Shadeene Evens wears The Boonkaj collection by Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, Country to Couture, Styled by Rhys Ripper, 2021, photo by James Giles

Wearing it Well

Over the past six years, DAAFF’s annual Country to Couture event has become a leading national platform to celebrate and support First Nations textile design and fashion. 

Words by Camilla Wagstaff

It’s August in the Top End, and you’re backstage at one of Australia’s most exciting annual fashion events. There’s an electric buzz in the air, and it grows as more than 1000 people take their seats beyond the curtains. 

A troupe of stunning models – some who have graced the pages of global fashion magazines, some who have never walked a runway before – are getting last-minute touch ups from a talented team. Creative Director Perina Drummond and Head Stylist Rhys Ripper assisted by Nina Fitzgerald, alongside backstage volunteers, hair, and makeup artists, are all in action. The music swells as Garramilla Dancers welcome guests to Larrakia Country and performances from fierce First Nations Drag Queens hype up the crowd. Then, 13 collections are brought to life, one by one. 

Anindilyakwa Arts opens with a series of stunning bark dresses – a contemporary retelling of those worn by Groote Eylandt’s ancestors. NORTH brings together the work of artists from Marrawuddi and Injalak Art Centres, representing a rich culture spanning more than 65,000 years. The Numbulwar Numburindi collection is inspired by traditional weaving techniques, with striking yir (dilly bags) looking right at home on a high fashion catwalk. Pastel leisurewear paired with bold accessories made from sporting equipment, created by the Dunjiba Community in South Australia, are a hit with the crowd. 

Every look that comes down the runway tells another unique story of culture, Country and creativity. It’s little surprise then, that the show ends with a standing ovation and seemingly endless applause. Such is the power of Country to Couture. 

Country to Couture, 2021, photos by Charlie Bliss, Getty Images. See more from each of the collections at this year’s show here >>

The first Country to Couture (C2C) arose from the post-Global Financial Crisis (GFC) textile movement in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and the innovative fashion collections and designer collaborations that followed. The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation (DAAFF) responded to its Art Centre membership’s desire to create a platform that showcased the fruits of this movement to the wider art and fashion industries, and beyond. 

In the six years since, C2C has become an annual celebration of the richness and diversity of First Nations fashion. It has also provided a much-needed springboard for this burgeoning industry, seeding more capacity-building initiatives, and helping launch the careers of countless First Nations fashion designers, models, and creative talents. The past two years have seen the production of two C2C films delving deeper into the stories behind the collections, dramatically increasing C2C’s reach and documenting its stories for future generations. C2C now sits as part of DAAFF’s Indigenous Fashion Projects – a program that supports the capacity building of Indigenous textiles and fashion enterprises.

Country to Couture, 2020 to 2021, Images 1-2 featuring the MAARA Collective x Bula’bula Arts collection, and Mangkaja x Gorman collection, photos by Dylan Buckee. Image 3 featuring Ngali by Denni Francisco, photo by Tim Hillier. Image 4 featuring Ikuntji Artists x Magpie Goose, photo by George F Photography.

As Denni Francisco, Wiradjuri woman and founder of fashion label Ngali, comments: 

“One of the most wonderful things about participating in C2C is doing so with a whole collection of other First Nation creatives. It provides a lot of inspiration as well as the opportunity to celebrate accomplishments together. The event brings together such a great cross-section of people and the whole experience is one of discovery and celebration.”

Artists Anita Churchill, Cathy Ward, Delany Griffiths of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts add: 

“[It] means a lot to be included in Country to Couture and have our own textiles appear in clothes for everyone to see. [It’s a] good experience for us as textile artists and it teaches us more about the industry.” 

This east Kimberley Art Centre’s most recent C2C collection spoke of young women and their deep connection to bush plant knowledge.

Shadeene Evens & Joshua Morris wear The Boonkaj collection by Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, Country to Couture, Styled by Rhys Ripper, 2021, photo by James Giles

C2C is now supported by the Northern Territory Government via Northern Territory Major Events Company and iconic Australian lifestyle brand, Country Road. Country Road Brand Community and Impact Manager Fabia Pryor remarks on the mounting global attention for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fashion. 

“Events like Country to Couture are becoming mainstays on the Australian fashion calendar and provide incredible opportunities to celebrate First Nations talent and share important stories.”

It’s an opportunity that runs in many directions, with C2C providing support for emerging creatives and entire economies alike. As the Northern Territory Minister for Major Events, Natasha Fyles notes: 

“The event creates another exciting reason for people to visit the Territory and reaches out to a new demographic interested in high-end fashion. This brings economic benefits to the Territory.”

Indigenous fashion is an exciting new realm that elevates innovative, contemporary expressions of culture, Country and creativity, building capacity and sustainability for our First Nations communities. Through understanding, respect and support, DAAFF’s C2C and related programs allow more and more people to connect to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and history in a meaningful, accessible way.

Denni Francisco concludes: 

“I am super excited by the creativity that exists and continues to emerge in the talented space of Australia’s First Nations. There is so much excitement surrounding this potential, I can’t wait to see how it continues to evolve, grow and be celebrated. Finally, we are cementing our place within the fashion industry.”

Shadeene Evens wears Ngali by Denni Francisco, featuring print adapted from the work of Lindsay Malay, Country to Couture, Styled by Rhys Ripper, 2021, photo by James Giles

More to Come

More exciting Country to Couture announcements to come! Subscribe below for updates, and follow the link below to find out how you can join the movement and support programs like Country to Couture throughout the year.