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October 23, 2017
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Roopa Pemmaraju at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. Source: diariesofbella.com.au

Australia's Indigenous peoples are synonymous with a rich cultural palette that is both elusive and enchanting. Their intensely spiritual stories of the Dreamtime, vibrant music and eclectic artistry, pay homage to the world's oldest enduring culture - an Indigenous history which is believed to extend as far back as 65,000 years. However, when it comes to that small, cultural signature we call fashion, far less is known about the native flare of Aboriginal Australians. But that is about to change. 

Designer Roopa Pemmaraju incorporates Indigenous
artwork into her luxury, ready-to-wear designs.
Source: smh.com.au.

This September marked the inception of the first Australian Indigenous Fashion Week (AIFW), which will show in a year's time in September 2013. Event organiser, communication firm All the Perks (ATP), has deemed the budding event "Vibrant. Modern. Unique," which will boast an array of traditional and contemporary fare. Not limited by its title, the event will showcase not only fashion but homewares, textiles, art and furniture. 

Currently, AIFW is promising to be a key business platform in instigating further national and international opportunities for the Australian Indigenous fashion scene. Meanwhile ATP expects to garner a cohort of major fashion, business and government partners to push the week as a promotional venture for Australian tourism.

Aboriginal model, Samantha Harris has been confirmed as the face of the event, telling Fashionsta, "I want people overseas to know how special our culture is. I hope next year when the Indigenous Fashion Week starts the rest of the world will stand up and take notice of such a unique heritage." 

Earlier this year, Perth Fashion Week (PFW) brought Indigenous labels to the attention of the fashion community when it launched the Dreamtime project. A likely springboard for AIFW, the project was the first of its kind in Australia. The April event aimed to, "empower the Indigenous community through fashion and the arts, while providing opportunities and awareness to creative Indigenous talent." Five Indigenous designers were chosen to be a part of a group show, titled the Dreamtime Showcase and many of the models cast to walk the runway were a refreshing roll call of unseasoned, Indigenous women. Mirroring the hopes of AIFW, PFW Director, Sylvia Giacci, who personally saw the project come into fruition, said, "We will guide Indigenous creatives and provide all the tools from business through to design to help them create their own sustainable business on an international level."

I want people overseas to know how special our culture is. I hope next year when the Indigenous Fashion Week starts the rest of the world will stand up and take notice of such a unique heritage.

Giacci and her PFW team consulted with the traditional owners of The Kimberly region to ensure cultural protocols were respected and adhered to, a measure that AIFW will presumably follow. However, such sensitivities to Indigenous culture still risk being lost in translation, as evidenced by the recent controversy surrounding Rodarte's tribute to Australian Aboriginal art.

Rodarte's Fall 2012 collection, inspired by the great Australian outback, featured the Pupunya Tula-style artwork of the late Aboriginal artist, Benny Tjangala. Despite having followed the appropriate legal protocols and ensuring royalties from the artwork's use would be delivered to Tjangala's widow, uproar engulfed Rodarte's collection. The cause for concern according to Indigenous Australian lawyer and expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Megan Davis, was that the use of the sacred artwork was "completely insensitive" to the connection between "Aboriginal art and spirituality and land." 

While Rodarte's case was disputed in the public forum and stands as a precautionary tale, many others have pursued the same avenue; albeit minus the controversy. Indian-born fashion designer Roopa Pemmaraju's eponymous label is a luxury, ready-to-wear brand which wholly features original works from Australian Indigenous artists. Made in India, the delicate, silk garments are designed with strict adherence to artist specification, "I wasn't allowed to crop into the designs and had to find ways to show the prints in full," says Pemmaraju. Although details surrounding the AIFW program are yet to be confirmed, Pemmaraju is expected to feature at the event. Having made her official debut at 2012's Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in May, she has become a favourite since being snapped up by Australian department store, David Jones.

In all, a rumoured 30 designers and artists will take part in the inaugural week. While the current landscape for promising high-fashion Indigenous designers seems sparse, the progress being made by innovative labels, such as Roopa Pemmaraju, is quickly drawing international focus. My attention will be fixed upon West Australian Swim and Resort Wear label, Bandi Bandi, which featured in the PFW Dreamtime Showcase and recently confirmed that they will be "storming" AIFW. The label's assortment of daring and demure black-and-white patterned swimsuits are inspired by its namesake, the Bandi Bandi snake. With so much Indigenous Australian talent finally set to grace the runway, come next September there may well be a new fashion week fixture grabbing headlines. 

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