The comforting smell of a sage-like smoke wafts its way down Fed Square’s atrium, snaking between dozens of seated fashion goers eagerly awaiting the free Melbourne Fashion Week (MFW) runway. We’re experiencing a 60,000-year-old tradition, many of us for the first time. This is a smoking ceremony conducted by a Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Di Kerr, an opportunity to “come through fire”.
Her daughter places a leaf in the smouldering bundle of native plants. Aunty Di Kerr narrates that this represents all of us, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous folk. The next leaf placed is representative of her, her family, and her people. “We all belong here,” she says, emphasising each word.
In a MFW first, the runway was entirely dedicated to First Nations excellence, showcasing a fully Indigenous design line-up. But beyond the designs, we saw First Nations models, hip-hop dancers, artists, and DJs collaboratively band together.
At the helm of this show is stylist, creative director and proud Yorta Yorta man Rhys Ripper. An industry insider for almost two decades, he cut his teeth at several national and international publications and brands.
The spirit of collaboration flows through the entire production and is intrinsic to the way Ripper works. “Anything I do is collaborative — I love working like that,” he tells Refinery29 Australia. “Having First Nations behind the scenes is super important.”
Off the back of Afterpay Australian Fashion Week’s acclaimed First Nations Fashion + Design runway, which saw a First Nations line-up of fashion designers, models, back-of-house teams and production crews, this show felt like a fitting next step for the industry.
“This is literally the natural progression from what we saw at Australian Fashion Week,” says Ripper. “Now [we’re] showcasing new collections that fit easily into the marketplace; collections that not only celebrate our culture through design, expression, and art but are also shoppable.”
Model and proud Whadjuk Noongar man Nathan McGuireOne echoes this sentiment. “What was great about this show is that we saw ready-to-wear pieces — this is good for the First Nations fashion sector, because we need more businesses and Blak businesses allowed in the space to promote their work and fill in the gaps that are created in the industry,” he tells Refinery29 Australia post-show.
Amber Days, House of Darwin, Kirrikin, Liandra Swim, and Nungala Creative took their designs onto the runway — the swimsuits, printed buttoned t-shirts and sarongs the perfect addition to Melbourne’s hip streetwear scene.
“It's just exciting,” McGuire says. “The small cultural elements that were incorporated in a contemporary and a very Melbourne way were fun to see.”
For many of the established and emerging designers parading their latest collections, it was a time for experimentation and evolution.
Liandra Swim is known for its patterned, vibrant, reversible swimwear collections. But for this show, founder and proud Yolngu woman Liandra Gaykamangu decided to expand on what the brand does best.
“The pieces at MFW are quite different to what we usually do. We have started to dabble in resort wear, so we are showing beautiful chiffon skirts, pants and dresses,” she tells Refinery29 Australia, pointing out that the pieces are made from recycled PET bottles (“the softest chiffon fabric [she has] ever felt!”).
We need more businesses and Blak businesses allowed in the space to promote their work and fill in the gaps that are created in the industry.
“The prints are hand-drawn by me, and represent my experience of Milingimbi, my island home in East Arnhem Land,” Gaykamangu says. “I use fashion to share stories and highlight the positive impact Indigenous women make in society.” While tangibly she does this by empowering her customers to wear her designs proudly, the sentiment is also embedded into her brand, with pieces named after powerful Indigenous women like author Doris Pilkington Garimara AM and Olympian Rohanee Cox.
Cultural richness and diversity is what she hopes for the future of Australia’s fashion scene. “I also want to see First Nations designers and creatives seamlessly be a part of the main runway events. This includes photographers, make-up artists, hairstylists, creative directors, designers, and models,” she adds.
But this wasn’t the only ‘first’ at Melbourne Fashion Week. Melbourne-based children’s wear label Amber Days is entering the activewear and womenswear space with beautiful baby pink satin-like sets fluttering in the wind at the open air runway. Similarly, Kirrikin's show-stopping designs showcased chic, feminine cuts.
Social enterprise House of Darwin saw its pieces on a runway for the first time ever — its nostalgic ‘60s-inspired buttoned linen short-sleeves and shorts styled with chunky work boots. Nungala Creative introduced swim for the first time, and its collection oozed with ‘80s vibrancy as well as humour, with a T-shirt proclaiming that “Captain Cook was a shit c*nt”.
“I was super proud of what the designers achieved for this show,” Ripper says, particularly in a year marred by pandemics and lockdowns. The best bit? All pieces are available to purchase by consumers.
Mirroring the energetic displays of fashion was the original art piece on set that served as a vivid backdrop. McGuire’s own sister Jarni McGuire, an artist and proud Whadjuk, Ballardong and Yued woman, was the talent behind it.
“I love [Jarni],” Ripper glowingly says. “My concept for the backdrop was to offer the guests and the models a beautiful background for them [to be photographed with], which definitely happened. And that makes me extremely proud of her.”
Ripper wants conversations about First Nations representation to move past minimising and demoralising statements about barriers and the lack of inclusivity. After all, there is so much talent to celebrate. “Let’s celebrate fashion that so happens to come from First Nations designers,” he says in our e-mail conversation.
I ask Liandra Swim’s Gaykamangu about what she hopes non-Indigenous people will take from the show. “It is okay to want to wear First Nations designers and appreciate our craft as you would any other designer,” she says.
“That it is ok to be proud of Indigenous Australia.”