David Jones shines spotlight on First Nations designers

From The Iconic and Adairs to Country Road and Seed, David Jones is the latest major retailer to throw its support behind the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

In an effort to encourage and celebrate Indigenous design talent, the department store recently launched a Pathways Program in collaboration with the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair’s Indigenous Fashion Projects.

The initiative comes at a time when the mainstream fashion industry is becoming more conscious of its role in connecting with the community.

David Jones’ rolling 12-month program will include workshops, seminars, mentoring and network opportunities for Indigenous designers, helping them develop their fashion label and make industry contacts. 

“It’s critically important that we can use our platform to amplify these designers, their labels and stories. Australia has a long way to go in my mind until we reach true reconciliation with our First Nations people,” said Eloise Bishop, head of sustainability at the Country Road Group, which is part of Woolworths, David Jones’ parent group.

“This is a unique way that department stores can contribute to this journey in a way that works with design and fashion talent that’s coming through. Ultimately, working towards an Australian fashion industry and landscape that celebrates this rich culture can only add to what we can offer the rest of the world. It’s a really unique space that we work in and we need to see that come to the fore as much as we can.” 

According to David Jones, further support will be offered by the industry including Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Australia and designer Kit Willow.

The first Indigenous designer in the Pathways Program is Ngali founder, Denni Francisco, with more to be announced in coming weeks.

“David Jones in my mind depicts quality, which is important to us. They have worked with Indigenous brands before, so I feel they have a respect and understanding of what is important to us, that our businesses go beyond the creation of product,” she said. 

“Their support of Ngali and other Indigenous labels helps a bigger audience celebrate our culture and creativity and also helps add a meaningful dimension to the fashion choices customers make, because our culture is embedded in everything we do. I am excited to take this journey with them.”

A runway show.
Denni Francisco is the first designer in the Pathways Program. Image: Supplied.

A time to listen and learn

While the aim of David Jones’ program is to use their platform to connect designers with the industry, there is much that the mainstream fashion sector can learn from the Indigenous community.

“We have a huge amount that we can learn from these designers. A lot of them work to integrate and embed the storytelling from their own cultures into their work,” Bishop explained. “We launched a Reconciliation Action Plan a couple of years ago, so for us, it’s about learning more and enriching our own experience of how we’re working with these designers to understand more about the way they design.”

In the past year, Country Road has launched several initiatives to work more closely with Indigenous designers, which Bishop has been involved in. Most recently, the retailer was a presenting partner of the inaugural National Indigenous Fashion Awards and offered Maara Collective founder and Yuwaalaraay woman Julie Shaw a 12-month mentorship after winning the Fashion Award category. Country Road also regularly features First Nations talent in their campaigns, including Billie-Jean Hamlet and Nathan McGuire. 

Bishop said that as many Australians were not offered a deep understanding of Aboriginal culture through the education system, now is the time to re-learn that history. Fashion is one way for Australians to begin that process.

“It does need to come through the fashion industry and it’s a personal way that we can be part of that journey. We’re connected to the clothes we wear and it’s an expression of ourselves,” she said. “I have a number of pieces that are beautiful pieces of that tell stories that I haven’t grown up with, but it’s an opportunity to connect with indigenous cultures. Fashion gives people the opportunity to do that in a very visible way.”