Hanboks, saris and coat dresses: inside Fashions of Multicultural Australia – a picture essay

The action among the fashionable audience was just as entertaining as the designs showcased on the runway at the inaugural FOMA event

The international autumn/winter ready-to-wear collections are currently being held in Paris, but for now the world has come to Sydney for the Fashions of Multicultural Australia exhibition and runway event organised by Sonia Sadiq Gandhi. Featuring 17 fashion and jewellery designers from Indigenous, Indonesian, Afghan, Irish, Kiribati and Korean backgrounds, the aim is to demonstrate how diverse and yet cohesive fashion can be.

Designs from Meera.
Designs from Meera. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Before the parade, I wander through the 15 colourful stands that make up the designer and embassy exhibition, each showcasing handicrafts, fashion and other cultural exports. The line-up makes for curious juxtapositions. The Brazilian stand with its swimsuits and jewellery is next to the Afghan stand with its racks of modesty fashion, which is next to the Chilean stand with its woollen and woven handicrafts, and then the Egyptian stand with its Nefertiti bust and stark architectural jewellery.

Miss Kiribati 2018.
Miss Kiribati 2018. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
A man dressed in traditional Indonesian garb.
A man dressed in traditional Indonesian garb. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
  • L-R Miss Kiribati 2018, a man dressed in traditional Indonesian garb.

Miss Kirabati 2018, also known as Annie, stands at the front of her national stand. She’s wearing a traditional Kiribati costume made of woven grasses and later will demonstrate her traditional dance for the curious crowd. Peliea from the Kirabati ministry of internal affairs talks me through some of the handicraft on display. She points to the extended legs of a small model of a traditional home. “Kirabati is under threat of climate change so this is the type of house we live in so as the water comes in, we are raised high.” Sea levels are rising around the central Pacific nation and Peliea say even their traditional costumes have been affected by climate change. Where once grasses and wood were used for outfits, these are no longer available and they rely on imported, often plastic, materials instead. “The raw materials like the trees, most have died of the effect of climate change [and] the sea coming up. Most of the local materials that we use for our handicraft, we don’t have any more.”

Poornima Sharma from Meera.
Poornima Sharma from Meera. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
  • Poornima Sharma, the Meera designer.

At the next stand Miss Indonesia Australia 2018 wears a tall gold-plated crown and sash, next to a man dressed in full Indonesian warrior costume. Among an audience of 2,000, those in black tie take their seats next to those in colourful national dress. Everyone stops to take pictures of two glamorous women wearing voluminous pastel-coloured Korean Hanbok dresses.

Women watch the catwalk from the front row.
Women watch the catwalk from the front row. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

It’s on with the show.

The first collection sent down the 60-metre-long runway is by the Indigenous designer Colleen Tighe Johnson for her label Buluuy Mirrii. The Gomeroi woman from Moree in north-west New South Wales has shown in New York and at the Cannes film festival but tells me later this is her biggest show and being first on the runway is her “ultimate dream come true”.

Each of her garments has a unique print, which is inspired by an Indigenous story. She shows me the print inspired by her mother’s story. “It’s about the Mehi river where she was born on the mission in Moree,” she explains, pointing out the delicate circles that signify women meeting. “It’s the dreaming tracks of the Mehi river with the campsites and the animals.”

Buluuy Mirrii by Colleen Tighe Johnson.
Buluuy Mirrii by Colleen Tighe Johnson. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
  • Buluuy Mirrii designs by Colleen Tighe Johnson.

She sees herself as representing all First Nations people. “We are all striving for the same thing, to be able to give our youth, our young people that platform and pathway forward for the next generation, the skill training and employment [and] just to shape the future.”

Johnson selected three young Indigenous models to walk in her Buluuy Mirrii show. They are among the diverse array of models walking in the event, representing different nationalities, age groups and body shapes. One of the models is the Paralympian snowboarder Joany Badenhorst who says she loves the colours of Johnson’s dresses but also the simplicity of the designs which allow her to “pop on a leg” when she needs to.

Colleen Tighe Johnson backstage.
Colleen Tighe Johnson backstage. Photograph: Carly Earl
  • Designer Colleen Tighe Johnson backstage at FOMA.

The Afghan-born, Sydney-based designer Anjilla Seddeqi is up next. Her collection features a mix of traditional Afghan costumes with colourful paisley prints threaded with gold, alongside more contemporary looks of full skirts and voluminous coat dresses with a black and grey forest print. When we speak later, Seddeqi says it was important to her that she display both. She arrived in Australia when she was seven years old as a Afghan refugee with her parents, and she says fashion has helped her to reconcile the two sides of her heritage.

Fashion designer Anjilla Seddeqi preparing her models.
Fashion designer Anjilla Seddeqi preparing her models. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
  • Anjilla Seddeqi preparing one of the models before the show, Anjilla Seddeqi designs.

“Before I just wanted to hide [my uniqueness] and blend in with people. Now I’m learning to embrace that, embrace my culture, embrace my heritage and be proud of it. And I’m also proud of my Australian heritage because that has made me who I am today.” She says a shared appreciation of fashion can help to bring people together. “No matter what your background is, we are all human, we have a shared humanity, we have love, we have hope, we have joy, we have festivities and that is what I wanted to bring out to my collection.”

Anjilla Seddeqi designs.
Anjilla Seddeqi designs. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
Anjilla Seddeqi designs.
Anjilla Seddeqi designs. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Next there are Aran-wool inspired looks from Ireland, architectural jewellery from Egypt, colourful floral prints from SetSetSet from Korea as well as traditional Hanbok from Miranda Day. There are leather designs from Russia and futuristic Afro designs from sustainable materials from Remuse. The presenter Charlotte Smith, who has one of Australia’s most extensive vintage collections, sends a selection of floaty vintage gowns down the runway, each paired with an extravagant hat made by the Melbourne-based milliner Wendy Scully.

Many of the guests were dressed in traditional garb.
Many of the guests were dressed in traditional garb. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

The final outfit of the night is an embellished red and gold traditional wedding sari by the designer Poornima Sharma for her label Meera. As the bride, adorned in gold jewellery, glides slowly down the runway, the audience applauds. As Seddeqi pointed out, no matter where they are from, everyone can appreciate a beautiful dress.


Alexandra Spring and Carly Earl

The GuardianTramp

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