When New Zealand Maori designer Amber Bridgman's father passed away suddenly, she turned to fashion and design as a coping mechanism.
“Death is a horrible concept for all people. Instead of, you know, obviously we get really sad, we cry, in our culture we have a certain way that we do things and takiaue, we grieve,” she said.
Bridgman would wait until her children were sleeping before locking herself away in her studio, spending late nights and early mornings crafting garments for her label Kahuwai.
“It wasn’t for anybody or anything, I was just going through old boxes, old cases, looking on the wrecks and I just started making things again,” she said.
Bridgman is just one of many designers from all over the world who flew into Melbourne last weekend to showcase their designs at the 5th annual Global Indigenous Runway, held during the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF).
Of the 50 models that strutted down the runway, 38 came from across Australia, six were First Nations and Native American, and six were from New Zealand, while designers also came from Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
This year’s theme was stories of creation as told through fashion, and as such, attendees saw culture and dreaming stories interpreted into design.
For Bridgman, the end result of her mourning was a whole new collection, bound together by her grief and the legend of demigod Maui.
To tie these things together across her designs is a two-tailed lizard print, which is not only symbolic to her people, but symbolic to herself.
“The lizard that you see in the collection throughout different garments is known as a two tailed lizard, or we call him the mokomoko,” Bridgman said.
The design of mokomoko originates from traditional tribal rock art that’s been found in caves in southern New Zealand, and Bridgman also interpreted it into her designs as the legend of demigod Maui.
“The southern tribes that I belong to are very different from the north; we have different legends, different stories like all Indigenous people do,” Bridgman explained.
“The lizard, if we look and we connect it back to creation, so Maui was a Maori demigod and all throughout the pacific, everyone knows who Maui is.
“He was the potiki, he was the youngest out of his family and he was ‘the man’. He was the youngest brother and he liked to push boundaries and, you know, he discovered so many things within our culture,”
“He wanted to become immortal, and the way you become immortal is you conquer the goddess of death and her name was Hine-nui-te-pō.
“So he decided he would conquer her because he wanted to live forever and be ‘the man’. The way he did that was he transformed himself into the lizard and he climbed inside her.
“She’s lying down in the forest so all these birds are around and this little fantail, the piwakawaka, saw what was happening and they alarmed Hine-nui-te-pō and woke her.
“Hine-nui-te-pō woke up, and she closed her legs and she crushed Maui. So because of that story that represents how death is now in this realm, in this world.”
First Traditional Owner exhibits
Global Indigenous Runway designer Jaeden Williams was also the first traditional owner of Melbourne to exhibit in the history of the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF).
The Boon Wurrung man performed a Welcome to Country in front of the packed out room of VIP guests.
“It’s pretty huge today to be the first ever Traditional Owner of Melbourne to be part of VAMFF,” Williams told NITV.
“[it’s] huge for me, huge for my people, huge for Melbourne and huge for the fashion industry.”
His brand Freshies can be described as modern urban Indigenous culture interpreted into street fashion.
“I never intended to be a designer. I owned a hot dog cart, I bought a hot dog cart and I named it Freshies hot dogs,” he said.
“Freshies is my brand and I called it Freshies Hot Dogs. I asked a graffiti artist to do me a logo and stuff like that and he did me a logo and I just fell in love with it.”
In fact, he loved it so much that he had it tattooed on his wrist, and that inspired his journey into the creative world of fashion and design.
Williams now hopes that he will be able to use the Global Indigenous Runway as a platform to launch Freshies worldwide.
Proud CEO of VAMFF Graeme Lewsey said that the Global Indigenous Runway was forcing a mindset of change in the creative industry.
“We’re challenging everyone to really grasp human potential and understand our culture and apply that to creativity,” he said.
“It’s a real harnessing of creativity and culture and here we are today – The Global Indigenous Runway - colour, magic, intrigue, excitement, but also future focused.”
As one of the most celebrated and successful Indigenous initiatives, the Global Indigenous Runway have been twice nominated for the National Reconciliation award, with founder Tina Waru awarded the Australian of the Day Award 2016.
The Global Indigenous Runway has toured Canada and New Zealand and continues to receive invitations from around the world including India, Norway, Seychelles and Arizona.