MBFWA fetes indigenous design

For the first time ever, indigenous designers will be in the spotlight during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia (MBFWA) on May 15 in Sydney.

“As we celebrate the 25th year of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia, it is incredibly exciting to welcome this intersection of emerging and established designers who represent the vibrant and diverse fabric of our country during this significant moment for Australian fashion,” said Natalie Xenita, executive director of IMG’s fashion events group, Asia-Pacific region.

The Australian Indigenous Fashion Showcase at MBFWA grew out of the success of the Country to Couture event organised by the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation (DAAFF) each year in August. David Giles-Kaye, head of indigenous fashion projects at the DAAFF, believes the event will be a great opportunity for the wider community to better understand the breadth of indigenous design and talent. In the coming weeks, the DAAFF will announce the five designers who will be taking part in the MBFWA showcase, unveiling 10 different looks each for the runway.

“I think people will be surprised about the incredible diversity. Indigenous art is not just one thing. I think one of the most amazing things is their connection to stories. All fashion design should connect people to stories from the designer, and we don’t see enough of that in the industry,” Giles-Kaye told Inside Retail Weekly.

Consumers are also looking for more meaning in the products that they purchase and searching for a connection with brands and designers, something which Giles-Kaye said indigenous fashion has “in spades”.

“Every single indigenous designer is telling the stories of their culture, communities and ancestors through their fashion. It’s an amazing connection that you have when you engage with indigenous designers – you’re connecting to an ancient culture.”

Country to Couture is held every August in Darwin, where artists from remote communities work with a designer to create a collection for the show. Other events on the DAAFF calendar this year include the first National Indigenous Fashion Awards, which will follow the music and art award programs that also take place that week.

Giles-Kaye was previously the CEO at the Australian Fashion Council, where he was also working towards putting indigenous artists in the spotlight and learning more about the community.

“I’m very keen to see what I can do to help in my very humble ‘white person’ way. The key part has been in listening and seeing what people need,” said Giles-Kaye. “A really positive challenge of that is to then try to build pathways for everyone, from people in remote communities with little resources available to those who are doing amazing things in cities. Then there are indigenous organisations that are growing to support designers, so we want to help them as well.”

Like all business owners, the support required for indigenous designers is wide and varied. For some, they may be a 10-hour drive away from the nearest town over a bumpy road, so they may have trouble accessing training. Or they may need help with printing or when a machine breaks down. Other designers may show great promise, but they’re trying to work out the right business model for them and access the right customer base, said Giles-Kaye.

“One of the big differences [with indigenous designers] is the need to protect the culture that goes into the work. I think most, if not all, designers have a strong cultural influence on their designs and how they protect that and how that’s valued is a really unique aspect to them. There is still a big divide in our country between indigenous and non-indigenous people; and the day-to-day challenges that all indigenous people in Australia face mean pretty much everything they do is harder,” he explained.

“I think so many of us are very aware of those social issues but have not had a connection [with the indigenous community]. This is one of the great things about art and fashion – it can help connect indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and I’ve seen that in the last couple of years. This is where fashion shows are really important – where non-indigenous people can interact with indigenous people and break down those barriers.”

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