But while hard numbers are difficult to come by, it’s generally accepted that Indigenous brands have been underrepresented in Australian retail until now.
Ngali, which was a finalist in the inaugural National Indigenous Fashion Awards (NIFA) held at Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (DAAF) in August, is currently stocked in two resort boutiques at Uluru in the Northern Territory. It also sells direct-to-consumer online.
“We are looking forward to forging more relationships in the B2B space – particularly with retailers who align with our purpose to celebrate Indigenous culture and creativity,” Francisco said.
The biggest hurdle she faces to getting her brand stocked in more stores is simply getting an audience with the people who make buying decisions. But in the wake of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests against racism and police violence, that could be changing.
In Australia, the protests in June sparked an outpouring of support for Indigenous organisations like Common Ground, a nonprofit focused on sharing First Nations history and culture, which raised $30,000 in two weeks mostly from first-time donors. Social media accounts like Blak Business, a dedicated space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, gained tens of thousands of new followers, and brands like Clothing The Gap, a social enterprise known for its Always Was, Always Will Be t-shirt, quickly sold out of merchandise.
At the same time, many non-Indigenous businesses expressed solidarity with the movement and committed to rooting out racism and unconscious bias in their hiring, advertising and buying practices.
It seemed to be a watershed moment when big business and consumers finally started to recognise the huge range and legitimate appeal of Indigenous brands on the market.
“[The Black Lives Matter protests] certainly had [an] impact on many Indigenous businesses in a positive way,” Francisco said.
“However, Covid has also had an impact on retailers being able to make buying decisions at the same time as BLM. We will only know the answer to this in time.”
A voice for Indigineous business
From the beginning, some Indigenous organisations worried the wave of support they were experiencing would be short-lived. Would businesses keep their promises once consumer attention shifted elsewhere?
In the US, a grassroots initiative aims to hold the retail industry to account by encouraging businesses to commit 15 per cent of their shelf space to Black-owned brands. (Black people make up an estimated 15 per cent of the US population.)
Started by Aurora James, the founder and creative director of luxury shoe and handbag brand Brother Vellies, after the tragic death of George Floyd, the Fifteen Percent Pledge already has major retailers like Sephora, Macy’s and Rent The Runway on board.
While no such pledge currently exists in Australia, there is a clear need for better representation of Indigenous brands at an industry level.
Enter First Nations Fashion and Design (FNFD), a not-for-profit created by Grace Lillian Lee, a highly acclaimed artist, business owner and descendent of the Meriam Mer people from the eastern islands of the Torres Strait.
FNFD aims to support the growth of Indigenous fashion by holding events to raise awareness, partnering with major design institutions to offer skills development and providing guidance to negotiate contracts and protect IP.
Targeting everyone from designers to stylists to makeup artists, FNFD also plans to act as a consultant to help non-Indigenous businesses engage appropriately with First Nations people in the industry.
“We’ve started this movement because we’ve been left out of the fashion industry narrative,” Lee told Inside Retail.
“We’ve been a great source of inspiration, but as a sector, we’re most commonly considered for collaborations. What we’d like to see is self-determination and independent businesses succeeding.”
Lee, who produced the last three From Country to Couture fashion shows at DAAF, believes the time is long overdue for an Indigenous designer to be a household name in Australia. Making sure the enormous interest in Indigenous fashion generated by the Black Lives Matter protests doesn’t fade away will be key to achieving that.
“There was huge interest in how people can support [Indigenous businesses], which was fantastic, but it also [required] trying to navigate around businesses just doing it because it’s a trend,” she said about the local response to the protests.
“We don’t want it to be a trend, we want it to be a long-term commitment to create equality.”
A promising sign of change
A promising sign that support for Indigenous businesses is not just a trend is the level of retail participation in NAIDOC Week this year, which runs from November 8-15.
That includes Pinterest, which is featuring inspirational content from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creators, businesses and artists on its Today page, and four Aboriginal-owned small businesses on its Shop page, and Broadway Sydney, which is hosting a pop-up store featuring 20 Indigenous designers.
Carin Lee-Skelton, Pinterest’s country manager in ANZ, told Inside Retail that this is just the start of its efforts to showcase more First Nations-owned brands on its platform.
“We believe it’s just the start because although we know there is an incredible demand for products, it’s also a compelling opportunity to invite people to learn more about Aboriginal communities, Country and culture beyond just one week in time. In addition to discovering ideas from these communities, we hope this inspiration sparks meaningful dialogue and outcomes,” she said.
Broadway Sydney’s centre manager Justin Saltmarsh said the shopping centre is able to provide Indigenous brands, which predominantly exist online, a unique opportunity to test the waters in a new market.
“We wanted to ensure that our participation reflected true support. As a retail centre, we wanted to do more than just exhibit and showcase, we wanted to connect them to our community of consumers,” she said.
The pop-up store was created in partnership with FNFD. The designers include Maara Collective, which won the NIFAs at DAAF this year, as well Jarin Street, Aarli, Nungala Creative and Grace Lillian Lee, and span art, ceramics, clothes, accessories, jewellery, textiles and homewares.