Refusing to trade in my culture: Diversity in Australian Fashion industry

Refusing to trade in my culture: Diversity in Australian Fashion industry

Diversity

The global fashion industry is not known for its diversity and inclusion (with the narrow definitions of beauty and rail-thin models) but in Australia, things are changing.

A group of talented creatives in the industry sat down with Managing Editor of Inside Retail, Jo-Anne Hui-Miller, at this year’s Afterpay Australian Fashion Week to discuss the status of diversity in today’s industry, diving into discussions about hair discrimination, First Nations designers, tokenism and the importance of educating oneself.

Diversity in today’s industry 

“I would like us to get to the point where we don’t have to have this ‘diversity’ conversation at all,” Hui-Miller said on Monday afternoon.

“And you don’t have to get four random people who’ve come from very, very different backgrounds, trying to find common things.”

Those on the panel sharing the perspectives of their different backgrounds were Hui-Miller herself, Jessie Sadler, a disability activist and founder of Adaptive Clothing, Liandra Gaykamangu, a Yolngu Creative Director, Founder and designer, of Liandra Swim, Laura Mazikana, a Sydney-based Hair Artist and Jordan Gogos, the founder and designer of Iorganes Spyridon Gogos.

“I think it’s very clear, we are five with five different people, five different backgrounds, from five customer bases that are constantly overlooked,” Hui-Miller continued. 

Sadler, who collaborated with disability advocate Carol Taylor for this year’s AAFW, runs her label, Adaptive Fashion for people with different disabilities or changing bodies.

“We hear a lot about inclusivity and fashion, inclusive fashion – and my definition of that is including a wider community or personal market than the mainstream would normally include or have been put in,” Sadler said.

“So it’s very broad. When I talk about designing, we always do our best to apply universal design principles so we have the specific customer in mind but once the creation is done, we can widen the customer for who’s going to buy it so that we have a bigger market.”

“We have scale, we’re not wasting a garment on specific needs,” she added. “So what we designed for someone in a wheelchair should be a desirable and functional for all. Standing is not always possible. And then that’s where adaptive fashion comes in.”

“I describe it as something specifically designed for someone with a physical or sensory or mental disability where there is a specific functionality that’s required in the garment. Having that you need a bit more fabric so that they know the backs are taller than the front because when you sit down the jeans automatically write down your back.”

“Taking your fiddly little pockets from your hips and putting them on the thigh so you can actually access them and put your phone in rather than trying to access the hip. That’s my definition of adaptive clothing. Where we really adapted the style and functional functionality to suit a specific need.”

Sadler launched her label Christina Stephens in March 2020, stepping away from her job as an energy expert to pursue adaptive fashion options and designs after seeing the difficulty her mother faced firsthand trying to dress without assistance, following a fall in 2017.

She told Women’s Agenda she could not find clothes that “didn’t resemble a hospital gown” for her mother.

Despite one-fifth of Australians living with a disability, Sadler realised there was a scarcity of beautiful, quality, and on-trend fashion available for those requiring adaptive designs.

For Liandra Gaykamangu, designing must not neglect the dangers of ‘trading culture’:

“What does that look like when you’re trading culture?” Gaykamangu asked.

“And what does that mean? I think that’s something that as an Aboriginal person, businesswoman, designer, that’s something that I know a lot of us, myself and a lot of my peers balance, and it’s a hard one, it’s putting a price on that, and what does that look like? And how do you do justice to that, how do you do that ethically?”

“And how do you make that accessible? A lot of people Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Northern Territory are on Basics Cards and you can only shop at certain places. So what does that mean to people to be able to access to something they want, maybe something they need, but then they can’t actually afford it because of the limitations of where their money goes.”

Gaykamangu’s Liandra Swim label fuses Aboriginal Australian Culture with on-trend premium designer swimwear. The prints are inspired by Aboriginal Australian culture, and Gaykamangu’s aim is to give the consumer the opportunity to exhibit designs that are tens-of-thousands years old.

She also wants the industry to never stop working towards a more diverse future.

“I think that when people come in, it’s a great opportunity as a place to stop. But I think sometimes it gets a little bit frustrating when people are like, Oh, they’re 10 voices. Oh, that’s enough. We are not going to go beyond. Let’s talk about inclusion and First Nations, voices, perspectives, design creativity.”

“Welcome to Country was beautiful this morning, but how do we push further?”

“We need to go and have more conversations with people that are in community. It’s not just me here. I’m accessible, right?”

“I’m a part of the industry. I tick certain boxes, but I’m only one voice and I will only ever speak for my experience as a young woman from Northeast Arnhem Land. I will never speak for all of Australia, and it’s not right to be expected to. And so it’s great that people are being pulled in. But it doesn’t stop there. And that’s what I hope happens over the next years, into the future.”

For Laura Mazikana, speaking out against hair discrimination is something she is passionate about.  

“I think the very fact that we’re having this conversation goes to show that inclusivity is improving,” she said. 

“There’s neglect I guess because equality is something that people love to go around talking about. But no one is really trying to facilitate that. And sometimes it can be a little lazy.”

“It’s literally like, a couple of photos on that page. So yeah, when it comes to thoughts of hair, there’s just not much intention.”

The importance of educating yourself

“Education means reading more than one book,” Gaykamangu said. “And that’s where my concern is that you need to read multiple books from multiple sources, check your sources, check what you’re reading, and not just take one or two. And that’s where sometimes I get frustrated.”

“Don’t come and tell me you know Aboriginal Australia because you watched High Ground or something. You know, it’s one film.”

“It’s 2022. You can go online and google Indigenous for example, you should be able to access further education. It’s not about just having conversations with actual physical people. Because that means I’m putting my need for education on you, for example, where and I can go into a little bit of that research myself before I come to you and ask questions. Don’t just go direct to the source.”

If you’re seeking to collaborate with an Indigenous brand as a non-Indigenous brand, Gaykamangu has has a few things she wants you to ask yourself.

“I want to ask you — why? Is it because you know it’s gonna sell? Because it’s trendy right now?”

“My question always is when I see a non Indigenous brand, what beyond you making money are you actually doing for my community? Apart from what people see out the front. Not only do I give a lot of support to my family, but that support translates to a lot of time into other things as well that I don’t necessarily promote.”

For Jessie Sadler, being aware and doing your research is also vital.

“We have a range of perspectives, product design, perspective, design professional product that we’re putting out to cater for a diverse range of people’s needs. We need to look at how we represent different communities and people in media and an area that’s often overlooked is accessibility and distribution. It requires common sense that we develop our products that might be more inclusive in the market.” 

“Coming from the adaptive fashion space, when we look at big retail, it’s not just putting adaptive fashion on the hangers ready for sale. It’s making sure that there are change rooms that are fully accessible for our customers.”

“For retail customers is making sure that the staff are trained in the product and they understand what different products do for different people. It’s putting in place payment and funding systems so many people in the room can go to David Jones on their credit card.”

“A lot of people in our customer base and community wide NDIS to purchase their clothing and so it’s understanding the backstory and how everything fits together to make sure there is true inclusivity.”

Misconceptions


Hui-Miller asked the designers the most common misconceptions they faced when working in fashion.

For Gaykamangu, she comes across many people who think that all First Nations people are the same.

“I wish people knew just how diverse we are. Just in my actual small region, there are 13 different languages. And that is just in the Northern Territory and Arnhem Land. That is a whole bunch of different family backgrounds, homelands cultures, responsibilities. We are so diverse, just in our small region.”

“And so when you take that and you amplify that to Australia, it becomes tenfold fold. So that also comes through in our design work. And why we are so different in how we want to represent that.”

“I think it takes time to even understand, you know, some labels don’t design for the Indigenous community, and that’s fine, and some don’t. I’d love to be able to engage with different people.” 

For Laura Mazikana, she witnessed discrimination in the exclusion of all hair types when she was studying hairdressing.

“I did a TAFE course and there was no talk at all about Afro-textured hair, even thick hair,” she said. “It felt like a burden that’s been left on us. Stylists started a petition to bring awareness to this issue and we still don’t have education within institutions. But the good thing that came out of it is that a lot of salons and people genuinely wanted to make change.” 

“When I see some brands, I’m like, what could you possibly be getting out of this beyond just $1 and beyond the fact that you know, it sells well?”

“And what does that do for the Indigenous designer business that’s already in this space, and working really hard, and now you’ve just cut into their opportunity to trade in their own culture and represent themselves, their family and who they are.”

“So my question is always why and I think it it looks differently when it’s an indigenous and non Indigenous.”

“And then I think my next question is always around, How is that being done? Is it unethical? Do you know because I’ve heard lots of recent partnerships and collaborations where I’m like, Oh, I don’t know that dollar figure that the artist got wasn’t really well.”

“It truly comes down to just making sure I do my right homework and do my right due diligence of knowing what is the ethical standard, because it takes time, you can’t do everything all at once in the day.”

The importance of media representation 


As a journalist, Hui-Miller believes the role of the media is very important in these discussions.

“I know for Inside Retail, the team and I, we’ve talked a lot about how we can’t just talk about Indigenous businesses during Reconciliation Week. We can’t just talk about women during International Women’s Day. I find that incredibly frustrating.”

“The media has to make sure that they have these conversations all year round. But also, you don’t actually have to interview this person and that story about being Indigenous. You can talk about swimwear, you can talk about e-commerce, you can talk about design, it doesn’t have to be just about your background, you are so much more than just the hair on your head or the colour of the skin.

“We ensure that we have these conversations all year round, but also making sure that the people that we interview are also from different backgrounds.”

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