This week in Sydney, Australia's first indigenous fashion week opened its door for business. Called Australian Indigenous Fashion Week (AIFW), the organization will be a platform for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander designers to showcase high quality traditional and contemporary fashion arts, textiles, accessories and furniture. The first year will include about 30 artists and designers, with shows set to kick off a year from now, in September 2013. Australia’s Aboriginal culture is one of the oldest surviving cultures in the world, dating back over 60,000 years. It is a deeply spiritual culture with a belief system that is inextricably linked to land. Today, it is probably best known for its artistic tradition with the signature Papunya Tula ‘dot art’ style paintings easily recognizable around the world.
One of the main aims of AIFW is to improve the economic status of Aboriginal people by brokering relationships with local and international buyers. Beyond that, it is also a chance to celebrate indigenous designers and increase their profile. There have been a few recent examples of Aboriginal artists working with contemporary Australian brands. The label Antipodium collaborated with indigenous artists Barbara Merritt, Manapa Butler, Ruby McIntosh and Roy Merritt on a collection a few seasons ago, and recently the swimwear label Kooey worked with Aboriginal artist Anne Hanning Knwarreye on exclusive prints.
Less is known about Aboriginal fashion and design outside of Australia, though last year debate erupted over the reference of Aboriginal art in Rodarte’s fall collection. Rodarte properly licensed the textiles that they used and proceeds went to the artists involved, but it still angered Aboriginal law professor and member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Megan Davis. Hopefully the fashion week will be a chance to promote Aboriginal designers and artists in a context free of controversy.
AIFW organizers All The Perks, an indigenous owned and managed events company, tapped model Samantha Harris to be the face of the event. Harris is one of Australia's top models and is also half Aboriginal on her mother's side. We caught up with the stunning beauty to see what she had to say about the launch.
Fashionista: Australian Aboriginal culture isn’t something that people overseas know much about, what would you want people to know? Samantha Harris: I want people overseas to know how special our culture is. I hope next year when the Indigenous Fashion Week starts the rest of the world will stand up and take notice of such a unique heritage. We are an old culture that is very rich in the arts, sports and fashion. I want the world to know how talented the Australian Aborigines are.
Aboriginal culture is very connected to the arts, how would you describe that relationship? The arts over the years, especially the cave paintings, have told our story. We are a very creative race and fortunately we can express ourselves in artistic ways such as painting and even design. Hopefully this strong connection will be upheld for many years to come.
Did your diverse background help or hinder you when you started modeling? My background helped me when I started modeling because there weren’t many aboriginal models at the time and everyone in the fashion industry embraced both me and my culture. It was an exciting time, but I hope that now people accept the fact that I am successful not because of my background, but because of my hard work and disciplined approach.
What did it mean to you to land your first Vogue cover? It meant so much to be on the cover of Vogue; I was truly honored and proud, especially as only the second indigenous person to ever grace the cover of Vogue Australia. Words can't describe how happy I was. It was an absolute turning point.
What do you think people can expect from the upcoming launch of Australian Indigenous Fashion Week? I think people will be blown away by this project. I haven't seen all the designers and artwork that will be involved yet, but from what I have seen I can say there is so much talent, and I just can't wait for everyone else to see what I have witnessed already.
Do you have favorite Aboriginal designers? I love Roopa Pemmaraju, her graphics are amazing, and I love her silhouettes.
Last year there was a huge controversy when Rodarte used Aboriginal prints on garments. Do you have a comment about that? I thought it was a great thing. I felt it gave Aboriginal art a fashion edge and helped raise its profile. I just wish I could have afforded to buy some of the garments.