“We design to take our collections on a journey,” says Denni Francisco, founder of First Nations clothing label Ngali. “Every collection runs into the next.”
The local brand’s next destination is a Melbourne Fashion Week (MFW) runway at 101 Collins Street, presenting alongside established Australian designers such as Aje, Bec & Bridge and Carla Zampatti.
Back in May, Ngali marked the first ever standalone presentation by an Indigenous designer on the official schedule at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week (AAFW) with a solo runway made up of 30 looks.
Save 20% when you buy two or more Broadsheet books. Order now to make sure they arrive in time for Christmas.SHOP NOW
It’s not the first time Francisco has made history. The Wiradjuri designer is also a two-time winner of the National Indigenous Fashion Awards’ Fashion Designer prize and was a finalist for the Australian Fashion Laureate’s Indigenous Designer of the Year accolade – impressive for someone who only established their label in 2018.
This year’s spring/summer showcase is a continuation of Ngali’s Murriyang collection, translating to “things that can be seen from above”. It celebrates Country as viewed from the sky, speaking to Australia’s diverse landscapes. “We thought about if Bunjil [the ancestral wedge-tailed eagle], who in Wiradjuri language is the Creator, was flying over, what is it that they would see?” Francisco tells Broadsheet. “It’s about the connection of land, sea and sky.”
It’s common in the fashion industry to be working one or two seasons ahead; the upcoming runway looks began months ago. At Ngali, each collection starts with scouting artworks by First Nations creatives that can be translated into textiles. Often this art curation process prompts a theme, forming the basis of each collection. Murriyang features works by longtime Ngali collaborator Lindsay Malay from the Kimberley in Western Australia, as well as two Melbourne-based artists: Keedan Rigney and Laura Brown.
Next comes a two-month sampling process. Designs are “effortless”, letting artworks take centrestage on simple forms, Francisco says. “If you’re working too hard to make a particular silhouette look right, I think there’s a message in that and maybe it’s not one to include.”
Often, collections are made up of 14 pieces produced across a number of different prints. Dresses, separates and silk scarves are either an adaption of previous silhouettes or designed completely new. A tight but considered body of work is also a reflection of Ngali’s sustainability commitment to producing less. At MFW, 10 looks will walk the runway, featuring versatile pieces that can be styled and worn in a multitude of ways.
But before it arrives in the city, the collection will already have toured across the globe, showcasing in the historic First Nations Fashion Show as part of London Fashion Week in September (the first of its kind) as well as Dubai Fashion Week in early October.
When asked what it feels like to be able to platform Indigenous culture and talent, Francisco’s answer is simple. “It’s time,” she says.
“It’s getting to the point where First Nations involvement in major fashion events is not so surprising, which is fantastic. Any time we show up as First Nations designers or creatives, we’re just widening that pathway for more of our mob to come in and feel culturally safe.”
Unlike Ngali’s solo show at AAFW, where the team had full control of production from styling down to the set and music, MFW’s collective runway will see the collection styled by Stuart Walford, whose resume includes Melbourne Fashion Festival as well as Chadstone runway activations. “There’s always that slight nervousness of how [the looks] are actually going to come down the catwalk,” Francisco says.
But as someone who’s been in the fashion industry for more than 25 years, learning to let go and have trust are lessons the designer has learned over time. She also finds comfort in connection to Country and ancestral support – two things at the core of Ngali. “We do what we can to be accountable to our culture and the First Nations people we collaborate with,” Francisco says. “If you take care of all of that, then everything else is kind of taken care of.”
Ngali will show at MFW as part of the 101 Collins Street Runway on Saturday October 28. Read more about the MFW program here.
This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.