'More than dot paintings and souvenirs': Indigenous fashion walks tall

Hailing from Lightning Ridge in outback NSW, fashion designer Julie Shaw is stumped when asked what or who from the opal-mining town influenced her career path. But the founder of label Maara Collective says it was "what I wanted to do from a very early age".

"While I didn't have anyone to influence me in the fashion or design world, or indeed grow up amongst it, I've always loved art, design and creativity," says Shaw, who in 2017 showed her previous label, Mayrah Swim, at the prestigious Miami Swim Week.

Designer Julie Shaw hopes winning the inaugural National Indigenous Fashion Awards will take Aboriginal fashion to a wider audience.

Designer Julie Shaw hopes winning the inaugural National Indigenous Fashion Awards will take Aboriginal fashion to a wider audience.Credit:Rhett Wyman

Shaw, a Yuwaalaraay woman and graduate of the University of Technology Sydney, has won two out of the six categories in the inaugural National Indigenous Fashion Awards, held via an online and TV broadcast on Wednesday night.

Due to COVID-19, the awards were unable to go ahead as intended at the annual Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, which has been building the profile of Indigenous designers for several years. Still, Shaw hopes they will help boost consumer awareness and engagement with Aboriginal design and fashion.

A model wears a design by Shaw's label, Maara Collective.

A model wears a design by Shaw's label, Maara Collective.

"For so long, Indigenous designers and fashion were thought of as small run, that really tourist-driven, 'market' product, or stocked in a museum or art gallery store," she says. "It’s not all about dot paintings and dot artworks."

Shaw says social issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as consumer concerns around sustainability, are helping to drive increased interest in Indigenous-owned businesses in fashion and more broadly.

"People have time [during the pandemic] to be researching and coming across new brands and businesses and if they feel connected to it, they will engage," she says.

Shaw's Maara Collective label incorporates traditional Aboriginal weaving techniques and prints to create garments that are, in her words, "elegant, refined and beautifully designed" – and effortlessly contemporary.

As well as winning the fashion design category, Shaw shares the community collaboration award with Mary Dhapalany Mangul, Margaret Djarbaalabal Malibirr and Evonne Muyuyngu of Bula’bula Arts. The women, who are Yolngu master weavers from north-east Arnhem Land, worked with Shaw to create a range of hats, belts and bags.

As part of her fashion design prize, Shaw will receive a 12-month mentorship with award sponsor Country Road.

The brand's managing director, Elle Roseby, says its involvement with the inaugural awards reflects its desire to support and champion more diverse voices within the fashion industry.

Although many in fashion circles agree the awards are long overdue, Shaw says the ultimate goal for many Indigenous designers is recognition on an industry-wide scale, such as Australian fashion week or in the pages of glossy magazines.

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