Grace Lillian Lee and Charlee Fraser Discuss the Past, Present and Future of Indigenous Fashion Design

“Historically, Indigenous culture has been an incredible source of inspiration for the industry and now it is time for us to take the space and acknowledge that we’re not just inspiration.” -Grace Lillian-Lee, 2020.

Grace Lillian-Lee with her woven body-sculptures displayed at the Piinpi exhibition at the Bendigo Art Gallery. Courtesy of Bendigo Art Gallery, 2020.

Up until recent years, the main way Indigenous artists and designers have gained exposure and recognition in the mainstream fashion industry is through collaborations. Creative director and artist, Grace Lillian-Lee (descendant of the Mirram Mer people of the Eastern Islands of the Torres Straits) aims to change this narrative. In March 2020, Grace co-founded  - with Indigenous fashion designer Teagan Cowlishaw - Australia’s first-ever First Nations Fashion Council. First Nations Fashion and Design (FNFD) is an Indigenous Corporation and non-for-profit aimed at supporting and sustaining the growth and development of the Indigenous fashion industry (FNFD, 2020). 

Growing up, Grace felt disconnected to her Indigeneity due to the suppression of her father’s identity in his upbringing in a time when it was safer to identify with his Chinese lineage instead of Torres Strait. Saddened to learn of this, Grace took her grandmother back to the Torres Straits in 2010 - “some 57 years after she left” - for the emotional unveiling of her sister’s tombstone (Wardrobe Crisis Share The Podcast Mic, 2020). Grace (2020) revealed - in her guest-hosting of the ‘Wardrobe Crisis’ podcast directed by sustainable fashion journalist and author Clare Press - that this event: 

“It made me question everything about who I am and where I come from, and the best way I knew how to react to that was through creation. Because I was studying fashion design at RMIT...I started exploring my own lineage through the act of fashion and through weaving.”

Grace (2020) continues:

“I had an incredible mentor who’s got family connections - Uncle Ken Thaiday - who’s a world renowned Torres Strait Islander artist...I really paid tribute to my success to a lot of my Elders - from my parents to my grandma to Uncle Ken - to where I am today. Yes I graduated as a fashion designer from RMIT, but now...I’m an artist and there’s a lot of galleries that have my work and I get the opportunity to explore my voice through the act of making and sharing that through spaces of galleries, but then crossing the boundaries of fashion as well. So, it’s kind of where art meets fashion and how I encapsulate what I do.”

With her practice, Grace began to mentor a lot of remote communities as a consultant and she was being invited to so many platforms and spaces to be an advocate, and to voice her opinion at fashion panel events. Her involvement led her to the feeling of needing to create a space where Indigenous emerging designers and artists’ voices would be supported unitedly (Wardrobe Crisis Share The Podcast Mic, 2020). Grace informs of FNFD thus far:

“It’s been a space of programs, and projects and I think that what First Nations Fashion and Design stands for is: for a legacy; for sustainability; for long term pathways of education and sharing stories and growing our industry, and just becoming stronger as a nation.”

FNFD’s ‘Walking in Two Worlds’ fashion lineup featuring 5 collections and 44 looks. Courtesy of FNFD’s Facebook page, 2020. 

In an interview with NITV News (2020), Grace expressed her feelings of excitement and empowerment in the lead-up to the live-streaming of FNFD’s fashion show “Walking in Two Worlds,” which was held on the 12 December 2020:

“We are part of something that is going to change our future generations. We are doing this so that we can create a safer, more culturally aware space for our next generation of talent to be able to be properly recognized in the industry."

For Grace (2020), the phrase “Walking in Two Worlds” means:

 “...being out on Country, barefoot, and then bringing it to an urban context and showcasing the same fashion, and the same people; and really that even though our environments change, it’s about the people and preserving our history through doing that.”

With the invitation by traditional owner and artist Elverina Johnson, the fashion show was permitted to go ahead in Yarrabah (60 kilometres south of Cairns CBD on Cape Grafton), land of the Gunggandji people and Queensland’s largest Indigenous community. The show presented a Blak-led and designed event, with models wearing collections from the designers: Elverina Johnson, Emily Doolah, Lynelle Flinders, Nickeema Williams and Waringarri Arts. The fashion event also created an accessible opportunity for the wider Australian community to learn about the diversity of First Nations culture through fashion (NITV, 2020). 

FNFD has been invited to be a part of this year’s Melbourne Fashion Festival virtual fashion runway. On the 11th March ‘Walking in Two Worlds’ will be shared on the MFF platform. If you missed it last year and would like to tune in make sure you register! Click here to register for the free event. On the 12th, ‘the making of Walking in Two Worlds’ will be launched; it will be an exclusive insight to the recording and creation of the show out on Yarrabah Country and leading up to the event. Click here to register for the free event (MFF, 2021). 

Check out the trailer for ‘Walking in Two Worlds’ below:

Grace has also been a part of the successful launch of the inaugural National Indigenous Fashion Awards (NIFA), established in August 2020 through the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation (DAAFF). With over 30 nominations across six categories, these awards recognise, celebrate and ethically promote the innovation, creativity and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fashion designers, models, artistic directors, creative producers, artists and stylists, whilst contributing to the capacity building of the sector (NIFA, 2021). 

Through NIFA and FNFD, Grace believes they will help gain access to the mainstream fashion industry, which will create new economic opportunities in remote areas, and a way to preserve textiles and techniques used by these communities for centuries (NITV, 2020). 

Internationally renowned Indigenous model Charlee Fraser with performers Danton Jr. and Roy after the first rehearsal of ‘Walking In Two Worlds.’ Charlee wears the hand painted suit by respected Gurugulu and Indinji Gimuy artist Elverina Johnson. Courtesy of FNFD, 2020.

The FNFD fashion show couldn’t have been timed any more perfectly as Indigenous models are continuously reaching unprecedented recognition as the faces for social change. In the aforementioned podcast, Grace was joined with the Indigenous activist, international model  and Awabakal woman, Charlee Fraser. In 2016, iconic stylist Guido Palau gave her a chic bob right before she hit the Alexander Wang catwalk during her first New York Fashion Week, taking her look to new heights. Charlee’s cool, modern look caught the eye of top casting directors. That season she was added to the list of models for the season’s biggest shows, walking 40 shows for household names such as Chanel, Dior, Lanvin, Balenciaga and Givenchy and Céline (Wardrobe Crisis Share The Podcast Mic, 2020). 

Charlee Fraser walking for Alexander Wang, Fall/Winter, 2017. Courtesy of IMG Models, 2017.

All this happened within her first fashion week! Thus, doubling as a historic moment as Charlee became the first Indigenous Australian model to make it in the high end international fashion scene (IMG Models, 2021). She appeared in many Vogue campaigns across the globe such as: Vogue Italia, Vogue Spain, Vogue Mexico, Vogue Arabia and Vogue Japan. Charlee feels her greatest achievement was being on the cover of Vogue Australia’s April 2018 issue. In the 56 years Vogue Australia has been around, the magazine has only featured two Indigenous models on its cover, with Elaine George in 1993 and Samantha Harris in 2010. Thus, it was a groundbreaking cover, especially since she posed alongside Australian models of Akiima, Andreja Pejić and Fernanda Ly, all of whom are breaking the archaic beauty mold and repping for more inclusivity within the fashion world (IMG Models, 2021). If you would like to see more of Charlee’s fashion editorials check out her portfolio on IMG Models here.

Charlee Fraser posing for Vogue Australia, April 2018 issue with Fernanda Ly, Akiima and Andreja Pejić (left to right). Courtesy of VOGUE Australia, 2018. 


 Charlee Fraser in Harper’s Bazaar Germany, March 2020 campaign. Courtesy of IMG Models, 2020.

Charlee Fraser is an Ambassador and Model Mentor for FNFD. She became involved with FNFD as she has been looking for a space where her career crosses over with her Indigenous culture. Similarly to Grace, Charlee wasn’t all that involved with her Indigenous heritage growing up. She tells Grace (2020):

“That’s why I’m on this cultural journey now at this point of my life because I’ve always identified as Aboriginal. I was really involved in all the indigenous school activities and we hung out with my family a lot, on my mother’s side, because my mother’s Indigenous. But in terms of actual cultural activities or knowledge that have been passed down, I don't feel as though my family had a lot of that to pass down. So, that’s kind of the really big reason as to why I’m here today with First Nations Fashion and Design, and why I'm on this journey to just learn more about my heritage and about Indigenous culture in general so that I can teach it to my children and they can tell their friends...”

With the history of our nation, there is a lot of healing that needs to be done in terms of helping the younger generations to reconnect with their Indigeneity. This is significant to Charlee because as an Indigenous activist and role model for aspiring Indigenous Australian models, she sometimes feels uneducated to speak and represent as an advocate for her culture. Since Charlee’s involvement in FNFD, she feels that she has a space to go to where she can learn about her culture, which was a presence lacking thereof in her childhood (The Wardrobe Crisis Share The Mic Podact, 2020).   

Charlee credits Elaine George and Samantha Harris for helping pave the way to bring her modelling career to the international stage. In turn, she hopes to do the same for other budding First Nation models (The Wardrobe Crisis Share The Mic Podact, 2020). She informs Grace on her perception of the fashion industry today in regards to inclusivity:

“Since I started modelling, which is eight years ago now, the fashion industry has definitely changed a lot in terms of inclusivity of a range of different things...When I started it was very prevalent that you were tall and slender, and that was a model. But over the past eight years, we’ve really grown now to the point where I’m doing shows with other models who are not just beautiful human beings, but they’re different ethnicities; they’re different shapes and sizes; they’re different ages...Seeing so many ethnicities come through has been amazing because I love talking about culture with other people and where they’re from and what’s it’s been like for them.”

As Grace’s (2020) motto goes Indigenous fashion is “more than a moment, it’s a movement.” At Yarn, our goal is to help drive and promote the development and longevity of the Indigenous fashion scene into a mainstream space. To see First Nations fashion designers and artists gain international recognition - and not being merely a source of inspiration for the Western fashion realm - will mean a world of opportunities and opening doors. We are always on the lookout for fresh faces at Yarn to help Indigenous models get their foot in the door to the international fashion realm. It is exciting to see that more and more First Nations models are making it internationally, and providing recognition and representation out there for the younger generation.