In 2014, Pilakui, now 68, left Bima after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. But recently she has returned to help train the next crop of women making clothes featuring the islands’ prints, some of which date back to the 1980s.
“It’s so important because when we are all gone, we need the young generation to step up,” Pilakui says. “We need Bima Wear to keep going when we are all gone.”
Next week, to mark the anniversary, Bima Wear’s designs will appear in a catwalk parade for the very first time, in a group show at the Darwin Art Fair dubbed “Country to Couture”.
While Bima exemplifies the longevity of some Indigenous fashion enterprises, the reality is many operate with little awareness outside their communities.
Most people contacted for this piece agreed there is plenty of talent in Indigenous fashion, yet the number who have achieved mainstream commercial success or notoriety remains small.
But social media and advocates such as Yatu Widders-Hunt, whose background is in communications, are slowly spreading the word.
The frustration of not seeing Indigenous fashion celebrated and promoted in the mainstream led Widders-Hunt to start an Instagram account (@ausindigenousfashion) devoted to broadening people’s understanding of Indigenous design.
“People jump to this image of remote art centres,” says Widders-Hunt. “It’s a thriving industry, there are graduates from UTS, [designers] showing at Miami Swim Week … the biggest Indigenous population in the country is in Western Sydney – there’s a little education and awareness [needed] in the broader community to fully appreciate what Indigenous fashion is.”
But it’s not all bad news, says Brooke Boney, entertainment reporter on Today on Nine, publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald.
Boney, who is Indigenous, counts Clair Helen and Haus of Dizzy among her favourite designers. She says more needs to be done to promote Indigenous fashion’s unique selling point, especially to an international audience.
“When you start to see the commercial benefit, that’s where we will see some real runs on the board,” she says, adding there are real social benefits from Australians supporting Indigenous design.
“We know when Indigenous businesses get up and running that they employ more Aboriginal people [and] the money is more likely to go back into the community.”
She also supports collaboration between Indigenous artists and mainstream brands “when it’s done appropriately with the right consultation, and people are being paid and respected in the way they ought to be. It proves Indigenous art and fashion can move and sell volumes if it’s approached in the right way.”
One example setting a new benchmark is the recent collaboration between Gorman and Mangkaja Arts, in the Kimberley, which placed the rights of the artists at the core of its licensing agreement.
Speaking about the collaboration last month, designer Lisa Gorman explained why, despite working with some 80 artists over her label’s 20-year history, it was her first time partnering with Indigenous groups. “I was hesitant because of the cultural sensitivities and worried whether I would be able to pull it off or get criticism for cultural misappropriation,” she told the Herald and The Age.
Gorman’s initial fear of causing offence may be one reason some non-Indigenous Australians are yet to fully embrace Indigenous fashion, suggests Dave Giles-Kaye, chief executive of the Australian Fashion Council.
He said the Gorman collaboration “sets the tone for how Aboriginal art can be reflected in contemporary fashion” but that some “educated consumers” who are not Indigenous are mindful that “some stories are not appropriate to be worn”.
“You don’t want to be misappropriating the meaning of something by wearing it in the wrong situation,” he says.
Widders-Hunt says fashion can be a great unifier to segue into more “difficult conversations” about reconciliation.
“Fashion and art are really fun, strength-based ways we can learn about each other,” she says. “It’s a … really gentle and beautiful way to start a conversation about the beautiful and rich heritage we have.”
But it’s a conversation that can’t just happen at the margins, says Julie Shaw of resort label Mayrah, which showed at Miami Swim Week in 2017.
Shaw, who is also participating in the Darwin show under her other label Maara Collective, wants to see better Indigenous representation at events such as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia, the country’s main industry event that attracts international media and buyers. (The consumer-facing Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival has featured an Indigenous runway for several years, while this month’s Melbourne Fashion Week has several events featuring Indigenous design.)
“Indigenous designers bring a dynamic edge to the Australian fashion industry where our creative and cultural endeavours are enriched with story, meaning and purpose that in turn enrich the tapestry of Australian design,” Shaw says. “We are an important part of the Australian fashion industry – yet where is our presence?”
Giles-Kaye says the council is working to help Indigenous designers and creatives to build commercially viable businesses, as well as supporting programs such as Design Within Country, which brings together Melbourne-based designers with communities in Fitzroy Crossing.
“We just want Indigenous designers, models, stylists and technicians to be everywhere, but at the moment they’re not,” Giles-Kaye says. “It needs to evolve into being mainstream but it’s a long way from that.”
Still, there has been progress since 2000, when, during a visit to Australia, supermodel Naomi Campbell asked: where were the Indigenous models?
In 2017, Perina Drummond launched Jira Models, an agency exclusively representing Indigenous talent. Since launching in 2017, Drummond has witnessed a growth in demand thanks to a “global diversity push”.
“It opened up all these questions around why don’t we have more Indigenous models,” Drummond says.
Still, she admits attracting new talent can be hard when there can be “a feeling that they’re showing off by modelling”. But a more modern view of models as ambassadors, as well as the success of the likes of Charlee Fraser (the Awabakal woman was the most-booked model of spring New York Fashion Week 2018) on the world stage, is helping to shift long-held attitudes.
“It’s had a huge impact. [Fraser’s success] gives them hope and aspiration that modelling is valid [as a career]. It’s just the right time and place for these things to happen. Eventually, it will just be a normal thing, which will be really good to see.”
Melissa Singer is National Fashion Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.