by April Shepherd, Editor, Council magazine

In Melbourne a historical church hall and caretaker’s residence in Collingwood has been transformed into a First Nations fashion hub, thanks to support from the Yarra City Council and Kinaway Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce, reinvigorating a heritage site to a creative space championing Indigenous Australian fashion designers and artists.

The suburb of Collingwood in Melbourne is known for its iconic art scene, but as housing prices skyrocket, the dream for many artists of having a gallery or showcase in the area is out of reach.

KIN Fashion, located in the heart of Collingwood, began as part of Yarra City Council’s Room to Create program, a charitable fund delivered in partnership with the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation and aiming to support artists with affordable and sustainable creative spaces.

The Room to Create program utilises under-used council buildings to house creative organisations, artists-in-residence, and in this case a hub for Indigenous artists and designers to showcase their work.

Through this program the Council, in late 2021, opened Expressions of Interest (EOI) for a short-term tenancy of 12-16 Peel Street Collingwood, offering subsidised rent and making the space an affordable option for creatives.

City of Yarra has a high number of residents who work in the creative arts field, housing many iconic streets known for fashion, art, live music venues, galleries and artist-run spaces.

12-16 Peel Street had been vacant for many years and required major building works supported by a $100,000 grant, provided by the Victorian Government’s Creative Neighbourhood Pilot Program, through Creative Victoria.

Yarra City Council Mayor Sophie Wade said, “KIN Fashion is a First Nations Fashion Accelerator Project, supported and founded by the Kinaway Chamber of Commerce, which supports Victorian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander business owners.”

KIN Fashion secured the lease as part of a competitive EOI process, choosing eight designers to be featured through its 18 week pilot program, the KIN Fashion and Textiles Program 2021, which supported creative entrepreneurs to connect with local manufacturing networks in Melbourne.

KIN’s designers then launched their designs in Federation Square at the Melbourne Fashion Festival in March 2022.

Strengthening Indigenous Australian fashion and business

KIN Fashion’s occupancy aimed to create an Indigenous Australian arts and cultural hub in the precinct, with the Yarra City Council commissioning a mural by artist Ky-ya Nicholson Ward to be painted on the external walls of the building, adding a striking addition for locals.

Since the beginning of their tenancy, KIN Fashion has selected a number of Indigenous designers to present their work in the Peel Street building, who got to work with experts in the industry and ethical materials to create their collections.

Mayor Wade said KIN has set up a “fashion and textiles design studio with high digital capacity, strengthening innovation in the First Nations fashion sector development.

“The program aims to support artists and designers to engage with local manufacturing networks and to use digital marketing tools to enter the global market.”

Mayor Wade said that initiatives such as the Room to Create program make a critical contribution to the culture and vitality of the Council region, and create an opportunity for these Indigenous artists to showcase their work, in an area that has become less affordable for many.

“With iconic live music venues, more than 60 galleries and artist-run spaces, peak arts organisations, film production houses, recording studios and more, Yarra is an engine room for the arts. But with the price of land skyrocketing, artists need more support than ever to secure creative spaces,” Mayor Wade said.

Bringing the runway to Peel Street

Peter Naughton, hired by Kinaway, The Victorian Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce, to be the Program Director for KIN Fashion, has been an instrumental part of the studio’s inception and development.

Mr Naughton has worn many different hats throughout the development of the initiative, alongside Marketing and Communication Manager and Creative Director of the First Nations runway at Melbourne Fashion Festival 2022, Rhys Ripper, a Yorta Yorta man who is known internationally for his expertise in fashion media and communications. The project was also aided by Production Manager, Alison Geppert, an accomplished manager with over 20 years’ experience in the industry.

“My role has been a mixture of focus areas. Developing the program with the support of our Production Manager. Working with the designers to understand their fashion ambitions and building a plan to meet those goals from a product perspective,” Mr Naughton said.

Mr Naughton said the project has been hugely successful, and met with support from the Council and community alike.

“The experience of developing and launching this program has been incredibly successful. One of the gaps in the sector for emerging creatives is the lack of access to the building blocks required to design and sample a collection,” Mr Naughton said.

“We have been able to connect creatives with high quality resources and materials that have elevated their creative vision, all of our manufacturers are ethically accredited, and our raw materials and print studios are world class.”

Mr Naughton said that not only has the project allowed the designers to have a taste of running their own fashion business, they also were lucky enough to be featured in the First Nations runway at Melbourne Fashion Festival and the event’s official opening ceremony.

“Other aspects of the experience have been the swell of support from other peak bodies and organisations. We had the incredible support of the Melbourne Fashion Festival to launch a stand-alone textile exhibition in Federation Square, paired with the First Nations Runway.”

The project’s successes are measured in many ways, all championing First Nation voices and designers.

“Yarra City Council has been really supportive to the community through their commission of the full external wrap-around mural by Ky-ya Nicholson-Ward on the building, and the nightly themed projections of First Nations artists on the park wall on Peel Street,” Mr Naughton said.

“The development of the First Nations Fashion and textile studio underlines Council’s commitment to support the First Peoples culture, creativity and entrepreneurship.”
Peter Naughton, Project Director of KIN Design Studio Pilot collection

The Council began working with KIN Fashion after Kinaway’s successful application for the Peel Street Space.

Mayor Wade said that Room to Create is Yarra City Council’s unique approach to responding to a local and global challenge.

“Council hopes to make a tangible difference in ensuring artists and creative organisations continue to live, work and contribute to our city.”

Mr Naughton has described the project as a “very significant moment as we witness the rise of First Nations Fashion.

“However, despite the amazing collaborations, runways, and editorials there is still a lot of work to do to make the fashion
industry truly inclusive,” Mr Naughton said.

The chosen designers

The designers featured in KIN Fashion were selected by Kinaway, through a promoted EOI on the organisation’s social media networks.

“We promoted an EOI on social media via the Kinaway network – we received a significant number of applications reflecting the level of interest in this sector. The selection process was taken in line with a cross between government and industry in the selection committee, and a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds,” Mr Naughton said.

Kinaway settled on eight Indigenous Australian designers, artists and creatives:

∞ Amber Days – an ethical childrenswear label inspired by the Australian landscape, especially the bush, desert and sea

∞ Clothing the Gaps – an ethical Victorian-based clothing label focused on raising awareness and truth telling. Co-founded by Laura
Thompson, who is also the Free The Flag campaign leader

∞ Adjadura – a streetwear label which means “my people’s art” in Narungga language. Founded by Daen Sainsbury Smith who is an artist and content producer

∞ Solid Ochre – fashion label created by Indigenous model Nathan McGuire, inspired by culture and connection to Country

∞ Yanggurdi – Yanggurdi means “walkabout” in Taungurung language, with the label’s collection titled Mungan Biik, inspired by founder and designer Cassie Leatham’s travels across Country

∞ Ngali – a clothing label aiming to bring Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander artwork to the world through the medium of clothing and collectibles

∞ Wa-ring – creating art and clothing inspired by waring, which means “river is kin” in founder Annette Sax’s Taungurung Language, and represents a place where Indigenous women gather to share Ceremony on Taungurung Country

∞ Taylah Aimée – a textiles design and homeware label using multiple mediums for storytelling through art, and embracing the slow fashion movement

The wider benefits for the chosen designers

Featured designer and Yanggurdi founder, Cassie Leatham, said her business joined Kinaway for support and has since been able to connect to more businesses, join in partnerships with corporate connections and be featured in the KIN Fashion studio.

Ms Leatham’s label is inspired by her travels across Country with her blue budgie, Mr Beaky, with her collection titled Mungan Biik – meaning “weave on Country.”

Pieces created by fashion label Yanggurdi. Image: Peter Naughton.

The logo shows a budgie near a waterhole; where lomandra and other native grass are harvested for weaving the pieces in the collection, and then screen-printed onto cotton. This is an example of how Ms Leatham showcases and honours past and traditional Indigenous practices, with futuristic art and design.

“This is how my fashion journey began, with applying through Kinaway for the KIN Fashion design pilot program,” Ms Leatham said.

Ms Leatham said that thanks to KIN Fashion, her label Yanggurdi will continue creating and designing work commitments for future fashion events.

“Creating and designing with KIN has given me some great opportunities to network with other major designers and businesses that give understanding into our culture and arts,” Ms Leatham said.

Annette Sax, founder and designer behind the Indigenous fashion label Wa-ring, has worked with Kinaway for many years through her business Yarn Strong Sista – which won the Kinaway Excellence Award in 2021, just as her new label Wa-ring came to be.

“Council’s involvement shows more awareness and support for our First Nations peoples and creating more conversations around not only creative fashion, but the stories behind the designs, history and importance of continuing partnerships for future collaboration and reconciliation.”
Cassie Leatham, Yanggurdi founder and designer

“Wa-ring means “river is kin” in my Taungurung Language, and is the place where Aboriginal women gather to share Ceremony on Taungurung Country,” Ms Sax said.

After a successful application to the KIN Fashion and Textiles Program 2021, Ms Sax decided to develop Wa-ring as a separate business to Yarn Strong Sista, which offers a variety of services such as visits to Early Childhood environments to facilitate storytelling with children and Indigenous designed resources and educational tools.

Wa-ring designs at Melbourne Fashion Festival 2022. Image: Annette Sax.

“I quickly realised I needed to develop my fashion label as a separate entity to my existing business Yarn Strong Sista (YSS). Yarning with my Gamilaroi Sista, Priscilla Reid-Loynes, we shared stories of our experiences with wa-ring. Our waterways are central to our being as River Women. This is how we named my new label,” Ms Sax said.

Ms Sax said the KIN program was the “perfect opportunity” for herself and new label Wa-ring.

“I’ve learnt so much from the KIN Fashion team who all have decades of expertise nationally and internationally. I was mentored by Marketing and Communication Manager and Creative Director of the First Nations Runway Rhys Ripper, Project Manager Peter Naughton and Production Manager Alison Geppert.”

For Ms Sax, the guidance of the KIN program allowed her to hone in and focus on her label, and its representation and connection to Country.

“In our weekly Zoom meetings, we had inspiring discussions of Japanese designers and the fashion revolution. Style ideas of fitted layers, asymmetrical and structured shapes and fluid motion of waterfall frill effect. These conversations moulded the Wa-ring collection, always keeping true to Country.”

Ms Sax said that through the support of this venture she has seen barriers removed for not only herself, but the other eight participants, to enter the fashion and textile industry.

“Local governments need to recognise First Nations social justice and economic empowerment being a top priority.”
Annette Sax, Wa-ring founder and designer

What does the future hold?

From all accounts KIN Fashion has been a success, and a real community effort, featuring collaboration between Council, Kinaway and designers to create an affordable space for Indigenous artists to showcase their work and heritage.

“KIN’s tenancy is currently 18 months with a possible extension of a further six months. Anecdotal feedback is people are loving having the space and they are using it as a home base while their projects scale up,” Mayor Wade said.

“There are relationships being explored with London Fashion Week and the team are also preparing for Melbourne Fashion Week later in 2022.”

Mr Naughton said that KIN fashion is “helping build the scaffolding that will support long-term ambitions within the sector.

“This will take time and will require layered investment and support from Council, government, fashion Industry, corporate investors, community and customers.

“Fashion is a notoriously complex business to navigate so there is a job ahead to create a fertile environment for new business to thrive.”

KIN Fashion’s tenancy ends in June 2023 and may be extended. They are inviting sponsorship opportunities within the corporate and philanthropic sectors and welcome interested parties to make contact.

Stay tuned to Council for updates.

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