• Felicia Foxx walks the runway in Paul McCann's gumnut dress. The inaugural First Nations Fashion runway was a stunning success. (Getty Images AsiaPac)Source: Getty Images AsiaPac
How a boy from remote Northern Territory took his passion for Country, nature and 1950s glamour all the way to the nation's biggest fashion event.
Dan Butler

14 Jun 2021 - 5:26 PM  UPDATED 5 Aug 2021 - 6:27 PM

Marrithiyel designer Paul McCann was part of history this month. He got to see the gown he designed and made strut down the runway of Australian Fashion Week, and become something of a legend.

Thankfully his internet connection was working.

“Well, yeah, I'm in Melbourne lockdown!," he told NITV. "So I would have loved to have attended the event, but I was watching the live stream, and it was just really overwhelming.”

A familiar routine by now, COVID restrictions once again got in the way of the best-laid plans. But McCann wasn’t letting it spoil his moment.

“The energy from watching it through a live stream has not left me. It was simply beautiful, and touching, and moving for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to witness.

“I'm so grateful for that.”

The first-ever First Nations runway at Australian Fashion Week caused waves beyond the usual sartorial circles, making headlines in fashion magazines and news outlets alike.

For many, McCann’s dress became the defining symbol of what has already been touted as a seminal event in fashion’s history. Vogue Australia called it an "instantly memorable moment".

Even behind the scenes, the artists and models knew it was something special. 

"When Grace (Lillian Lee, founder of First Nations Fashion and Design) first tried the gown on a... model, they all broke down in tears. That's huge to me"

Since the dress fronted the public, the reception has been similarly overwhelming. 

"(It's been) just wonderful, the messages coming through my social media. From what I've posted (on social media), everyone is in love with the way they say it floated down the runway."

He was helped in that respect by the dress's model, Gamilaroi and Dunghutti drag queen Felicia Foxx. While the dress itself eschewed the genderless designs of some other works for a more traditional silhouette, its presentation by a proud queer Blak man was a radical moment.

"Felicia did such an amazing job. I don't think any of the models could have pulled off what she did, with the drama, the way she walked, everything.

"There was a little nip slip here and there and I was living for it!" 

The magnitude of it all has been hard to fathom.

“I only really got back into dressmaking seven months ago, just after [Melbourne’s second] lockdown," he said.

"And I can't believe, you know, seven months later, I was invited to be a part of Fashion Week … I just couldn't believe that that was my gown coming down the runway!”

McCann’s dress was one part of a holistic First Nations event. First Nations designers exhibited their original works on a cast of Blak models; Indigenous musicians from William Barton to DRMNGNOW performed for a line-up of First Nations celebrities; a Welcome to Country and smoking ceremony set the scene for what was to be a day of high emotion.

The regal number McCann chose to send down the runway, one of his most ambitious projects, felt fitting for such a momentous day.

“This gum-nut gown is truly the biggest gown that I've made. It took at least 20-meters of fabric just in the skirt alone … I did it over the space of probably a month and a half. It was a lot of late nights, early morning finishes as well.

“I was still even waiting for a couple of the gum nuts to dry an hour before I sent it to Sydney!”

The dress, as with other examples of McCann’s work, takes obvious inspiration from nature, and keeps one eye on sustainability.

“One day I was walking down the road from my home [in Melbourne] in a local park and I saw the gum nuts. And really, that ignited my passion for fashion and accessories again.

“I just thought ‘how can I use what is around me?’ … The organza was what we called deadstock," he explains.

"It was a fabric that’s just been sitting in someone's cupboard. So I wanted to use something that was recycled and vintage ... I was able to pair the gum nuts, which are real seed pods.

“So I am conscious of the environment as well.”

It’s an awareness born of a childhood spent on Country. McCann was born in Darwin, but grew up on his traditional land, 365km southwest of the Top End's capital. It’s remote country; McCann didn’t ‘go’ to school, but rather listened. 

“People freak out when they hear that that's how I was educated, over the radio!” he laughs.

Katherine School of the Air, that's how I was educated, and I was always playing around in nature because that was my garden.

"That was my yard, it was kilometres and kilometres of land that I would make little things out of; sticks and branches, and arranged little floral designs with native flowers and stuff. 

“So I was always creative as a young person.”

McCann’s mob are Marrithiyal, through both grandmothers. A flair for the dramatic, seen in the gum-nut gown and other similar pieces, are a result of their influence. 

“My biggest inspiration in that sort of shape and silhouette is my grandmother Elizabeth. She grew up in the 1950s, and she sewed a lot of her own dresses, wedding dresses and everything.

“That's my grandmother, and these beautiful dresses to me, you know, that's my queen.

“So I really want to portray us [mob] in a real opulent, sovereign way in fashion.”

“So I really want to portray us [mob] in a real opulent, sovereign way in fashion.”

McCann’s talents aren’t limited to grand looks. His catalogue reveals a chameleon’s ability to adopt diverse styles, from couture to ready-to-wear numbers, like his “Always Will Be” baseball jerseys. 

“So that baseball jersey is based off something that I bought in the 90s ... I wanted to produce something that took me back to that time, but was still really current. And more than that, you know, mine is kind of hip-hop. 

“And the 65 stands for us being here for over 65,000 years.”

The richness and diversity evident in the work of McCann and the other First Nations Fashion designers, and the roaring success of their showing at Fashion Week, had many posing the obvious question: why, in the 26-year history of the show, had it never happened before?

“I don't know if it's because we've all slowed down, we've all been hit by COVID … I think Australia is really starting to reflect a bit more. I just feel like people are slowing down and really thinking it's time... that our voices are heard. 

“And fashion is powerful; powerful because it really can create conversations, like why are you wearing that? Or who? What's that mean? Or that design?”

“And fashion is powerful; powerful because it really can create conversations, like why are you wearing that? Or who? What's that mean? Or that design?”

McCann says he’s had plenty of messages asking whether he thinks it’s suitable for non-Indigenous people to wear his designs. 

“And I say... I'd love to see that! It just shows that… you're an ally of ours, and that you're embracing part of our culture, or our stories, or the message that we are trying to convey. 

“So I don't really know why it's taken this long [for the First Nations fashion showing]. But I think they’re definitely waking up and wanting to see more of what we've got to offer.”

First Nations designers and artists make history at Australian Fashion Week
GALLERY: The curated event presented the works of seven First Nations designers, worn by all-Indigenous models. Take a look at the deadly designs.