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What Does Sustainability In Indigenous Fashion Look Like?

Jul 09, 2021

There’s been a rise in sustainable Australian fashion, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fashion designers are at the helm of it. Brands like Ngarru Miimi, Aarli, Liandra Swim, and many more, are paving the way for an environmentally conscious fashion industry. But how? 

Grace_Lillian_Lee_White_and_Corals

A traditionally woven necklace by Grace Lilian Lee.

PROCESS OVER MASS PRODUCTION

Sustainable manufacturing processes are essential to developing a sustainable industry. We’ve all seen the images of mass-produced clothing waste piling up in a landfill, and “slow fashion” is the term being used to describe a more ethical process of making. Like Indigenous hand-weaving, for example. 

In a Guardian interview, First Nations Fashion and Design co-founder Grace Lilian Lee shares that weaving was a way to connect to her family and culture.

“I created a collection called Intertwined, and I connected with Uncle Ken Thaiday. Uncle Ken just kept inviting me back to learn more. Weaving with him was very organic.”

“Fashion was a way for me to understand my cultural identity and to be proud of that, because that was suppressed in my father’s upbringing.”

In the same article, Piinpi curator Shonae Hobson quotes artist Leecee Carmichael’s musings on the nature of weaving as an act “that has been happening for centuries, over 60,000 years.”

“This is the core essence of everything we’re wearing today,” she points out.

Nathan Nankervis - Native Plants

Illustration by Nathan Nankervis

SEASONAL MATERIALS

For designers who use materials native to the land, often it's a waiting game for the right season.

Buying some cotton and polyester is easy and available all year round, but in conversation with Fashion Journal, Australian Indigenous Fashion founder Yatu Widders-Hunt mentions that some designers refuse to fit the mold of the fast-paced, factory system of the current fashion industry if it means they can make use of the environment around them.

“It’s completely working in the cycles of the earth rather than the cycles of the industry… that can be quite challenging for the fashion industry, but when done well [it’s] a really beautiful thing.”

“So, it’s the lesson that we don’t actually control the cycle of when materials are available or when it’s appropriate to paint a particular story… we have to give up a little bit of power,” she says.

Giving up that small ounce of power means designers can not only use locally-sourced and appreciated materials, but raise awareness around the beauty of Australian nature. 

Ngarru Miimi

Ngarru Miimi. Photo: Sonny Vandevelde

RESPECTING THE LAND

Country is a crucial aspect of Indigenous culture — when people are stolen and buildings razed, the land still remains. Often, centuries-old trees and desert rocks are insights into what life was like before colonialism.

“As Aboriginal people, we’re born with a cultural obligation to care for the earth,” Widders-Hunt points out to Fashion Journal. 

Much like Hobson, she also explains how sustainable fashion is synonymous with 60,000 year old Indigenous design methods; and whether that’s through Lee’s story or Ngarru Miimi designer Lillardia Briggs-Houston’s (who in the same article describes how her own grandmother would repurpose newspapers into pattern papers, old curtains into fabric), these methods are generational.

“I always view myself inextricably connected with country, and this connection will always intertwine with and influence my work,” Briggs-Houston says.

“Hurting country is hurting me. It is an extension of my body, and lives and breathes as I do.”

Cover image via Ngarru Miimi. 

Whose Land Are You On This NAIDOC Week?

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