Indigenous fashion winning artists international and local support

 abc.net.au  9/16/2017 7:12:24 PM   Isabella Higgins and Bridget Brennan

Updated September 17, 2017 05:19:51

The bright, bold and distinctly Australian designs of Indigenous fashion have always captured attention, but they are now proving to be a lucrative industry — with record sales and major fashion houses looking to collaborate on luxury collections.

More than half-a-million dollars was made on fashion sales at the recent Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, where more than a dozen Aboriginal designers showed off their work.

And high-end international and Australian designers are taking notice of the burgeoning interest in Indigenous design, and putting it at the front and centre of their collections.

Luxury shoe-giant Jimmy Choo recently used the designs of Noongar man Peter Farmer on a pair of couture footwear.

In Australia, fashion house Aje recently collaborated with the family of the late renowned Utopia artist Minnie Pwerle to create their luxury resort collection.

Aje director Edwina Robinson said the artist's family would receive royalties from the sale of the garments.

"The collection is so well received. Her work is incredible — it speaks for itself — so for us to be able to articulate her work through our collection was very, very special," Ms Robinson said.

"Obviously there's a lot of cultural sensitivity around Indigenous artwork.

"It was very important for us to work with the family.

"They had certain things they wanted to articulate in terms of her legacy and what she was trying to communicate through her artwork."

She said collection received an overwhelming response at home and overseas.

"Indigenous culture and the story of Australia and what has happened in our history — I think it carried another level of selling power over there," she said.

Cairns-based artist Grace Lillian Lee has found success using traditional Torres Strait Islander weaving techniques.

Her intricate designs are sold in a high-end Melbourne boutique and are also on display at the National Gallery of Victoria.

"In the past seven years I think there's been a big change in the fashion industry in terms of people looking to learn and know more about Indigenous fashion and what that looks like," she said.

"People may not know where it comes from and are just intrigued by the texture and shape and form.

"But when they learn where it originates from, that's something really exciting — to be able also inform them that it's a traditional weaving technique from the Torres Strait Islands.

"I think it's been a really beautiful way to celebrate something that was suppressed in my family. I feel really proud to be able to wear and share with the wider community."

'It's great times for us'

But despite the growing demand for Indigenous design, it can be tough to break bank in the world of fashion.

The Hopevale Aboriginal Art Centre from remote north-west Queensland showed their designs at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, but artist Harold Brown said they were only just starting to see the cash trickle in.

"We're just above the red, and in time I think our main goal is to get profitable and we should be there in the next couple of years," he said.

"It's a real eye-opener for us. We do the paintings but I think we've sort of gone into the direction of fashion now.

"It's great times for us. But the thing now is, how do we step up to that next level for next year? So, that's the challenge now."

"The fabrics are fabulous with the linen and the silk and it's just trying to work from there and trying to get some stuff running, like get our Facebook page up, our Instagram — we're just on the verge of that.

"It's going to be phenomenal and it keeps us quite busy for the next six months, so that's great."

As more art centres test their luck in the fashion world, there is a push to better educate artists on how to receive proper payment for their designs.

"It's early days and these things take times and we think it could be a really interesting form of a more passive income," manager of the Aboriginal Art Centre Alliance, Pam Bigelow, said.

"We're very insistent on using licensing agreements, royalty payments and a proper process that's transparent between both parties so everyone gets what they want out of it and the artist is paid fairly.

"We bring the experts up, the art lawyers, the art code, and talk about what artists should get, the contracts to use and the documents to use, to train art centre managers and train staff properly."

A decade ago, no Indigenous designers were parading their designs on major catwalks, but now fashion experts predict more than 100 have shown their works in Australia and overseas — a number that is expected to keep growing.

Topics: arts-and-entertainment, design, fashion, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, community-and-society, indigenous-culture, australia

First posted September 17, 2017 05:12:24

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