“The signs are absolutely positive and it is encouraging to see the industry acknowledge and embrace Indigenous fashion as part of who we are as an Australian fashion industry. I think there are definitely more steps to be taken in supporting Indigenous business and enterprise and model diversity and in understanding more about collaboration and co-design from an Aboriginal point of view, but I am very hopeful for the future.”
For many of the award winners on Tuesday night, the NIFA event is about more than just about fashion and design..
“From a community point of view, it’s fantastic because it shines a light on what we do creatively,” said Denni Francisco, a Wiradjuri woman and the founder and creative director of Ngali, who took home the Fashion Design Award.
Francisco’s latest collection translates the work of Gija artist Lindsay Malay onto modern silk garments, and it is this collaboration between Indigenous businesses that she has found to be truly rewarding.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and designers use techniques and skills that have been passed down through generations, and for them, the awards are an opportunity to honour their community.
The women who accepted the Special Recognition Award for Bima Wear, a textile design and manufacturing powerhouse started in the Tiwi Islands in 1969, thanked their elders past and present who have worked to support the Tiwi community for over 50 years.
Similarly, Paul McCann, a Marrithiyel Aboriginal artist and the winner of the Cultural Adornment and Wearable Art award, credited the glamorous style of his maternal grandmother, who suffers from dementia, as the inspiration for the statement gowns, jewellery and headpieces he creates.
McCann designed the ‘gumnut’ dress worn by Gamilaroi and Dunghutti drag queen Felicia Foxx that stole the show at the Indigenous Fashion Projects showcase at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week earlier this year.
“For me, this is a way of respecting, honouring and keeping her alive through these shapes and silhouettes,” he said in a video about his work.
Innovation at the heart of Indigenous fashion
At the same time, there’s an enormous amount of innovation in the community, such as the use of found and recycled materials in the ghost net sculptures of Mylene Holroyd, a Kugu and Thaayorre woman based at the Pormpuraaw Art & Culture Centre in Queensland whose work draws attention to the problem of abandoned fish nets in the ocean.
Holroyd won the Environmental and Social Contribution Award together with designer Simone Arnol for their reinterpretation of the sculptures as wearable pieces.
“It was great to see brands and artists showcasing the impact their work is having. We heard about innovative approaches to sustainability, the importance of mentoring models and emerging artists and also about the ripple effect of establishing social enterprises,” Widders-Hunt said.
“This is at the heart of Indigenous fashion so it was great to see such a strong focus on that this year.”
As the winner of Fashion Design Award, Francisco will receive a 12-month mentorship from Country Road, which sponsored the award for the second time. The tailored program covers areas such as product development, legal, marketing and sustainability, with the aim of supporting Ngali’s growth.
“I’m so looking forward to it,” Francisco told Inside Retail.
“It’s not just about the design process — it’s also the business process, which then helps you feel a little freer to be your creative self.”
Although the awards are just in their second year, Widders-Hunt noted that they’re gaining momentum, with 31 designers nominated across six categories this year.
“The calibre of the nominees this year was once again absolutely outstanding. One of my key takeaways is just how much activity is happening right across the country. We are seeing established Indigenous labels based in big cities, as well as remote art centres who have pioneered this industry for many decades,” she said.
“As judges, it’s amazing to understand the cultural significance and social impact of the work, which all of the nominees were able to share. As we often say, it’s not just about the fashion, it’s about our communities.”Indigenous FashionNational Indigenous Fashion Awards