Fashion designer Lisa Gorman on collaborating with Indigenous artists for the runway

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A modern interpretation of a traditional art form.

Since its inception some 20 years ago, Gorman has grown into a rather prolific label. Most recently, the Melbourne-born brand celebrated its 80th artist collaboration with a collective of Indigenous artists from one of the most remote regions of Western Australia, the Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency. 

Just over two years ago, Mangkaja Arts manager Belinda Cook, who was encouraged by the brand’s history of crediting the artistic works it used in its design, approached the brains behind the label, Lisa Gorman.

Gorman selected 10 artworks, created by five senior Magkaja Arts artists – Ngarralja Tommy May, Lisa Uhl, Daisy Japulija, Sonia Kurarra and Nada Tigila Rawlins – to be turned into wearable works of art. The result was a modern interpretation of a traditional art form, splashed over unconventional fabrics like corduroy and silk. 

The label debuted the collection at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (DAAF), presenting it in a runway show featuring a high proportion of indigenous models. 

“Having the opportunity to collaborate and produce this collection isn’t solely about fashion. I wanted to reserve this show specifically for this space, because I think this is where its context is the strongest,” explained Gorman, who confirmed that over 2000 artists are represented throughout the course of the fair. 

Models preparing to walk the Gorman runway show. Image credit: Mia Rankin

Models preparing to walk the Gorman runway show. Image credit: Mia Rankin

Here, Vogue talks with the designer about Indigenous art, the importance of respectful collaboration and the need for diversity in the fashion industry.

What made you decide to release a collection featuring Indigenous art? 
“It’s taken me a long time. I was always interested and had a passion for Indigenous work but I was afraid of the commercial sensitivity that can arise from that. Two and a half years ago, Mankaja Arts approached me about working together. Belinda pitched the idea about working together, so that helped to eliminate a lot of the concerns I had about seeking out a collaboration.”

Why were you drawn Indigenous art?
“I love that it is fundamental to Aboriginal story-telling and their language. I noticed that when I was selecting the artists’ work, it’s really repetitive. A lot of traditional Indigenous artists will paint similar-looking work because that’s the way that they paint. I’ve learned through this process that it’s not right to paint another person’s space or country. Indigenous art is not defined by its aesthetic, it’s defined by their language and the way they communicate their stories about their country.”

How did you go about picking 10 works of art to use in this collection?
“In the very beginning, I had my aesthetic cap on, and I think that that’s because that’s what I’m most familiar with. It’s about how they’ll translate to wearable pieces. There’s not necessarily always depth. And then it switched. I started speaking with Belinda more about what they all mean; what are these lines, what are the dots? I can pick up quite a lot of the elements in the artwork now. What a woman looks like sitting, women’s tools versus what men’s tools look like in a painting, areas of significance and special spaces. That has been such an amazing learning for me, and it’s the experience beyond purely the collaboration that has been far beyond what I’d hoped for. I feel so lucky.”

What impact does the artwork have on the design of the piece it features on? 
“The forms in the artwork lend themselves to what the garment shape will be. There are some artworks where only part of the work is used and I was quite nervous about that. I didn’t want to misrepresent the art. It was so valuable to collaborate with Mangkaja, and to have Belinda, because you need to have someone that understands that artwork and the artist. I wouldn’t have been able to do this kind of collaboration without Belinda and Mangkaja. I think having waited now for this time has been important.”

What challenges did you face when creating this collection? 
“It’s really a culmination of years of work. Choosing the artists, choosing their artworks, and then turning those artworks into a yardage print. The difficulty is that it is a language. It’s such an ancient culture and the artworks are a form of language, so I needed to feel like the artist was okay with what I was doing with their work. There were lots of approvals that we went through to make that happen.”

How important is art to you personally?
“I’ve certainly got art on the walls. Personally, I really love ceramics. I’ve given the wheel a spin for a few years, on and off, producing somewhat wonky and thick wall pieces. Generally, I’m quite into contemporary art. I’m really into photography at the moment, and that was another reason that I asked Charles Fréger, the French portrait photographer, to document the collection for me. We shot it at Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia. He has had so much experience with photographing traditional cultural groups around the world. And he has a style that just allows costume and person to shine through.”

How important is diversity to you?
“I’m so pleased to see diversity in the models for the show. It’s amazing to see such gorgeous and new Indigenous models on the runway, particularly Shaniqua Shaw, who is from Fitzroy Crossing who we have featured in the campaign for this collection. That in itself is worth celebrating. We’ve also got diversity in size, height, skin colour and cultural background. We’re seeing it more and more on the runway and I think that there’s nothing but positive outcomes that can come from that. You’re showing to a community that is extremely diverse and fashion brands should be considering that.”

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