The National Indigenous Fashion Awards in Darwin showcases the growing fashion industry

First Nations fashion is much more than clothing.

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The National Indigenous Fashion Awards were held in Darwin last night to recognize First Nations creatives in the fast-growing industry.Arnhem Land Babbara Women’s Center and Maningrida artist Esther Yarllarlla were recognized at the awardsArtists and organizers say the indigenous fashion industry creates opportunities for economic development and cultural awareness.

According to one of the people behind the National Indigenous Fashion Awards, the fast-growing industry is a gateway for greater recognition of First Nations people and culture in general.

“When we come together as Australians to make decisions about things like a [Indigenous] voice to parliament… people will have a better understanding,” said the president of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation, Franchesca Cubillo.

“Because they’ve had those conversations with First Nations people, because they’ve bought those textiles or seen paintings or fashion.

“All of these important first steps allow First Nations people to take their place in Australia and to be valued and appreciated.”
National Indian Fashion Awards, 2022, photo by Dylan Buckee. The awards started during the COVID lockdown in 2020. (Supplied: Dylan Buckee)

The third annual NIFA, which recognizes the work of indigenous designers and artists from across the country, took place last night in Darwin.

“It is so overwhelming that First Nations people from all regions of Australia come to the country of Larrakia,” said Ms Cubillo, who is a Larrakia, Bardi, Wardaman and Yanuwa woman.

She said the awards provided a platform for First Nations artists to showcase their work to a broader audience and provided economic opportunities for indigenous communities.

“It’s black excellence, it’s incredibly empowering, and the wonderful thing is that there’s also… an amazing economic return,” Ms. Cubillo said.

“It means that our First Nations creatives have really clear paths to participate in what the Australian fashion industry is, it’s a $27 billion industry.

“Our aesthetic is ancient and tens of thousands of years in the making, but equally avant-garde… that we’re seeing it gracing the catwalks… in Milan, London and in Europe, in Asia.”

Arnhem Land artists at the forefront of fashion

Kunibidji artist Esther Yarllarlla won the Traditional Adornment Award for her Mokko (bark skirt) made using traditional weaving and knotting techniques.

A group of women standing on a stage.  One is hugging a woman who is holding a microphone. Esther Yarllarlla brought fellow artists from Maningrida up on stage to receive her award. (Supplied: Dylan Buckee)

Hailing from the Arnhem Land community of Maningrida, her work is part of a cultural practice she learned from her mother and is now passing on to the next generation.

“I was starting from 10 years old, back,” he said.

“I’m teaching my grandchildren right now. I tell them stories.”

She brought all the artists from the Babbara Women’s Center, the arts center where she works, on stage to receive her award.

Four Aboriginal women wearing brightly colored cloth and laughing. Babbara Designs has been recognized at an exhibition in Paris. (Provided: Ingrid Johanson)

“I’m happy but I was shaking, it was the first time I came [to the awards],” she said.

“I told them ‘let’s go together’.”

Originally established in 1983 as a women’s haven, the Centre’s textile production arm, Babbara Designs, was also recognized at the awards as one of the oldest continuously operating indigenous textile companies in Australia.

The Center’s artists have presented their designs in an exhibition in Paris.

“We have gained such an incredible audience from social media and the Babbara Designs side of our business has provided our artists with incredible opportunities for travel and financial independence,” said Ziian Carey, Assistant Manager of the Babbara Women’s Center.

“It’s giving a platform for our artists to tell their stories, to tell their culture.”

Two women stand on a stage.  One is holding a framed award. Denni Francisco has won the Fashion Designer Award two years in a row. (Supplied: Dylan Buckee)

Industry expected to grow, become ‘on par’ with indigenous art

Wiradjuri designer and founder of Melbourne-based fashion company Ngali, Denni Francisco, won the Fashion Designer Award for her collection designed in collaboration with Gija artist Lindsay Malay.

This is the second year Ms. Francisco has won the award, and her win last year allowed her to receive tutoring from Country Road.

She said there has been a massive “elevation” of First Nations fashion in recent years.

“It’s not like it wasn’t there before, but now there’s more visibility,” he said.

“With that visibility comes more inspiration.”

Ms. Cubillo said that the future for indigenous fashion is bright.

“We will find more and more First Nations designs and fashion appearing in more and more David Jones and Myer windows and major department stores,” he said.

“First Nations fashion and textile design will be an industry on the same level as indigenous art.”