“That’s where Mob in Fashion was born,” Nathan McGuire, Paypal Melbourne Fashion Festival’s First Nations culture and safety consultant, said at a panel discussion on Saturday.
McGuire is one of Australia’s most successful male models, having worked for the likes of David Jones, Country Road, Tiffany’s, Nike and many other brands. He’s also a proud First Nations man with Whadjuk, Ballardong, Yuet Noongar and Australian ancestry, and he often fields questions from brands and fashion magazines that want to hire more Indigenous creatives, but don’t know where to start.
“We were getting approached by brands and magazines in the industry [asking], ‘How do we achieve this? Where’s the skill?’ The skill hasn’t been opened by the industry for First Nations people,” he said.
Mob in Fashion was designed to change that. Launched by Paypal Melbourne Festival in collaboration with McGuire, the program invited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a range of skill sets, from design and styling, to PR, marketing and photography, to apply for an opportunity to work alongside industry experts at the festival, with the goal of growing their skills and professional networks.
“I think it’s pretty safe to say that it’s been quite a success with the amount of feedback and impact it’s had on the festival,” McGuire said.
Here are some of the key takeaways from last weekend’s panel discussion about the inaugural Mob in Fashion program, featuring McGuire, Yorta Yorta creative director Rhys Ripper; Yolngu designer Liandra Gaykamangu; Waanyi, Ngadjon photographer Robert Hookey; and Kakadu, Wuthathi creative director Nina Fitzgerald.
On the need for greater representation
Liandra Gaykamangu: You don’t realise how important it is to have that visual representation staring back at you. That’s why I’m really excited about Mob in Fashion. We’ve had many conversations [about representation] over the last two years in particular, and Mob in Fashion is now going beyond the public-facing representation, and going a little bit deeper. It’s focusing on who’s taking the photos, who are the stylists, who are the people that you actually don’t see. The reality is designers and models are very public facing, but stylists hold a lot of power. They’re the ones that say, ‘Who do I know on my roster that I can dress this person in for an interview?’ That’s why I see Mob in Fashion as taking it up a notch.
On the shift towards inclusion
Rhys Ripper: Before Black Lives Matter, it was definitely a different thing. And then, the industry wanted to start engaging with [First Nations people] more and telling the stories. We all know what it was like before – but that’s gone. Right now, it’s changing dramatically. I’m working with so many people behind the scenes, so many kids. I’ve been training 4 stylists all week, plus two other kids that weren’t in the Mob in Fashion program. It’s fantastic. They shine. They learn on the job. It’s changed so much. But we’ve had so many discussions, where is everyone?
On the misconception that there’s a lack of skilled talent
Nina Fitzgerald: What Mob in Fashion is doing so well is supporting genuine and real talent in the industry and letting that grow. I think what the industry has been too scared to do is to jump on to supporting First Nations people because they don’t know where to start. And we have to be honest that fashion is a really hard industry, it’s cutthroat. I think the industry is a bit like, ‘Where do we start so that we know we’re getting people that are really skilled?’
There are so many skilled First Nations people. There is genuine skill there. It’s not just giving someone a handout. [This program] is developing the skills that are already there. And that will show other people that yes, I can get there. And I can also be a part of that space. But I need to grow my skills before I’m ready to [take on] something like the Melbourne Fashion Festival, which is a big event. I think that’s really important, and that’s what we’re starting to see.
On the challenge of being first
Robert Hookey: It’s hard because you are constantly questioning, ‘Am I getting this because of my skill, or am I getting this because this label needs to tick that Black box?’ You’ve constantly got that in the back of your mind, and it’s a hurdle that you’ve got to get over. We need to go in there and [create] space for other Black people and Black photographers to come, irrespective of whether it’s tokenistic right now. It’s still going to build my career as a photographer.
On the future of First Nations people in fashion
NF: The exciting thing is when Indigenous fashion runways don’t have to stand on their own and be on their own. When our stories and our culture start to get woven through things as part of the broader Australian narrative, that’s exciting for me, and that’s inclusion for me. That’s what I’m trying to work towards, and it’s starting to happen.
Tips for First Nations creatives
RH: You hustle. I would message whoever would respond to me on Instagram. I stalked everyone like, ‘Who did this campaign? Who shot that editorial? Who did that GQ cover?’ I just got to know everyone. I started off shooting anyone who wanted to shoot, and then I started working with smaller agencies. I feel like you have to do your due diligence and research so you can understand how the industry works and then you can develop your work and your style.
LG: Get out there and network. Budget – it’s an expensive industry to be in. And allow yourself time to really plan and have that vision. I line up all my ducks, knowing that they’re getting me closer to that end goal of running a multimillion-dollar company one day. But that takes time – five to 10 years, whatever it takes. Be patient and work hard. You see the pretty images, but you don’t see the work that goes into that – the planning, the late nights, the stress, and the nerves. Like, how do we price ourselves? I have full confidence in my designs and my pieces and my fabrics, and I know they’re great quality and will fit you beautifully, but still that little voice in my head is like, ‘That’s $10 too much.’
Surround yourself with people that can advise you. You have to get an external voice sometimes, and it’s really valuable, but you don’t get that from staying at home, or even on social media. It’s best to go out and meet in person – get your phone number out, meet people, shake their hands and wear a memorable outfit.