We chatted to designers Jedda-Daisy Culley and Caroline Sundt-Wells about the 2013 relaunch of the label that had its beginnings in Fremantle Prison in the 1970s. Yep, prison. Certainly not the most orthodox of beginnings. Titled Rainbow Mountain, the SS13/14 collection is vibrant, with wearable silhouettes that embrace and incorporate the contemporary indigenous designs of Jimmy Pike.
“Desert Designs was born out of the concern for the questionably archival nature of texta pens” - Caroline Sundt-Wells
Fashion Journal (FJ): Tell us about the history of the Desert Designs.
JEDDA: Desert Designs was the result of a rare encounter between Stephen Culley (my father) and Jimmy Pike in Fremantle Prison in 1976. Impressed with Jimmy’s art in prison art classes, the pair conceived the idea of setting up a business to market his work on fabric. For its time, Desert Designs was key in popularising a cultural coming-together of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
Some say Desert Designs is perhaps the most important brand Australia has produced. It enabled Jimmy Pike to become one of the first self-sufficient indigenous artists and told Jimmy’s stories in a culturally appropriate way. It engaged Australian Indigenous artists in new economic opportunities, and provided Australians of every ethnic background with the opportunity to embrace and wear indigenous designs.
The unique collaboration’s intention was to promote Jimmy Pike as a fine artist — the formative concept was never to build a brand of commodities. Desert Designs was born out of the concern for the questionably archival nature of texta pens. To look at the contemporary art market today such an anxiety seems superfluous, however in retrospect it was serendipity.
FJ: What was the inspiration to relaunch the label?
CAROLINE: I think it was a natural evolution; we were all in the right place at the right time to bring it together again. Steve has dedicated his life to Jimmy Pike’s legacy and it’s something both Jedda and I believe in. For me personally it was an opportunity to hone the skills and experience I have built over the years and focus it into a project that has spirituality at the core.
FJ: Who is now responsible for the running of the label?
CAROLINE: Jedda and myself are creative directors, with a little collective of contributors — covering print repeat design/colour direction and garment/range planning. I manage our graphics team and visual marketing projects and Jedda looks after the production of our collections.
FJ: What are the key objectives of the label today in 2013?
CAROLINE: Sharing the genius of Pike to a global market - while also expanding Desert Designs as a platform for more Australian talent. Stay tuned for an exciting new capsule collaboration coming in 2014!
FJ: How do you incorporate Pike’s art into the design/creative process? What is your design process?
JEDDA: Jimmy’s art is the inspiration behind all our design considerations. Each print is designed carefully from Pike’s original artwork. In regards to selecting images for commercialisation, this was Pike’s preserve to make sure that Desert Designs were not using secret and scared images. Today we work closely with Jimmy’s family, particularly his wife Pat Lowe.
FJ: What are key pieces in the SS13/14 collection Rainbow Mountain?
CAROLINE: Rainbow Mountain is such a great summery colour pallet; the mini dress has already received a great response on our online shop. The square top maxi dress will be sure to fly out the door too. For a more dynamic vibe, witchdoctor print silk happy pants are so comfy and easy to style with anyone’s wardrobe, and also comes in a floppy silk short, my favorite!
FJ: Tell us about the Jimmy Pike Trust.
CAROLINE: Jimmy’s wife Pat Lowe founded ‘The Jimmy Pike Trust’ in 2008. The trust uses funds from his estate to help other aboriginal artists.