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Collaboration Over Competition: Why First Nations Fashion Is A Community Like No Other

“Magical” is the word Kaydee Kyle-Taylor uses when summing up what it’s like to be in creative spaces filled with mob. The Wakka Wakka, Birri Gubba, Kaanjtu, Ngati Porou, Ngati Kahungunu woman has just come off the back of being one of Melbourne Fashion Week’s head makeup artists. Over the phone, she gushes about her experience working on the ganbu marra show, a show that brought together 13 First Nations designers and 31 First Nations models. The spectacular showcase of Blak excellence culminated in a standing ovation and many tears — both among the audience and backstage.
“A lot of us have known each other for years and a lot of us have been in community together for years. And then there's some of us that you would think we've known each other for so long when we've only just met. Outsiders just thought we were this family and I'm like, well we are, we’re a tight-knit unit,” she tells Refinery29 Australia.
The notion of family goes beyond blood relations — cousin, Aunty, sis — respect and intimacy is baked into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander slang.
It’s only since Black Lives Matter in 2020 that Kyle-Taylor believes there’s been more of a welcome embrace of First Nations talent, though there’s some way to go. “I think on a surface level the industry is opening up opportunities for First Nations talent and brands. However there's still a long way to go in terms of business structures and building this sector to have longevity,” says Nathan McGuire, Whadjuk and Noongar model and founder of Mob In Fashion
One of the ways non-Indigenous businesses and people have engaged First Nations talent is through collaboration.

"I would love to see more transparency around mainstream brands collaborating with Aboriginal artists or brands. Is it a once-off fee? Do they get royalties? Are they getting profits back?"

sianna catullo
“I am really enjoying seeing a lot more mainstream brands doing collabs [with First Nations people]. I think it's great because visibility of Aboriginal design and culture can make Aboriginal people feel seen and safe,” chief creative officer of Clothing The Gaps Sianna Catullo tells us. 
Clothing The Gaps begun in 2018 and a lot has changed since then. Catullo recalls there not being many other First Nations fashion brands around her five years ago. Now, she is proud to see so many more mob-owned brands take off. "My wardrobe is pretty much nearly all Blak. I love to see it,” she says.
With her half a decade in the space comes her healthy dose of scepticism and business smarts. “I've got mixed reviews on collabs… my first reaction is [to ask], ‘what's the arrangement?’. I would love to see more transparency around mainstream brands collaborating with Aboriginal artists or brands. Is it a once-off fee? Do they get royalties? Are they getting profits back?”.
She points to a recent collection of a limited-edition bag and silk scarf between Status Anxiety and Aboriginal artist Daisy Hill where all profits were donated to Children’s Ground — an example that Catullo says is “a really good way to operate in the space”.
Catullo also questions the capitalistic perception we have of collaborations in the first place, where tangible products are typically the only accepted outcome. “We've had this relationship with HoMie, who's another social enterprise, since the very beginning… People straightaway are like well, what have you guys made together? And it's not that we're making product together. We share resources, we share our skills, we share our expertise.”
The sharing and passing down of knowledge has been intrinsic to First Nations communities for more than 60,000 years. But speaking to five First Nations people for this piece, it’s clear that this synergy between mob is more than information based — there’s something intangible and unique there too.
For McGuire, it’s the “shared values and experiences that we have in life and careers”. For founder of Ngali Denni Francisco, it’s the inexplicable “incredible energy when we come together as First Nations creators”. For Catullo, it’s the immediate reassurance of “ease and [feeling] comfortable” at Australian Fashion Week, after spotting other mob there.
In Gammin Threads’ Instagram bio, you’ll see a dot point just above its size range and link in bio that reads, “community over competition”. A scroll down its feed proves just that; First Nations creatives, photographers, models and businesses are all proudly weaved in with founder Tahnee Edwards’ array of apparel and accessories. 
“We are all really supportive of each other's work and I’m really lucky to have made friends with mob who are doing similar things, my sis Kristy [Dickinson] at Haus of Dizzy being one of them,” she shares over email, adding that the pair share a studio together. “More First Nations brands should collaborate with each other… it creates beautiful work and strengthens the Blak economy.”
Catullo shares her love of EB Jewellery, a responsible, minimalistic brand by Kamilaroi and Dunghutt woman Ebony Birks, that collaborates with other Aboriginal artists. “For the first time ever, I can buy jewellery from an Aboriginal-owned business that's collaborated with an Aboriginal artist instead of having to go to a mainstream brand that has collaborated with an Aboriginal artist. It just feels a lot more comfortable to me knowing [I can help] create this generational wealth.”
It echos Wiradjuri woman Francisco’s vision for Ngali. Established in 2018, the brand has fast become an award-winning and highly respected fixture in Australia’s fashion scene. “[I wanted] to be able to expand the reach of remote-destination artists by collaborating with them to translate their artwork into fabric prints… in a really respectful way,” she tells us. 
Photographed by Liana Hardy.
“Every First Nations artwork is the personal story of the artist. Those stories aren't really ours to tell. But with their agreement, we can translate that artwork into prints and from that, we're able to create collections.” 
It’s no surprise to learn that Ngali translates to ‘we’ or ‘us’ in numerous Aboriginal languages. Her dedication to cross-country collaborations with other mob also ensures the mindful use and fair renumeration of these artists. The ongoing exploitation of inauthentic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander product has long been a problem in our country — so much so that Queen Victoria Market recently put a ban on its trading. 
These efforts — noting that many of these initiatives have been First Nations-led — are a result of endless work from First Nations people. It’s been over seven years in the makeup industry for Kyle-Taylor, seven years that have been marred by feeling “defeated,” many course changes and numerous efforts to ‘prove’ herself. 
"To a lot of people within the industry, [seven years] is not a long time, but I always flip it back on them and say you know, I would have had more experience and more opportunities had there been a seat at the table in the first place for First Nation and BIPOC creators, artists and designers,” she says.

"We're not just here for ourselves. We're here for our community. We're here for for our elders."

kaydee kyle-taylor
“We all would have the years on us within this space if we were included from the start. Our models would have been signed years ago, there wouldn’t be any of these weird barriers or any kind of commentary about our lack of experience or things like that. We're so extremely talented. When we have a seat at the table, we do things so differently as well. And so we should, because the industry has never included us so why would we continue to follow their protocols or their system? It's never included us so we need to clearly change it so that we can continue expanding and diversifying the space.”
The need for First Nations in backstage roles pushed McGuire to create Mob In Fashion. “It would be great to see more interest in other parts of the industry. We saw a gap in representation in the industry and set out to help creatives gain more career opportunities in all areas of fashion,” he says.
Without the support of mainstream fashion and non-indigenous entities, the First Nations community proves tenfold that it is its own best support system. Edwards created Gammin Threads after feeling moved by NAIDOC’s 2018 theme, “Because Of Her We Can” coupled with her work at Djirra, an Aboriginal family violence prevention service. Her signature slogan tees celebrate Blak matriarchs and now, she and Dickinson are creating their own not-for-profit called Young Aunties Haus, aimed at creating pathways for First Nations women and LGBTQI+ mob in creative industries.
Through Ngali, Francisco is motivated to close the literacy and IT skills gap of children living in remote regions of Australia, and her new retail studio in Melbourne Quarter will double as a space for young creatives to refine their craft. “Whether they want to set up internships, whether they want a bit of direction on something, you know, then they've got a place to go to,” she says.
For Catullo, the pressure to succeed in the fashion space goes beyond profits and sales. “We don't make clothes because they're cute, we make clothes because we know they can influence social change. Succeeding to us means making the world better for Aboriginal people, making Aboriginal people's lives better.”
“That’s what that's what being Aboriginal, that's what being of colour means,” echoes Kyle-Taylor. “We're not just here for ourselves. We're here for our community. We're here for our elders. We always say our ancestors paved the way before us, and we feel like we're pretty much doing that for the next lot of creatives to come.”
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