• Grace Lillian Lee - First Nations Fashion and Design founder
    Grace Lillian Lee - First Nations Fashion and Design founder

Australian Fashion Laureate recipient and First Nations Fashion and Design (FNFD) founder Grace Lillian Lee discusses Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fashion in 2021. 

What key ways has First Nations Fashion adapted to COVID challenges?

Firstly, First Nations designers had to foster stronger relationships between urban and remote designers. We needed to come together and share resources and learnings to ensure the continued development of the ecosystem.

Like everyone else, social media and digital communication have allowed the community to remain strong and connected during these challenging times.

When restrictions permitted, First Nations Fashion and Design (FNFD) was able to produce two remote shows in Burunga and Yarrabah. These shows provided opportunities for small designers and models to plug directly into the fashion sector.

How do runway shows impact the wider industry?

A runway show is a powerful platform that enables Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices to be seen and heard. Our FNFD platforms are fashion performances, where one of our primary considerations is communicating and sharing First Peoples knowledge with the audience.

These performances are a gateway for many conversations and a soft entry into healing our nation. If you observe, you’ll see that we only work with all Indigenous models, designers and musicians. The soundtrack to every show is considered and underscores the essence of the show.

For the audience, that first impact is experienced through the models. When we create the show, we ensure our models are provided with safe cultural spaces to share their journeys and voices. We ensure that our models have a strong understanding of each designer and their storytelling, which allows them to be fully immersed in both the narrative of the show and the designer’s storytelling.

We work with performers who play a big part in transforming the landscape in which the show is taking place to set the tone and create a pathway to guide the audience on a journey with our community.

It is a beautiful showcase of a plethora of First Peoples cultures. We are showcasing Blak excellence and ensuring that globally we are being seen and heard and that we belong in this space.

How can the industry further embrace and foster Indigenous designers and brands?

For far too long, First Nations voices have been neglected from the Australian fashion narrative.

It is time for the industry to take the next step to work more closely with First Nations people. By working more closely with First Nations people, there is a massive opportunity for the industry to be at the forefront of inclusivity.

Listen to our stories and understand the historical concerns and struggles we have experienced to gain our seat at the table.

I believe there should be an Indigenous certification trademark to communicate the diverse range of First Nations businesses to the industry.

There needs to be a space created that will provide protection, support, education, awareness, job opportunities and traineeships because the sector is growing, and there is a hunger for the product.

However, we must manage the growth at a pace that creates a generational legacy that extends beyond the industry’s proclivity for seasonal trends.

First Nations label, Liandra Swim

What opportunities are there for First Nations Fashion?

We see many opportunities for First Nations Fashion, especially the platforms created to support the sector. It would be great to see First Nations leaders at the helm of these platforms.

These platforms must be run and led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to ensure that the economic growth of our sector is authentic and continuing.

We would love to see the ecology of the industry grow and prosper, and it is so exciting to see more stylists, makeup artists, models, hairstylists, and producers welcomed into the sector.

At the moment, the government does not recognise Indigenous Fashion as a sector. I encourage the federal government to invest more resources and time into understanding the impact fashion and design have on our Indigenous communities and its contribution to the $27.2 billion dollar sector.

What are the current challenges?

There is a hunger for Indigenous fashion, and this needs to be carefully considered and grown at a sustainable pace. As a small grassroots organisation, we too have to be careful in navigating the fashion industry.

This is a new space for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander entrepreneurs. We need to work more closely with the sector to facilitate more conversations to ensure First Nations voices are heard.

What brands or designers should we keep an eye on?

There are so many up-and-coming designers doing incredible things. I loved the range Jess, from Nungala Creative, launched at our FNFD runway in 2021. I also loved Ngarrumiimi’s spectacular designs and her use of print. Shannon Brett from LORE is also one to watch.

This article first appeared in the November-December 2021 Women In Fashion Edition of Ragtrader. 

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