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18 September, 2020

Cairns is the future of Australian fashion

Australian Indigenous fashion is attracting international attention and Far North Queensland-based designers are among those leading the way.

By Tanya Murphy

Grace Lillian Lee

Cairns local Indigenous fashion designer Grace Lillian Lee recently launched First Nations Fashion + Design (FNFD) and brought together an esteemed board of directors to create the First Nations Fashion Council, which will be the first industry body of its kind to provide mentoring and support for Indigenous fashion designers across Australia. 

A descendant of the Meriam Mer people of the Eastern Islands of the Torres Strait, Ms Lee creates contemporary wearable art inspired by her heritage and culture. 

She has been providing consulting to Indigenous designers and communities for nearly a decade and helping them bring their designs into the national and international spotlight, notably founding the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) fashion performance in 2013, and producing a fashion show at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in 2018. 

Lee’s efforts have helped catapult Indigenous fashion into the international spotlight with couture connoisseurs Vogue Magazine travelling all the way to Cairns in 2016 to experience the CIAF fashion performance. 

“When people think of Indigenous design they probably think ‘dot paintings’, or a niche subsection within Australian fashion, but Indigenous artists are actually setting contemporary trends which are attracting so much international attention they will soon be considered the definition of Australian fashion,” said Ms Lee.

 “Our goal is to have New Yorkers and Parisians wearing Australian designs, instead of Australians following international trends, and what better place to draw that uniquely Australian look from than our Indigenous designers? 

“Until now, there have been a lot of collaborations with non-Indigenous fashion labels showcasing the work, storylines, dreamings and techniques of Indigenous artists - which has been amazing - but FNFD’s goal will be to nurture Indigenous-owned fashion labels.

“FNFD is not just about giving a voice to Indigenous fashion and changing the narrative on what people think Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander fashion is - we need to address all the social determinant factors that affect us in our everyday lives. “We want our community to be their own decision makers to share their stories. To aspire to be leaders in their own field within the fashion ecosystem. 

“We want our communities to see their stories on the front page, and we want to provide a supportive and healthy environment with culture at the forefront. “We want our creatives to stand together and pave the way for our younger creatives to follow, and that will lead to very exciting economic opportunities for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander fashion industry.” 

Ms Lee said Australia, and Far North Queensland in particular, had some thriving Indigenous artists creating beautiful and exciting work, but needing support to build their business and their brand. 

FNFD membership will be free to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, with the goal of helping them set up and grow their own independent businesses through events, workshops, mentoring, and connecting them with contacts in the fashion industry. 

“Many artists live in remote areas and it is that strong connection with their land and heritage that inspires their work, so our fashion school will be “on wheels” and will travel around and help facilitate the amazing work that Indigenous designers are doing in their communities,” 

Ms Lee said. For more information and to support FNFD’s work, visit or look them up on Facebook. 

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