beauty

The kind of magazine cover Australia barely ever sees.

“(U)ntil the appearance and the subsequent long term success of Samantha Harris, there had been no role model for these young people…”

Now that the fashion frenzy of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week has settled, it’s pertinent to note that the inaugural Australian Indigenous Fashion Week was also launched last Friday.

The event was designed to celebrate and promote the talents of Indigenous Australians in the field of fashion and design and as part of this, 18 young potential models were scouted from around the country.

As a former editor-in-chief and long time staffer of Vogue Australia, it caused me to reflect on the disquieting fact that only two Indigenous Australian models have ever appeared on the cover: the first, Queensland-based Elaine George in 1993 and the second, Samantha Harris in 2010.

Elaine was discovered at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast by photographer Grant Good, who sent test shots to the then editor of Vogue, Nancy Pilcher. Elaine was subsequently flown to Sydney and appeared on the September cover, garnering much publicity as Vogue’s first Indigenous cover girl and some criticism (even from Elaine’s elders) that she didn’t look dark enough.

Elegant and beautiful but extremely shy, Elaine quickly decided the demanding modeling world was not for her, and an Indigenous model would not feature in Vogue Australia again until Samantha Harris’s modeling card landed on my desk around 2009.

Was this due to inherent racism in the industry or a belief that the reader would not respond to an Indigenous face? I don’t think so. Had Samantha Harris, or any girl of her calibre popped up 10 years before, I would have put them in the magazine, as would most editors I know. Sam is one of the greatest beauties that Australia has ever produced.

Sales on both issues that featured these girls on the cover went up. Sam wore a Pucci dress and the designer, Peter Dundas, wrote me a note saying, “Thanks for the beautiful cover – you really get who the Pucci girl is!” I was so chuffed that he said this, unprompted, about an Indigenous girl.

The public response to Indigenous models is overwhelmingly positive. Their lack of representation has, in part, been due to supply. They were not often on the agency talent books, and again, not necessarily because of racism. If they weren’t city-born, there was less chance of them being scouted in regional parts of Australia.

Kirstie Clements.

The case also has to be put that until the appearance and the subsequent long term success of Samantha Harris, there had been no role model for these young people, and the idea that they could pursue a career in modeling was probably unthinkable to them. I don’t think they were purposefully discriminated against, at least during my tenure, but unfortunately, they were all but invisible. They were overlooked.

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Thankfully, the internet has changed all that. An agent does not need to fly to every corner of the country. An Instagram selfie can lead to a contract. Most agencies in Australia now have an Indigenous model, or several, on their books, spectacularly gorgeous girls such as Charlee Fraser with eMG, Elle Brittain from IMG and waiting in the wings, 15-year-old Martika Walford with Priscillas.

Martika received an Indigenous scholarship to a Sydney Catholic School and was spotted as possible model material by an eagle-eyed boarding mistress. One up and coming girl was discovered by her mother agency because she ‘liked’ another model on their Facebook page and they spotted her photo.

The excruciatingly strict standards of the high fashion world demand an almost impossible otherworldliness that actually overrides race – a supermodel needs to have perfect proportions, perfect skin, a perfect profile and be perfectly photogenic. Only a handful of girls in the world make it into this arena as it is.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KlEprPXhltY

Many of the new Indigenous hopefuls are a mixed race mélange with green eyes, cocoa skin and light hair, and criticism is often leveled that this is a “cop out”, that they do not look truly, 100 per cent Indigenous.

But in my experience, photographers and editors do not use girls because they are black, Asian or white, nor do they discriminate against them because they are black, Asian or white. They use them because they are supernaturally beautiful and that they project the look the fashion story requires.

I think that the more Indigenous girls that work full-time as models, whatever the exacting criteria and whatever shade they are, the better. Samantha, and her lovely, gentle support of the new girls coming through is admirable, and just the beginning, as I see it.

Frockwriter editor and journalist Patty Huntington agrees. “A new crop of Indigenous girls are starting to hit the big time. Charlee has been on the radar on the global RTW circuit for a while now. There are more and more coming and I have no doubt we will see a very dark Indigenous supermodel soon who will walk the international runways.”

She’s always been out there, and I hope that now she feels all the more welcome.

Kirstie and others speak about Indigenous models in the fashion industry tonight on SBS 2’s news and culture program The Feed, 7.30pm on SBS 2. Join the conversation @TheFeedSBS2.

Have you attended any Australian Indigenous Fashion Week events yet? Do you plan to?

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