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.
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.