With Debut Show Ngali Blazes Trail for Indigenous Australian Designers
Photo: Isidore Montag / Gorunway

With Debut Show, Ngali Blazes Trail for Indigenous Australian Designers

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“We are the oldest living continuous cultural civilisation in the world today: since the beginning of time until the end of time, as we say,” said Michael West of Sydney’s Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council on Wednesday morning as he introduced the first-ever standalone show by an Indigenous Australian designer at Afterpay Australia Fashion Week (AAFW).

Ngali, which sells dresses, separates and silk scarves direct-to-consumer via its e-commerce site and a store in Melbourne, was established by Denni Francisco, a Wiradjuri designer (originally from New South Wales), in 2018. Her label’s name, she explains: “translates in a number of Aboriginal languages to ‘we’ or ‘us’. That’s because what we do as a brand is about the collective: our ethos is together.”

Ngali's first show at Afterpay Australia Fashion Week.

Photo: Isidore Montag / Gorunway

For this collection, Francisco and her team worked with three artists to adapt their works into printed textiles, which were incorporated into loosely cut and easy-wearing women’s and menswear separates. The show featured a diverse range of ethnicities, ages and sizes, including leading Indigenous Australian models Cindy Rostron, Samantha Harris and Elaine George. Further Indigenous Australians of the Ngali collective contributed millinery, jewellery, paint-customised footwear, runway art and music.

Francisco took part in a group show at AAFW last year, hosted by incubator programme Indigenous Fashion Projects (IFP), which launched in 2020. She is the first IFP participant to have displayed an appropriately compelling business proposition - and to attract enough interest from sponsors - in order to justify a solo show, according to a representative of AAFW. The plan is for more Indigenous Australian designers to follow her lead in the seasons ahead. 

This collection featured the work of three artists, whose work was adapted into printed textiles.

Photo: Mark Nolan

Ngali’s formal debut on the AAFW calendar comes as the wider national conversation about the country’s violent origins shifts from long-held antagonism to a new progressive and reparatory spirit. This October, a referendum will decide whether to change the constitution in order to ensure an elected Indigenous Australian voice in Canberra’s parliament. Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese says that this enshrinement would reflect the nation’s “birth certificate”.

At AAFW’s venue in Sydney’s Carriageworks, every show begins with an acknowledgement and thanks to the Gadigal people — the city’s first inhabitants — upon whose land it is taking place. Later on Wednesday, IFP will host its latest group show, featuring emerging brands such as Ihraa Swim, Gammin Threads and Miimi & Jiinda. On Thursday, the Western Desert art centre Ikuntji Artists will display a collection adapted from the work of its all-female membership.

Ngali translates in a number of Aboriginal languages to ‘we’ or ‘us’.

Photo: Isidore Montag / Gorunway

Collections featuring prints by Indigenous Australian designers are not new to Australia: during the 1980s Walmajarri artist Jimmy Pike’s collaboration with marketing company Desert Designs on a range of textiles, clothing and homewares was a success inside and outside of the country. The Tiwi people from the Tiwi Islands, now in the Northern Territory, began partnering to produce textiles at around the same time. However, the inclusion of a collection designed by an Indigenous Australian on the calendar of AAFW, which was established in 1996, is an important landmark.

“We get to widen the pathway for more of our First Nation creatives to come into this space,” says Ngali’s Francisco. “So, this is the first [standalone show], but I hope that next year there will be many more.”

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