For an award-winner, Simone Arnol is humble.
“It's really just giving back to the community,” she responds without hesitation when asked about receiving the gong.
The Gunggandji woman is dialling in from her Queensland home, on the western banks of the Cape York Peninsula. She says it’s an honour to get recognition for her work.
“To be able to do that in a way of keeping culture strong, and using fashion as a cultural tool to pass the knowledge on…. That, to me, is just priceless.”
In a stellar year for First Nations fashion design, Arnol was among 31 finalists in the running for the prestigious National Indigenous Fashion Awards.
Last night, she and collaborator Mylene Holroyd won the Environmental and Social Contribution award, one of only six categories.
It’s a subject that’s close to Arnol’s heart.
“That’s the foundation to all my work. (It’s) really vital… relaying the message of how important it is to look after our environment. And it's not just recycling food and rubbish; it's the fashion industry as well.
“We've got to be accountable for what we do in that environment.”
The winning pieces are visually arresting: vibrantly coloured and often sculptural, they are a mesh of Arnol’s designs, and the “ghost net” works that Holroyd’s Pormpuraaw Art & Culture centre helped pioneer.
“Those ghost nets are… discarded from fishing trawlers, which is a huge problem in the Gulf and also in the Cape. So Pormpuraaw collect all that and they also use materials from their tip as well,” Arnol explains.
“(And) I use recycled material... and I gather all that from Lifeline or you know, all the different upsells.
“So everything we do is recycling and just keep relaying that message, caring for Country.
Connecting to Culture
While she hasn’t always worked in fashion, Arnol has always put culture and community first: she spent 20 years working in Native Title law.
“So more of a legal background. That's why I'm really passionate about caring for Country as well, because of that (work).”
But her inspiration also comes from an older, and deeper place.
“Our old people have been caring for Country since the first sunrise. It's our job to follow in their footsteps.”
It’s these twin ideas, of protecting Country, and continuing culture, that drive Arnol: she has a desire to pass on cultural knowledge, as it was passed on to her.
“So I was taught how to traditionally dye by my mother-in-law, Verna Singleton, who’s no longer with us.
“She took me out on Country, taught me how to identify the plants, and then also how to process the dye from the plants, whether it's from the roots or the bark…”
Arnol says this knowledge, not as popular as traditional basket weaving, was not being taken up by the younger generations, so she took matters in to her own hands.
“I grabbed all the nieces and all the grannies, and I made some dresses and skirts, and they wanted to model...
“But... (I said) if you want to model, you have to go out on Country and learn how to dye first, the whole process, from identifying the plant, then to making it, and then you're allowed to model.”
She says it’s been a success with her family.
“We’re culturally rich for it.”
Arnol says her fashion goes beyond preserving culture, and protecting the environment.
"There's also hidden stories that are not told."
She was asked to contribute to a 2020 exhibition focused on marriage at Queensland Museum.
"I asked all the Elders like my mum about what was the process of getting married here, that introduced wedding process," she says.
"A lot of truth telling was told a lot of powerful narratives and a lot of the Elders were saying it was (forced), they married the darker skin with the lighter skin and we got married (off)."
"So I've just based the design on wedding dresses from back then... (and) I've laid it with different graphic design.
"And then layered (it) with all the different changes within our mob (up to) today, from being cultural, all the way through to the modern, and including being forced (to marry).
"(It) also had shackles on the wrist of the mannequin... So fashion is political!"
Arnol's award comes at a difficult time for her. She's currently battling stage 4 cancer.
"(It's) ovarian cancer which at some point spread to my lymph nodes into my stomach. So I'm fighting that at the moment, body, mind and spirit. I've had my fifth cycle of chemo, and I've got my sixth cycle (soon), and then I have surgeries in September.
"But that's why winning this award as well, is really..."
It's a tough subject, and Arnol is emotional while discussing it.
"Just making those dreams come true, life presents you with different hard costs... but I'm fighting it with everything I've got. It brings home what's important in life, and it's the simple things. (It) makes you appreciate everything."
It's a struggle reflected in everyday life, but Arnol is excited about her future, and the future of First Nations fashion.
"Definitely. Especially when grassroot artists are getting promoted for all their hard work.
"Design is a lot of blood, sweat and tears. And when you see our mob up there getting showcased with (the) mainstream, it's like 'wow!'
"It's more than exciting. It's good for the soul to see that."
The National Indigenous Fashion Awards 2021 broadcasts Tonight, Thursday 12 August at 7.30pm
Watch the National Indigenous Fashion Awards 2021 on NITV's Facebook Page.