House of Darwin founder Shaun Edwards has long been an unofficial ambassador for the Northern Territory. As a kid at boarding school in Melbourne – and then playing in the AFL for the GWS Giants and Essendon Bombers before finishing up at Sydney Swans – he often found himself around people who’d “never really been to Darwin or heard of Darwin”, he says.
“It just really instilled in me an opportunity to help shape the story of Darwin outside the Northern Territory,” Edwards tells Broadsheet. “I’ve always been really proud to be a custodian of Darwin out and about, living in different places around the world.”
Based in Los Angeles before the pandemic, Edwards says it struck him how proudly people there talked about their geographical roots, hyping hometowns in LA (like Venice Beach and Silverlake) or farther afield across the USA. Meanwhile, the only common cultural reference he could point to was Crocodile Dundee, “because that was big in America”.
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Fashion and lifestyle label House of Darwin aims to change all that. Launched in 2020 when Edwards moved home during Covid disruptions, it tells NT stories through streetwear. Plus, as a social enterprise, it invests profits into social programs in remote Indigenous communities. Icons big and small – from salty plums, rodeos and sweaty build-up weather to Cyclone Tracy, cameleers and Uluru are spruiked on the brand’s tees, hats and hoodies, plus home objects like throws and mugs. And, inescapably, there are crocs. Lots and lots of crocs.
“I’m born and raised in Darwin. My mother’s family is Larrakia – traditional owners of the Darwin region – and my dad’s family come from Victoria and Queensland. Sort of third-generation Territorian on my dad’s side, and then been in Darwin since the beginning of time with Mum’s side,” Edwards says. “So I grew up in Darwin, spent a lot of time there and living in another little beach town called Mandorah, which is across the bay. Also a fair bit of my childhood was in a little community in West Arnhem Land called Gunbalanya.”
Edwards knows his home turf well, and he’s got plenty of stories to share. Initial inspiration for House of Darwin imagery came from jumping in his Land Cruiser and driving around to remote communities, running football clinics. He’d take photos and videos, and share them with illustrator Luna Tunes, aka Liam Milner – now the brand’s unofficial artist-in-residence – who’d work them up into iconic streetwear motifs.
The collaboration with Milner is “really organic”, Edwards says. He’ll send the artist a written anecdote or some video footage, then next thing it’s a new T-shirt.
“I’ll often go somewhere and get inspired by the trip or a moment or something funny will happen,” Edwards explains. “I was out mud crabbing the other month and someone got bitten on the toe. So we made a mud crabbing shirt. It’s often real-life stories or real-life situations that we try to narrate through the different iconography.”
The style is somewhere between 1980s Australiana tourist merch – postcards, tea towels, fridge magnets – and 1990s surf and skate wear. With typography inspired, at least in part, by old milk bar signage and a hint of underground zines. It’s nostalgic but forward-looking, with updated colourways. It’s fun and funny, but it also has a bigger symbolic job to do.
“I just want the Northern Territory people to be to be proud,” Edwards says. “You know, we’ve been getting smacked around in the press and different media outlets over the last couple of months. We’ve seen some different society issues going on. And obviously we’ve got the referendum now, which is a massive debate this year on where our nation wants to stand. I just want people to be proud of the region that we’re from because it is so unique.
“The Northern Territory people are the first people that I have to answer to, so I want them to be proud. But then also for people on the east coast, I just want them to be curious – to load up their car and come up on a trip and learn about the Northern Territory, because it’s such a vast and beautiful place. There are all these little nations and communities here in Australia that you can go check out.”
As a social enterprise, House of Darwin runs its clothing company for profit, then reinvests money back into social programs in remote Indigenous communities. Last year saw the launch of Hoop Dreams in the NT, which refurbishes basketball courts and paints them with murals in collaboration with local kids.
“The courts are a place for song and dance,” Edwards explains. “It’s where all the health workers come out and run their clinics and it’s also where they have the youth school discos. Everything happens on the basketball court. So we’ve been refurbishing them with the communities so that they can have something once we leave.”
House of Darwin has also partnered with Aussie skate label Pass Port to build half-pipes in remote communities, and teach locals how to skate. Less close to home, the NT brand has created banners for the iconic Dreamtime at the G football match, and designed hoodies for the Michael Long Foundation, commemorating the famous Long Walk that’s now re-enacted each year from Fed Square to the MCG ahead of the game.
On the fashion side of things, Edwards has already collaborated with brands like Dickies, Afends and Wah Wah Australia, and his threads are now available in Universal Store outlets across Australia. His own Darwin brick-and-mortar outlet, opened 2021, also involves a big name: Akin Atelier, a Sydney design studio that’s worked on spaces for the likes of Qantas and Camilla and Marc.
“It’s really funny,” Edwards says of the shopfront, “because it’s in this little old arcade and people sort of walk by and go, ‘What? That's not supposed to be there.’ So yeah, that’s cool.”
House of Darwin and its founder have a habit of turning up in unexpected places. Over the next few years Edwards plans to open shops in Melbourne and Sydney, then LA and Japan. His label just helped close out the final show at Australian Fashion Week 2023, an event that garnered one of the Territory’s top pop culture honours – a front-page story on the NT News alongside a large obligatory croc pic.
“I’m really proud to have House of Darwin be a vehicle for sharing these stories,” Edwards says. “Whether it be through clothing, photography, or the video stuff that we do. Those stories are really unique to Australia. You’ve sort of got to come up to Darwin to see it, to believe it.”
House of Darwin is available online at stockists including Universal Store.