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Racist comment by delegate at Australian Fashion Week sparks concerns

Emma Ruben -

While this year's Afterpay Australian Fashion Week brought many positive firsts, it unfortunately also saw a discriminatory comment from a high-profile international delegate.

This year Denni Francisco became the first Indigenous designer to showcase their own solo show at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week (AAFW) with her label Ngali.

The Ikuntji Artists simultaneously made history as the first arts centre to have a solo runway at the annual event, with eventgoers rising to their feet with tears in their eyes.

In the midst of these big wins for First Nations creatives in the fashion industry, not everyone was able to fully enjoy their experience.

Owner and designer of Rowland Vision, Wiradjuri and Waiben Island man Lindyn Rowland, has spoken out about the international delegate who made hateful remarks to one of his friends during a Welcome to Country.

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A post shared by Prince Lindyn Rowland (@lindynrowland)

A series of unfortunate events

After AAFW, Rowland made public the incident on his Instagram, detailing how a high profile international delegate had made inappropriate comments during the Welcome to Country at the Ikuntji Artists show.

The delegate made these comments to a friend of Rowland's (who wishes to remain unnamed).

The delegate reportedly said "I f***ing hate when they start talking" while an Elder had begun the Welcome to Country.

After the show, Rowland's friend approached him upset and told him what had happened. Rowland said he remembers feeling shocked.

"I was just speechless. I was like what do you mean?" he said.

"After the show, there were a lot of people rushing out and I'm sure he was one of them that rushed out.

"And it was playing on our mind the whole time and we were both like 'okay we're not going to say anything to anyone just yet' because that just ruins the moment. It ruins that huge standing ovation, it ruins that this was one of the first all-Blak runways at this year's Australian Fashion Week and how great it was and we don't want to mess it all up by saying one thing that person said."

After AAFW, Rowland made the decision to speak out as he felt it was necessary to bring attention to the matter.

He confronted the person on Instagram who claimed Rowland's friend must have misheard them and it was a misunderstanding. They then offered to post a video of the Welcome to Country to "educate myself & others on the beautiful inspo behind the show and the land".

Rowland wrote back saying he would not send a video and hoped they would properly educate themselves in the future.

Screen grabs from @lindynrowland on Instagram. Pictures have been cropped for clarity. (Image: supplied)

Screen grabs from @lindynrowland on Instagram. Pictures have been cropped for clarity. (Image: supplied)

An Elder performs a Welcome to Country at the Ikuntji Artists show. (Image: Rob Hookey)

An Elder performs a Welcome to Country at the Ikuntji Artists show. (Image: Rob Hookey)

Diversity is not a trend

In recent years AAFW has seen strides in terms of diversity and inclusion of First Nations people and other cultural groups.

In the last three years, more than 27 Indigenous designers have participated at AAFW. In 2023, 12 First Nations designers were on the official schedule.

2021 was the first year the event held dedicated First Nations runways with First Nations Fashion + Design and Indigenous Fashion Projects running their own shows. A trend which has continued in 2022 and 2023.

Performer and movement coordinator Luke Currie-Richardson has worked in the fashion industry on and off in the last few years.

The Kuku Yalanji, Djabugay, Munaldjali, Butchulla and Meriam man said from the time he's spent in the fashion industry, there's a real lack of cultural awareness for First Nations people.

"I think the industry is moving too fast with diversity without having proper structures in store," he said.

"I would love to know the numbers and figures of how many people or agencies, managers have gone through cultural training, have a Reconciliation Action Plan.

"Or just acknowledge on their page on their website that they're operating on whatever land they're operating on here in Australia."

Rowland said for him, actions mean more than words.

"I believe they (Aus Fashion Week) need to stick by their words by saying that they're going to improve First Nations spaces and make it culturally safe," he said.

"Show what has been hidden for so long, Blak beauty, Blak pride, Blak designers, Blak models.

"And they talk about it all the time, every single year they talk about it saying 'oh we're going to be more inclusive'. But really are you just saying that?"

Luke Currie-Richardson at Australian Fashion Week this year. (Image: Rhiannon Clarke)

Lindyn Rowland at Australian Fashion Week this year. (Image: Rhiannon Clarke)

Lindyn Rowland at Australian Fashion Week this year. (Image: Rhiannon Clarke)

Looking forward

While it's great to see strides being made to include First Nations people in the fashion industry, creatives like Rowland and Currie-Richardson are calling for real tangible change.

Currie-Richardson said there needs to be a space for mob to exist within the industry and a space for mob to speak out.

"It's distressing to see especially young models that don't feel like they have a voice in this industry because they want to make it and also have been told not to say something by agencies because they don't want to be known as troublemakers within the scene," he said.

"People come to me, models telling me that their manager has told them not to walk in Blak-run shows in Blak labels because that's not good for their image.

"It's as if they are saying Blak labels aren't high fashion, Blak labels aren't going to get you to the top and it's like actually we can walk in this world with you.

"We've got the likes of Paul McCann, MAARA Collective and many more."

Rowland hopes his speaking up will bring others to do so when other situations like this one arise. Following speaking out about this incident, Rowland was left feeling reassured after someone from IMG (the owner of AAFW) reached out to him to talk through the issue.

Rowland said he feels reassured his concerns were not ignored and hopes this will be the beginning of a more culturally safe space for First Nations people during AAFW.

A spokesperson from IMG told the National Indigenous Times they do not condone any form of discrimination at their events.

"We stand with and support the First Nations community in Australia, and do not condone any kind of discriminatory behavior at our events," they said.

AAFW will return in 2024.

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