Shaun Edwards ditched the city life and a steady job to plunge into the uncertainty of running a start-up in the world of design and fashion. Four years on the gambit is paying off.
It was while he was working a job at the University of Sydney in academia that Edwards decided he wanted to make a career change.
“I was doing academic stuff, I was working at Sydney Uni and doing a lot of public housing stuff,” says Edwards, talking to NITV from his home in Cairns where Wild Barra is based.
This desire to return to his creative roots led him to the world of fashion by chance, after spending time on the popular Sydney festival circuit.
“So what really got me doing (fashion) was attending music festivals in the summer, and just the vibrancy and energy that everybody had, and when winters over, that summer comes in and it’s just like a total happiness," says Edwards.
"I’m not a winter person, so when summer came around, and that whole colour and vibrancy came, I wanted my artwork on clothes that people were wearing to music festivals. Just to show off that."
While he loved being swept up in the wash of Sydney summers, Edwards was surprised at the lack of Australian designs on the clothing he was seeing.
“I saw heaps of wolves on t-shirts, and bears and all that sort of stuff. [It was] just not Australia, and that’s when my dingo design came out on the t-shirt,” he said.
“There’s a couple of elements to putting my artwork on clothing: that whole vibrancy thing, and the wildlife that we don’t treat so well. Like the dingo in Australia, there are no positive stories about the dingo in the country. It’s all negative, and in some places, the dingo is quite endangered. For us in Cape York, where I come from, the dingo is quite a sacred story, so we really cherish the dingo.”
Edwards had a talent for art from a young age. He previously studied it and fell back on these skills when he made the move into fashion design.
“I think I was in grade two when my mother put me in an art competition. I won first prize here in Cairns and I made some speech,” recalls Edwards.
“I later went on and I kept pursuing art through school, and started studying here later on in Cairns at the tropical north Queensland TAFE. That’s where it really sort of took off because there was a high demand for Indigenous art and we, everybody, was at TAFE studying - all the artists that are quite famous today around the country. So [I was] sort of privileged to be amongst the whole heap of other talented artists from around the region, including the Torres Strait.”
Some of these artists include Zane Sanders, who is well known for creating the famous Kuranda town mural, and the former Gold Coast artist Mr Whiteman.
“We all vibed off each other and really became a family. We all really did well with our art. We did heaps of exhibitions and we toured around Sydney quite a bit,” Edwards explains.
It was from there that the Wild Barra label was born. Now in its fourth year, Wild Barra has just held its latest fashion show in Cairns highlighting it's defining trait: the diversity of the models.
“The thing about Wild Barra is we’re a bit of a family, they’re not just talent- the model- they’re our family friends,” Edwards says.
“They might be non-Indigenous, they might of an Asian background, they might be gay, they might be a drag queen, they might be LGBT, and so for me when we do a parade — it’s about showing that diversity and unity.”
Edwards says this started with his first show at Australian Indigenous Fashion week, where there was a lack of diversity in the models on offer at the time, which lead to a last-minute casting call for fresh talent.
“We had all these designers with all these garments ready to go and we had no models. So my friend, James Saunders, was contracted to recruit all the models and he did a really good job doing that. I guess [it was] our first wave of Indigenous models, and some of those models have gone on and are still modelling today.”
For Edwards, connecting culture and community through his work is paramount.
“Indigenous designs and Indigenous designers... we seem to be surviving. Against all the odds, we're still around. And while our product isn’t solely for Indigenous Australians, it's about creating an industry that supports Indigenous people,” he says.
Sensing the challenges in starting a new label, Edwards turned to his friend and now mentor for advice. Adam Linforth, who founded underwear company Budgy Smuggler, went from advisor to long-term business partner in a flash.
“We both decided we’re gonna invest in it as best we can, learning from old mistakes, utilising some of the new social media platforms, and there’s quite a few to manoeuvre through. All those little things that you have to be aware of.”
Unlike many of his competitors who have sourced offshore production in order to cut costs and mass-produce their product, Wild Barra has instead chosen to stay local.
”We’re just an online company and we're too small to sell in shops. The markup people are asking for will reduce our wholesale garments to the made products. So in Australia, we just can’t afford to do that. In Australia, it’s very hard to produce garments, but we're still doing it.
Staying local also gives Edwards a higher degree of control over what happens to his designs and how they are used.
Theft of Indigenous designs is a huge issue both in Australia and overseas. There are limited legal avenues for recourse, and although Queensland MP Bob Katter has been pushing a bill proposing new protections for artists, no action has yet been taken.
"I don’t think we can control the design and patterns if we went abroad. I just don’t think legally we are able to fight against anyone who copied our pattern," says Edwards on his decision to stay local.
“There’s so much evidence of that misappropriation and so it’s another layer that I’m avoiding,” he laments.
“I just don’t want that to happen to the company, and yeah it's quite traumatic to go through that sort of scenario."
Edwards plans to keep the business in Australia so he can have greater control over the design and manufacturing.
"It’s a piece of iron for everyone in the company, and also the people buying the product."
The decision has proved beneficial for Wild Barra, which is able to market itself as an Australian made product.
"You know, a lot of people want to buy Australian made. And a lot of people ask if it’s made in Australia and we say, ‘yes, it’s made in Australia with meaning and with love', and that adds value to the product, we think anyway," Edwards says.
"And our international people, they’re looking for that as well. Our buyers as well, they’re looking for that product that is Indigenous, but you know has a percentage of the elements of the designing being Indigenous and authentic, and be designed by an Aboriginal person and made in Australia. So we’re giving them that product and so we’re sticking with that."