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Diary entries from Charlee Fraser as she mentored First Nations models at this year’s inaugural First Nations Fashion and Design event

WORDS BY CHARLEE FRASER

“If it wasn’t for Walking in Two Worlds, I’d still be searching for the part of me I felt was lost.”

Fashion Journal is proud to continue an ongoing partnership with First Nations Fashion and Design, launched this NAIDOC Week. It follows past mistakes by Fashion Journal that caused hurt to the First Nations’ community (you can read our apology in full here), and we are proud to be moving forward collaboratively with such talented Australian creatives. 

The words below are excerpts from the diary model Charlee Fraser kept while being part of Walking in Two Worlds, and mentoring the models involved in the show. Walking in Two Worlds was First Nations Fashion and Design’s debut event and it screened on NITV last week.

Yarrabah, December 2

It’s my second day in Cairns, having arrived yesterday, but today marks the first day of Walking in Two Worlds. Grace [fashion designer and co-founder of First Nations Fashion and Design] introduced the idea of an early morning swim in the fresh waters of Stoney’s Creek before our first day together for First Nations Fashion and Design (FNFD) so my 5.30am alarm rang with a pickup time of 6am.

A 15-minute drive from the accommodation, we headed toward the mountains, and at that time of the morning, Cairns was exquisite! Lush mountain tops lightly caressed by low hanging clouds as the sun rose. Once there, Grace led Perry, Nancy and I through a damp overgrown path that opened up to a clear way where the creek ran under a concrete bridge. The crystal clear water coursed through large boulders that were nestled together amongst thick, green tropical foliage. A little further up the track we turned off to the left and came out to an opening where a swimming hole appeared below a small waterfall.

I braced myself for the cold but it was in fact the opposite. We swam around a little until Grace suggested floating. The sensation of floating in a body of water so fresh and so clean you could drink from it was indescribable. My ego washed away, my soul was cleansed and I was baptised by nature. I felt like a whole new person; as if I was reborn. What a way to start the day and kick off this entire trip.

After arriving back to the accommodation and preparing for the day ahead of us, the models made a brief stop at Cairns TAFE Campus for a hair and make up check with the team for the upcoming show; shortly after it was on to Yarrabah. Yarrabah or Erriba (in local Gungganji language) describes the white-breasted sea eagle taking flight in order to scoop down and collect fish from the water.

Driving into the mountains, it’s roughly an hour out, and the scenery brought me to tears. Fields and fields of bright green sugar cane covered the land for acres with large tropical mountains and crepuscular rays beaming through thick, fluffy clouds. It felt like Hawaii but I had to remind myself that this was Australia.

Driving through Yarrabah it only gets better. As you follow the road around the coast you’ll see the shore, protected by a mass of islands that fade into the distance. Soon after, we arrived at Elverina’s house. Entering Elverina’s property was magical – my first foot on country, this was a big step for me. Elverina proceeded to welcome us to country and share her story. She then took us for a small bush walk around her property, pointing out the different types of trees, what fruits they bare and how they’re best used.

A little later after lunch, it was time for Perry and me to start mentoring. We claimed a small plot of land for rehearsals and waited for the models to meet us. To loosen everyone up and ‘break the ice’ we started off with an upbeat song and a bit of a silly dance.

Our goal with this activity was to get the blood pumping, activate a feeling of presence, connect to the body and get used to being around one another. Once everyone felt warm we curated a short walking path where we had the models practice timing, distance, speed, posture and expression. As a mentor, it was surreal to instruct a group of individuals so willing to adapt and physically see results. That realisation was one of my favourite moments.

After a few laps, I stopped everyone and directed them into a circle. I really felt as though we needed to understand and get to know one another a little better. We stood closely side by side and I asked everyone to say one thing they loved about themselves, starting with Perry and myself. As we went around the whole circle, everyone shared something that they really loved and/or appreciated about how they felt or who they were. So many beautiful moments stemmed from this one question.

A number of models began to cry and shared how proud they were for being part of the program and expressed how challenging it is to step forward and demonstrate leadership and confidence. We huddled together for a big group hug and what Perry and I noticed immediately after this was an energetic shift – it completely changed how everyone walked. What we once saw as stiff, tense or even robotic had turned into complete relaxation, an unwinding and a release of the physical body.

From then on, Perry and I made it a point to check in with the group mentally, emotionally and physically both before and after rehearsals. This ensured models a safe and powerful space where only love and support existed in an effort to enrich their confidence levels and self-esteem.

Fitzroy Island, December 5

Saturday’s here and it’s our first official day off! We’ve spent four days in Cairns, including two days rehearsing and show day (on Yarrabah). Now it’s time for some fun in the sun. Grace arranged for the entire team (that’s models, dancers, elders and core team members) to take an eight-hour reef cruise to Fitzroy Island. Fitzroy Island is a continental island 29 kilometres south-east of Cairns. A 45-minute ferry ride later and you’ll find yourself deeply immersed in tropical rainforests and submerged in coral reefs.

As the boat took off we started cruising east towards Greene Island following the coast of Yarrabah. Shailante (model), Roy and JR (dancers) named all the different beaches as we passed them and shared local dreamtime stories. One of them was the story of ‘Gunyarra’ (which means ‘crocodile’ in Gungganji language) a white crocodile who lives in the sacred medicine waters of King Beach. Gunyarra protects the medicine water for the people, who use it for healing.

We slowly cruised in to dock, and I couldn’t believe my eyes! I felt like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, like I’d awoken in another world, an island so tropical I was led to believe we weren’t in Cairns anymore. If you can imagine water crystal clear and turquoise blue with pure white coral beaches tracing the island outskirts and lush green flora with pops of the brightest red and pink coloured flowers – this was what Fitzroy Island looked like. You could even see fluorescent coral reefs and tropical fish swimming through the water. Paradise!

We disembark the boat and follow Grace to a small shaded area underneath a tree. Some of the girls posted up at the restaurant bar and ordered cocktails and snacks while others couldn’t wait to swim; I was one of the latter. The water was the perfect temperature. Aytan and I jumped straight in with the kids (Roy, JR and Kylantra), they seemed to be really warming up to us. After the past few days in Yarrabah, we all feel like family at this point.

Kylantra (leading performer) really wanted to snorkel so while Aytan and the boys jumped off the jetty, Kylantra and I hired a bunch of gear for the group to share. I ordered six sets in a range of sizes along with stinger suits and a paddleboard so if anyone wanted to join us, they could. We were geared up! While Kylantra and I were waiting in line, she picked a piece of coral from the shore and handed it to me.

“This is for friendship. I have one too,” she said. My heart melted as I put it safely in my pocket and gave her the biggest hug. Kylantra is the lead performer for Walking in Two Worlds, the fashion performance we’re all here for. The story is centred around a young girl who dreams of becoming somebody, a girl who dreams of greatness. It’s about walking in two worlds and carrying your culture with you.

Walking in Two Worlds, December 11

It’s show day! The day we’ve been preparing for this entire trip. I woke up having half packed the night before. Although everyone else was excited for today, I felt blue. This journey was nearing an end. Perry and I shopped earlier in the week for gift bags and left a little later than everyone else this morning to sneak them backstage. We then met the models in hair and makeup. After glam, Grace, Perry and I sat everyone down in a circle and commenced our daily check-in.

This has become my favourite part of mentoring, where we provide a safe space to share our thoughts and feelings and in return give and receive acceptance and compassion. The theme of today was ‘tired and excited’ (haha) but all in good spirit. It was time to get moving so we blasted a few good tunes (specifically ‘Crazy in Love’ by Beyonce) and had everyone walking laps both in groups and singular at different speeds in time with the beat.

They’ve come so far! Perry and I gawk at them with delight. The confidence they exude, the comfortability they’ve acquired and the captivity of their presence blows our minds. I’m so fiercely proud of how far they’ve come. That big apple in my throat is making my eyes water. Showtime was fast approaching. We had three shows today; pre-filming for NITV’s Facebook Live, a free community show for friends, family and locals to attend and then lastly a VIP show for our current and potential sponsors, designers, media and fashion industry representatives. So it was quick touch-ups and backstage for first looks.

Before the show started we all held hands in a circle, Grace wanted to say a few words, then Kathy (model) said a prayer and finally, Elverina ended with an acknowledgment to country. Nothing remotely similar has ever happened in my experience – this moment alone is what separates FNFD from the fashion industry and incorporates elements of culture and community which don’t normally occur in this space.

It’s showtime and everyone was a little nervous. There were two minor stops during the pre-recording. One model misplaced her hat and the dancers wanted to correct their timing but luckily we were able to pick it right back up (after all, this was a pre-recording). Not everything is perfect but the more we did it, the better we became.

The mistakes we made in this performance only benefited the performances ahead, so I’m glad the models were able to learn from this experience. We were all starting to feel emotional and a few of us were on the verge of tears but adrenaline and excitement kicked in first. We completed our first show on a high.

It was a short break before the next performance. Fiona arrived in time for a quick movement session then it was déjà vu, backstage, first looks. We nailed the performance and everyone was cheering throughout. I’d heard from Grace that friends and family were lined up outside since the end of the first show which was over an hour before this one.

We were shocked and moved to hear that our performance was so anticipated by our loved ones. The support that the Indigenous community have for each other is unlike anything I’ve ever known; and not just from this experience, I’ve noticed it in others as well. Everyone shows up! It’s deeply moving and a core value in the foundations of Indigenous Australian culture.

Approaching the final performance, I couldn’t help but feel a little dejected after spending so much time together. I questioned what might become of our little family beyond this experience. This final performance is to help further the future of First Nations Fashion and Design. To help further the future of Indigenous culture. The future of art. The future generations. I felt a weight on my shoulders that I was proud to bear, as I carried my heavy heart over to the rack to change. Let’s go! Final show.

We created a circle and all held hands for one last time. A final speech from Grace and Elverina and then Perry and I shared a few words. I sobbed as I tried to speak and describe how I felt. We both did. All I was ever able to convey was how proud I was of every single person in that room. Considering I’ve been following my own cultural journey, it’s no mistake that I ended up here. I’ve gained knowledge from elders that I can pass down not only to my children (one day) but to everyone around me, which is something I’ve always longed for. My dreams are blooming here in Cairns but my journey has only just begun.

What’s different about this performance to that of others is the component of storytelling that’s thoroughly embedded within Indigenous culture. It breathes life into all the elements and powers a sense of purpose. It’s not just entertainment or economic gain, it’s not a trend or a ‘cool concept’, it’s a visual connection to self and to spirit. The after-party was a wrap but a select few made it to the after-after party at Grace’s house. A small group of about 10 danced a little longer and revelled in our successes. We were exhausted and depleted with the happiest faces.

Cairns has a very special place in my heart. I feel physically and spiritually welcomed by the land and its elders, and if it wasn’t for Walking in Two Worlds, I’d still be searching for the part of me I felt was lost. I fell asleep with so many ideas for the future! First Nations Fashion and Design has so much more to offer and we’re ready.

@charleefraser

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