Aje’s new collection is bringing awareness to the beauty of Indigenous culture.
It’s universally known that art and fashion go together like Beyoncé and Jay Z. And when technology is thrown into the mix? “Social media does powerful things,” says Adrian Norris, one half of the duo behind Australian label Aje. He and design partner Edwina Robinson are standing backstage before their resort 2018 show at the Art Gallery of NSW with Jade Torres, founder of Pwerle Aboriginal Art Gallery, an online initiative specialising in works by Aboriginal artists hailing from the Utopia region of the Northern Territory. Norris, an art-school graduate, had been following the gallery’s Instagram account closely when Torres – daughter of respected art dealer Fred Torres, granddaughter to renowned artist Barbara Weir and great-granddaughter to the legendary Minnie Pwerle – reached out to suggest a collaboration.
It was the late Pwerle’s bold and free-flowing brushstrokes that inspired the Aje team. Pwerle was an Alyawarre woman born in the early 1920s, famous for her art despite only beginning to paint in her eighties. While her works draw on ancient culture and tradition, their linear nature and modern vibrancy made them ideal for transferring onto fabric, with three paintings translated into prints. “All three are from the same Dreaming, Awelye Atnwengerrp,” says Torres. “They tell a story of the traditional women’s ceremony where the women paint ochre on their bodies and sing their Dreamtime, which will travel from campsite to campsite – it’s their way of communicating their culture.”
The designers were meticulous about staying true to the colour palette and scale of the works they adorned on sculptural dresses and shirts, but Pwerle’s influence is evident far beyond the print pieces, from voluminous shapes to leather binding. “We wanted a strong direction in terms of the silhouettes that had some bearing to the artwork and what she was trying to convey, her love for the land,” says Robinson.
“My grandmother, Barbara, was in the stolen generation,” says Torres. “She got taken away from Minnie when she was only 10.” On the runway, Aje paid tribute to Pwerle’s life story with belted suiting and corsetry giving way to free-flowing dresses. “It’s almost a reflection of being bound and then freedom when they eventually reunited.”
For Torres, the collaboration is a chance to bring an understanding of Indigenous culture to a new audience. “There’s a lot of negative imagery on the culture when actually it’s a beautiful message... For me, it’s about wanting to take back that culture and bring it out in a more positive way.” It’s also about assisting the next generation, which is why a percentage of the sale of each print piece will go to Pwerle’s family to help continue the artistic tradition and the communication of it.
For Aje, a brand that’s dedicated itself to “raw beauty” and “tough femininity” since launching in 2008, the collection was an evolution of sorts, not to mention a chance to visit the landscape Pwerle was inspired by. Meeting Weir near Alice Springs while shooting a short film featuring the collection was a pinch-me moment for the designers. “We were a bit worried what she’d think of the collaboration but she was really excited,” says Robinson. “She wanted some of the shirts in the Minnie Pwerle prints, which is really, really cool!”
DRAPED IN HISTORY From left: Edwina Robinson and Adrian Norris with a model and Jade Torres