Since launching the brand in 2018, Francisco has already achieved some major milestones, including seeing her designs go down the runway at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week and Melbourne Fashion Week, winning the Fashion Design Award at the National Indigenous Fashion Awards (NIFA), and being selected as an inaugural participant in David Jones’ Pathways Program for Indigenous designers.
These are just some of the reasons Ngali made our list of the 20 Coolest Retailers at the end of last year. Here is the story of how Francisco became a fashion designer, what she thinks about the rise of Indigenous fashion, and why emerging First Nations designers need support.
Inside Retail: How did you become a fashion designer?
Denni Francisco: I had a childrenswear label many years ago. I started it as a single mum so I could be available for [my daughter]. In fact, I was just putting clothing together for her, and then people saw it and said, ‘Can I order one of those?’ So that’s how it started, and it was a direct-to-consumer business way back then in the ’90s, it was a party plan-type setup. We had a lot of women who came on board as salespeople because they could do work around their kids. We thought we had started a childrenswear company, but we sort of started a whole different way of doing business at the time.
After that, I spent quite a bit of time in the corporate area, based on my experience of learning to run that business. I worked in resilience training, basically taking care of people who were taking care of business, but by 2018, I was really missing the creative process. I’d been living off country in Melbourne for all of my adult life, and I really wanted to be able to spend more time on country and connect more with community. Fashion seemed to be a good way to work with our remote artists, but I did think, ‘Does the world need another fashion brand? Probably not.’
The desire to get into something creative, to get on country – I thought it had to be [about] more than that, so I came to the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair [with the goal of] identifying Indigenous artists whom I could work with. What struck me was just how many talented people all around Australia we have in our communities, and also the challenge of selling their artworks. All the objects had to be shipped in from all those places around Australia, and some of the artists work incredibly remotely, and then perhaps what’s not sold gets shipped back, and I thought, ‘Not everybody has the opportunity to come to an art fair such as this, and what would it take to be able to translate [the artworks] into fabrics so that they show up in different places?’ This could also help to tell the story of our culture and celebrate that. So that was the beginning [of Ngali] in September 2018.
IR: You’ve had a lot of success in just three years.
DF: Yes, it’s been interesting. When I came to the fair, I met Lindsay Malay, a Gija artist from the Kimberley. He has his own fascinating story, which he shared with me, and when I talked to him about my vision of what I wanted to do, he saw it immediately, and we just connected straightaway. Then I went out on country with him and his family and that really cemented it. It’s a very exciting process because two First Nations businesses working together is a great thing.
IR: Do you think that has been the key factor in your success?
DF: I think it starts with amazing artwork, which Lindsay does produce, but then I think the translation of that artwork [onto fabric], people have said that’s the uniqueness of Ngali. Our design ethos is really about letting the prints be the hero. We keep our silhouettes fairly simple, just little surprises that might be a different way of doing a cuff or a hem, or the introduction of embroidery. Maybe that is the difference.
IR: Do you think there are more brands that reflect Indigenous art and techniques and culture compared with when you started?
DF: I think there’s more awareness [of them]. It’s really emerging in the fashion space and claiming a rightful place in that space. At the National Indigenous Fashion Awards, it was so interesting to look at the textiles that are being designed and the historical methods of creating things. I think we’re going to see more of that, but we’ve still had to break through that concept of First Nations being about souvenirs or T-shirts. When I first started talking about starting Ngali, I had trouble trying to articulate it so that people understood it and didn’t put it into a box where they thought it should be. That’s perhaps an ongoing challenge to be aware of.
IR: Articulating that the cut of your clothes is modern?
DF: Yes, and that it has a place on a runway, that it has potential in an international market, that it can show up in a multitude of places, and that it’s way beyond a souvenir store.
IR: Emerging brands often struggle to get in front of fashion buyers. What has that been like for Ngali, and where is your brand available now, besides your own website?
DF: The Australian Fashion Week was good for us in terms of helping us get more interest. We’ve had interest from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, we’re in the National Gallery of Victoria, potentially we’ll be in the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. I think it’s events such as [the NIFAs and Country to Couture] and being seen on the runway that shine the light on Indigenous fashion. The more exposure we get, the more people see what’s available and what so many of our creatives are doing.
It’s not always easy, and the support we get is really critical; [for example], from Indigenous Fashion Projects, which helped us get onto the Australian Fashion Week [runway] – we would not have been able to do that without IFP – from the Melbourne City Council, which helped us as a Melbourne business [get into] Melbourne Fashion Week, from David Jones and now the mentorship from Country Road. Those sorts of organisations supporting First Nations creatives, that’s a powerful way to start to switch the narrative and open up more opportunities and celebrate [First Nations designers], because there are so many incredibly creative people.
IR: Going back to the first business you started, what was the name of it and was there an Indigenous element to it?
DF: It was called Billiecart Clothing, and it didn’t [have an Indigenous element] at the time. I started that business, and then I was joined by a partner who had a long history in design – she was from England and had designed for The Beatles – so she ended up doing most of the design. I had creative input, but my role was really taking care of all of the salespeople that we had – we had about 900 – and that’s where I got deeply embedded into connection and the human element of things.
IR: Was the role that your Aboriginal background played in your life at that time different from now?
DF: That’s a good question. I think as a single parent, it was very much about what I needed to do to bring up [my daughter]. And because we didn’t have a lot of our community around us, because we were in Melbourne and all of my family was dispersed all over Australia, we really didn’t have that family support, so most of my attention was on [doing] what needed to be done. As she got older and became an adult, it gave me the opportunity to connect more. I was able to feel like this person has turned out to be an amazing human being, and maybe I can find some space now. Watching her journey and observing her connection to culture and her passion for her history as well – that’s been amazing.