June 9, 2021

The Milestone Presence of Indigenous Design at Australian Fashion Week Is a Reminder of Fashion’s Power

Australian Fashion Week started in a way it never has before—with a Welcome to Country, a ceremony held by First Nations elders, welcoming guests to Gadigal land. For the first time, a smoking ceremony— with burning eucalyptus leaves and a traditional dance by the Muggera dance company—was accompanied by fashion, with three Indigenous models, all newly signed to IMG, wearing designs from First Nations labels.

Wearing a jumpsuit from Aarli, wearable art from Penny Evans, a Ngarru Miimi dress, and scarves from Rujaki designs, models encircled the smoking leaves—a powerful visual symbol that signaled the milestone moment of change this week could be, with fashion as the central medium.  

“What an incredibly important pivotal moment for us as a nation to recognize that the First Nations fashion industry existed before this moment. To understand that we are the beginning of the fabrication of the fashion industry, we have to recognize the past,” said curator of the clothes Grace Lillian Lee, an Indigenous artist and designer herself from Cairns and founder of newly established organization First Nations Fashion + Design (FNFD). The clothes won’t be shown just once: They are part of FNFD’s runway show of eight designers and will then live on in an exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) exploring Australia’s cultural connections to eucalyptus, Eucalyptusdom, starting July 1.

The runway show is the first-ever all-Indigenous show on, to be followed by a second the day after by Indigenous Fashion Projects. They are not the only firsts. This year Fashion Week coincides with National Reconciliation Week, created to foster understanding and connection between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and MAAS has just announced the appointment of its first-ever director of First Nations, Emily McDaniel.

Australia has never fully tapped the potency of its history in a fashion setting this way—all 60,000-plus years of it. Many participating in the week see the potential for the understanding of Australian fashion to change, which has only been driven further by a growing awareness thanks to movements like Black Lives Matter.

The finale of the First Nations Fashion Design show at Australian Fashion Week

Photo: Getty Images