“Fashion and textiles are my forms of storytelling. Every dot and brush stroke carries a treasured memory of country, culture and family.
Nestled within the vibrant Melbourne Fringe Festival schedule, Mob in Fashion’s recent Future/History show was a love letter to Country. Models were adorned with freshwater seashells collected from slow-moving streams, native grasses gathered from vast plains, and eroded ocher from the bedrock of a ragged shoreline.
Founded by model and First Nations culture and safety consultant Nathan McGuire, Mob in Fashion was launched this year as a platform to increase the representation of First Nations creatives within the Australian fashion industry. The Future/History show, which took place earlier this month, created a space for meaningful looks from Indigenous designers, held together by materials and techniques refined over thousands of years.
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Creative Director and Yorta Man Yorta Rhys Ripper worked in conjunction with the three designers featured in the show, Taungurung/Dja Dja Wurrung woman Cassie Leatham, Quandamooka woman Delvene Cockatoo-Collins and Wiradjuri/Gangulu/Yorta woman Lillardia Briggs-Houston Yorta, to bring the inaugural showcase together. Below, we look at each of these designers’ practices.
Most people think of grass as something to cut, poison or step on. But between August and September, when the river reeds meandering out of the water have hardened, Cassie Leatham wades to harvest them, mindful of how her ancestors once foraged. She pats the stems, pulling the leaves to check for insects and native bees that may be hiding among them.
Once home, Cassie cleans the pulp – a process that can take up to three hours. She cuts the reeds with a sharp obsidian gemstone, files them with sandpaper, and polishes the surface to prevent them from snagging. She then begins to weave, using a handmade bone needle cut from a pair of millstones.
Among other things, Cassie is a master weaver. Her fashion label Yanggurdi (meaning “walkabout” in the Taungurung language) debuted hand-woven pieces in the Future/History show, including bags, earrings, anklets and anklets. bracelets, all used as ceremonial adornments, alongside an eel trap which, outside the track, is submerged in the stream. . Future/History is an apt name for the work Cassie does, carrying on the ways of her ancestors’ past and keeping traditions and stories alive.
After the pieces are constructed, Cassie places the remaining weaving strands under the watchful eyes of the birds in her yard, who collect them to build their nests. The root system of river reeds is mashed into a soft paste, a starchy carbohydrate that can sustain energy for up to two hours. The process of creating a Yanggurdi garment is zero waste from start to finish and incredibly respectful of the ecosystem she is so in tune with.
“I am always looking for food. I want to be able to work, weave and share stories, so I have to be able to know traditional methods. I don’t really want to make my world a world of contemporary artists, I kind of want to keep traditions alive,” she explains.
In Quandamooka country, when the ocean gently foams and the morning tide comes in, Delvene Cockatoo-Collins picks glistening quampie shells from the mud flats along Moreton Bay. Picking pearl oysters is a family tradition that Delvene has incorporated into her Future/History collection, A mermaid in the bay.
After a decade of living away from home with her husband and three sons, Delvene felt the desire to return home to Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), the second largest sand island in the world. His ancestral land teems with life: sea turtles nest along the shore, sugar bees fill the air with their buzz, white herons wade through the shallows of the estuary and an elusive white humpback whale migrates through the berry every year. Then there are the generational stories of the mermaid, Warrajamba, mentioned over the years by her grandmother.
“When you’re here for long periods of time, you can feel things changing…the tides, the seasons, the way the coasts and sandbars take on new shapes year after year. It’s about getting to know this place as an adult and then making sense of it and sharing it through my wearable art,” she says.
For Delvene, living on Country continues to foster her greatest moments of connection and creativity. Steeped in island traditions, quampie shells are washed by Evelyn, Delvene’s mother, sewn in natural fibers from the island such as tawalpin and cotton, then covered with linen. Delvene’s handmade natural dyes come from bankia bark, which peels from trees and is collected by her brother Corey. “If it fell to the ground, it did its job,” she explains.
The whole family is considerate in their gathering process, doing their best to tiptoe across the landscape and leave it completely untouched. “I try to pass on traditional knowledge to those who will keep it properly. If it is told to too many people, the places will become overexposed and there will be nothing left to use for cultural purposes. When I do my artistic practice, I always remember to whom I am responsible,” says Delvene.
When Lillardia Briggs-Houston imagines her home, it’s where the rolling sand hills meet the Marrambidya swamps; where rocky gorges spill into deep waterholes, shaded by its great-grandfather’s black cypress pine and scarred acacia and binyal (red river gum) trees.
On the Future/History catwalk, Lillardia translates fresh water into fabric, channeling the beauty of Narrandera’s cultural heritage sites into her dreamy designs in hand-dyed silk. Swirling touches of slate and brown reflect the earthy tones of the landscape, while patterns created around mussel shells are scattered across the fabric. Each look is paired with a necklace handcrafted from bottle brush mussels and seeds found in abundance along the Murrumbidgee River.
“Fashion and textiles are my forms of storytelling. Each dot and brushstroke carries a treasured memory of country, culture and kinship. Knowing that I have an audience that follows my work, I wanted to use my voice and my platform to address the issue of the continued destruction and desecration of the country’s cultural heritage, especially in New South Wales where we are the only state or territory to still have a position. only law on indigenous cultural heritage… For me, this is a deeply traumatic process, so I have devoted my time [to] merging cultural heritage and my love of textiles and fashion,” she shares.
All of her works featured on the Future/History podium were made from scrap fabrics, old test prints and reworked canvases to minimize textile waste. A pair of pants were covered in a rougher screen-printed fabric, a sensory reminder of her hands running along the mussel’s growth rings as a child.
“There is a big push for more sustainable and ethical fashion, and I think First Nations designers really have their finger on the pulse when it comes to that. [and that’s] greatly attributed to our upbringing and our symbiotic relationship with Country,” says Lillardia.
She uses slow ethical fashion as a vehicle to raise awareness in the fight for more ethical legislation to protect and preserve the country. To stay up to date with her fashion advocacy work, head here.
Mob in Fashion opens doors to culturally safe spaces for First Nations people. Her opportunities span fashion design, photography, styling, hair and makeup, and modeling. Read more about this Australian fashion industry initiative here.