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You may have missed it, but Australia’s first First Nations Fashion Council launched last month

IMAGES BY MICHAEL JALARU
WORDS BY FAYE COUROS

‘We are still here.’

In the wake of increasing cancellations of a growing number of gatherings, meetings and jobs, many have been left feeling at a loss. Some have had to delay their weddings, others have faced a significant drop of income.

And for a smaller proportion of the creative community, COVID-19 has overshadowed what was set to be a truly exciting launch.

Such is the case for Australian designers Teagan ‘TJ’ Cowlishaw and Grace Lillian Lee, who last month formally announced the launch of the country’s the first-ever First Nations Fashion Council.

The council is an important first within the Australian fashion industry. Consisting of exclusively Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander professionals and led by an all-Indigenous board, its purpose is to facilitate the growth of First Nations involvement within the fashion sector. Although thriving, Indigenous Australian fashion design has only just started to receive budding industry recognition.

The Council was announced at The Australian Fashion Summit on Friday March 13, which brought together industry experts to discuss the future of the fashion sector, including Grace and TJ. The very next day saw the sudden and forced cancellation of the remainder of the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival under the government’s rule banning events with of over 500 people.

It was understandably a blow to those who had worked hard in the lead up to the announcement, including Grace and TJ. It was almost immediately forgotten between news of event cancellations, work freezes, retail closures and frightening statistics.

But refusing to be overshadowed, Grace and TJ acted quickly, pulling together an impromptu live photoshoot event to be held the very next day. Dubbed ‘We are still here’, the spin-off event fulfilled the government’s under 500 rule and brought together a smaller subset of the fashion community to showcase the rich Indigenous talent within the industry.

“We just went, ‘Why don’t we do a call to action to our mob and our fashion family in Melbourne, and just start creating magic?’ even though people were kind of going chaotic,” says TJ.

“It was all really pulled together last minute. From 8pm onwards, we were having conversations between models, videographers and photographers,” adds Grace.

Within 12 hours, Grace and TJ had found a studio, reached out to photographers Michael Jalaru and Wade Lewis, and secured models Georgia King and Nelson Baker, all who were on board to shoot the very next day.

For the pair, it was important to elevate all members of the Indigenous creative community, ensuring models and photographers were spotlighted, as well as First Nations designers.

Indigenous model Georgia King was meant to be on the runway at the same time ‘We are still here’ was to be held, but along with the cancellation of VAMFF came a call from TJ to feature in the shoot.

“It’s awesome I am loving it, it’s such a surreal experience. I’ve never had this opportunity before,” said Georgia. “It’s important because it’s paving the way for Indigenous models; it’s capturing the beauty we bring to society.”

TJ, who is a Bardi woman and descendant of the Gypsy Pirates of Shanghai, runs her own sustainable streetwear label. Aarli upcycles textiles and dead stock to create its apparel lines.

Grace, whose roots come from the Meriam Mer peoples of the Eastern Islands of the Torres Strait,  creates wearable art and accessories using traditional Torres Strait weaving techniques.

Works from both designers were featured in the shoot.

While the status quo has changed dramatically since the shoot took place, the pair remain optimistic for the future of Indigenous fashion and aware of the opportunities this unprecedented time presents.

“We can still take this opportunity to show that we are all here,” says Grace. 

Board members of the inaugural First Nations Fashion Council will be announced during NAIDOC Week in Cairns where the Council will also be undertaking a series of community consultation events as part of their strategic planning process.

firstnationsfashiondesign.com

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