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Winning artists take 1,700km car ride to the catwalk for Indigenous fashion awards | Australian fashion

Tucked between boxes and bags, four Ikuntji artists squeeze into their troopie and begin the 1,700km trip north from Haasts Bluff to Darwin.

Roseranna Larry, Pam Brown, Kelly Dixon and Hayley Dodd live in one of the most remote communities in Australia, working from a space not much bigger than most people’s living rooms.

Their two cars and trailer are stuffed with screen-printed fabrics, dresses, pants and shirts after several of their works were lost in transit on the way to Indigenous Fashion Projects’ Country to Couture.

Despite the arts minister’s custom-made suit being among the items lost in the post, the group is mostly amused by the last-minute change of crew.

One of Ikuntji’s youngest artists, Dodd, 24, was given just 10 minutes to jump out of the shower, grab her strawberries from the fridge and join the old women’s trip.

They don’t love leaving “home”, but they’re excited.

Country to Couture, now in its eighth year, brings together artists from across Australia to showcase First Nations’ fashion in a big runway show. The next night that talent is celebrated again at the National Indigenous Fashion Awards.

Model Savannah Kruger wears multi-award winning designer Lillardia Briggs-Houston in the finale of Country to Couture
Model Savannah Kruger wears multi-award-winning designer Lillardia Briggs-Houston in the finale of Country to Couture. Photograph: (A)manda Parkinson/The Guardian

Since showing their collection in collaboration with Black Cat Couture at last year’s event, Ikuntji has taken their tiny production worldwide.

Two artists visited Paris and London in September 2022 to show individual pieces as part of the Pacific Arts Association’s annual European conference, and then at London Pacific fashion week. Then, in May 2023, the art centre staged a runway show at Australian fashion week.

A model showcases a design by Lillardia Briggs-Houston. This year’s Country to Couture show featured 22 collections and boasted a record number of attendees.
A model showcases a design by Lillardia Briggs-Houston. This year’s Country to Couture show featured 22 collections and boasted a record number of attendees. Photograph: (A)manda Parkinson/The Guardian

Larry, an artist and the board director of Ikuntji Art Centre, says the experience was “very nice”, but she got “lonely for home”.

It speaks to the significance of place in Ikuntji’s work. Raw cloth patterns are hand-painted or printed, telling stories of “big rains” or “the boogie men and women”, says Larry.

“The yellow one shows big water running – like big rivers running big – and that suit one … that’s the country of Luritja.”

While the painting and material comes first, art centre manager, Dr Chrischona Schmidt, says the garments’ cuts also embody the movement of country. For example, the “kapi [water] is reflected in things like a dress train”.

The remote art centre was born out of the Western Desert art movement and was first opened in 1992 by a handful of women in the community.

Ikuntji artist Pam Brown stands with models in closing moments of Country to Couture.
Ikuntji artist Pam Brown stands with models in closing moments of Country to Couture. Photograph: (A)manda Parkinson/The Guardian

Artist Kelly Dixon gently describes how the thick red dust of their Western Desert home travels with them in the stories and paintings which adorn Ikuntji’s collections.

It is a place the women describe as “peaceful”.

“Our old women still be there, and when our hearts are heavy or our hands shaking, they come sit with us,” says Larry. “They always going to be with us … no matter how far we go.”

As night falls, a sold-out audience files into Darwin Convention Centre.

Country to Couture is not like a slick, commercial catwalk show, where models trot down catwalks to high-speed electronic music. Instead, there is a humility and generosity that lingers with the audience. The designs showcase knowledge and culture, not passing trends.

A model wearing a green and orange robe walks the runway.
‘We are trying to create space for grassroots artists to stand on the shoulders of giants and shine’: models parade award-winning garments. Photograph: (A)manda Parkinson/The Guardian

Indigenous Fashion Projects was spun off from parent organisation Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair in order to create ethical frameworks and opportunities for remote art centres and their communities, says Country to Couture artistic director, Shilo McNamee.

This year’s Country to Couture show featured 22 collections, including Miimi & Jiinda and Injalak Arts Centre. “With a record number of attendees and artists, collections were separated into two sold-out one-hour events,” McNamee says.

The show was structured to draw from songlines about land, water and sky, giving artists space to explore their own connections to Country.

Just days earlier McNamee described standing in the boardroom of her Darwin office surrounded by “oblong” boxes stacked to the roof. “You wouldn’t be able to imagine how some of these got here, or in what they were delivered.”

She says the tyranny of distance and rising cost of freight meant people had to bring in garments by barge, car, plane and truck. Some were even walked in.

“But that is all part of Country to Couture’s heart,” she says.

A model wearing a black and white printed dress and turban on the runway
A model wearing Tiwi Designs x Ossom. Many artists acknowledged their grandparents for passing knowledge and stories down. Photograph: (A)manda Parkinson/The Guardian

“We are trying to create space for grassroots artists to stand on the shoulders of giants and shine.

“It’s not about any of us as individuals, or putting ourselves out there,” she says. “It’s about being conscious of what our First Nations designers and artists need … and giving them their moment in the spotlight.”


This year’s event was model CJ Rankin’s second-ever runway appearance. She wore five different labels at Country to Couture but Ikuntji’s pale pink suit was her favourite.

CJ is modelling while she finishes year 12. She is also a member of Youth NT – an advisory board to the Northern Territory government – and has her eyes firmly set sky-high.

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CJ Rankin models the Ikuntji suit she hopes her mum will buy her one day.
‘It’s beautiful and I feel so powerful in it’: CJ Rankin models the Ikuntji suit she dreams of wearing to a future Qantas pilot’s interview. Photograph: (A)manda Parkinson/The Guardian

She hopes to become a pilot, and has already flown a plane solo on three occasions. “I’m almost finished getting my commercial pilot licence,” she says.

“I want to be a pilot in either the air force or a commercial pilot, maybe the first female Aboriginal pilot for Qantas,” she beams.

Stroking the double-breasted suit, the 17-year-old hopes her mum will buy it for her.

“I really want it so I can wear it to my Qantas pilot’s interview. It’s beautiful and I feel so powerful in it.”

Models and designers wearing printed suits on the runway.
Ikuntji artist Roseranna Larry stands with 17-year-old model CJ Rankin in the closing of Country to Couture. Photograph: (A)manda Parkinson/The Guardian

Eastern Arrernte and Gurindji man, NT arts minister Chansey Paech, says First Nations fashion is having its “moment” but it is important to remember its roots.

“It is not just about the beauty of our art, but it is a way to pass stories through songlines, and invite each of us into country and culture.”

“For our old people, it is a chance to engage our young ones, to pass to them what their mother’s mother and father’s father passed to them.

“Many say the arts centres in our remote communities are the hearts of our community; they provide places of excellence, but also respite.”

It was a sentiment echoed by each of the award winners at the National Indigenous Fashion Awards. Many of them paid homage to their grandparents for passing knowledge and stories down.

Wiradjuri, Gangulu and Yorta Yorta designer Lillardia Briggs-Houston closed Country to Couture with a collection reflecting the archaeological knowledge of her own country.

Model wears Gwarli Nangala at Country to Couture 2023. Picture: (A)manda Parkinson
A model wears Gwarli Nangala. Hayley Dodd says she wants everyone to wear First Nations fashion: ‘Because we are beautiful. We are black. And we are deadly.’ Photograph: (A)manda Parkinson/The Guardian

The following night she won NIFA’s top gong: the fashion design award.

Adorned in a mussel-shell and shale headdress, she welled with tears.

“I am what I am because of my grandmother and grandfather,” she told the crowd.

Put in her grandmother’s care as a child, she said they would cut patterns and stitch garments side-by-side.

“We were always the seamstress but never the designer back then. Now I dedicate my life to cultural sustainability through fashion.”

Gapuwiyak Culture and Arts took home two awards for their collaboration with Aly de Groot and their woven collections, while Rhonda Sharpe and Rowena Morgan won the wearable art and textile design awards respectively.

Ikuntji Arts Centre also took home the business award, proving “you don’t have to be in the big city to make big impressions”, says Larry.

Dodd says she wants everyone to wear First Nations fashion and understand what it means to mob in community: “Because we are beautiful. We are black. And we are deadly.”

The closing of show one at Country to Couture
The closing of show one at Country to Couture. Photograph: (A)manda Parkinson/The Guardian

2023 National Indigenous Fashion Award winners

Fashion Designer award
Lillardia Briggs-Houston

Traditional Adornment award
Gapuwiyak Culture and Arts artists

Community Collaboration award
Gapuwiyak Culture and Arts x Aly de Groot

Business Achievement award
Ikuntji Artists

Textile Design award
Rowena Morgan – Nagula Jarndu

Wearable Art award
Rhonda Sharpe – Yarrenyty Arltere Artists

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