion and textile design, and you listen to the designers speak about their inspirations and creative process, it’s really clear how strong our creative expression is informed and inspired by our culture, our identity, our Country, and the thousands of generations of ancestors standing behind us.”
JOSEPH & JAMES, David Jones Indigenous Fashion Projects Runway, 2023, Photo by Katherine Azzopardi, Citigraphica Media
Thanks For Reading
We hope you can leave feeling confident and repectful when considerating to buy First Nations fashion. Why not expand your closet by support our talented IFP Pathway Program designers, you can shop their collections HERE! If you’d like to hear more from IFP on our programs, subcribe to our newsletter and see how you can support our programs and First Nations designers HERE!
ABOUT THE WRITER
Nick Harvey-Doyle is a descendant of the Anewan people from the Northern Tablelands of NSW. He has qualifications in arts, law, and journalism, and has worked in advisory roles across multiple sectors including health, communications, the arts, media, and the built environment. Nick is currently studying a Masters of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University with the support of a Fulbright Scholarship.
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