For one Australian label working with a cherished artist’s legacy, a resort collection created more than just clothes, writes Alice Birrell.
When designers are encouraged to focus on the future, in an age when we throw around words like ‘next’ and ‘vision’ ad infinitum, it takes bravery to buck all this and take a wider view. In Australia, where our past and the telling of it has been fraught and tumultuous, it is the ability to see similarities powerful enough to draw us together that united Sydney-based label Aje and the family of revered Indigenous artist Minnie Pwerle.
Art was the link and social media the agent that enabled the collaboration of Pwerle’s descendants Jade and Fred Torres with Aje’s Edwina Robinson and Adrian Norris. “I studied painting at art school and have always been fascinated by the work of Minnie and her sister [painter] Emily Kame Kngwarreye,” says Norris. “I started following Pwerle Gallery on Instagram and then the opportunity arose.”
An understanding of Pwerle’s legacy was central to taking her gestural work, characterised by broad decisive strokes, and translating it with sensitivity to a resort collection, says Robinson: “It was very important to Jade and Fred and the legacy of Minnie Pwerle that the collaboration celebrated her artwork and brought her work to new audiences.”
With tiered and feathered party dresses, sweet broderie-anglaise blouses and languid beaded gowns, the collection will have Aje’s loyal younger following discovering and wearing Pwerle’s work. “It definitely made us think about design as a form of storytelling,” adds Robinson, on →
“FASHION HAS IMMEASURABLE POWER TO TRANSFORM PEOPLE IN A PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL SENSE”
whom the significance of choosing three Pwerle prints from the archive was not lost. “Fashion has immeasurable power to transform people in a physical and emotional sense.” The exuberant sleeves, the abundance of dresses and the blush, white and ecru palette was a celebration of freedom and femininity, a central focus inspired by Pwerle’s involvement with women’s ceremonies, painting the bodies of her tribe members to pay respect to country and to their responsibility safeguarding the wellbeing of the community.
But there was darkness, too. “Minnie’s daughter Barbara Weir was part of the Stolen Generation,” says Robinson, acknowledging the tale of separation that saw Minnie suffer the inconceivable loss of her daughter and Barbara her mother at the hands of welfare authorities, both spending decades thinking the other had passed away. “Minnie, Barbara and their families have had to endure many heartaches and hardships. It was important to us that this was incorporated into the designs in some capacity,” says Robinson. This element of their story is reflected in leather belts and strapping around waists, as well as fit-and-flare sleeves bound by ties, and boning in garments meant to communicate suppression.
Freedom came in the 1960s, when they discovered the truth and were reunited, something flowing floor-length tea dresses streaked with the exuberant and visceral brushstrokes of Pwerle’s seem to evoke. Optimism became the overarching message. “It’s important there are people at the forefront who are very respectful of the history and essence while not being afraid to move the legacy forward,” says Robinson.
What sparked the initial union has bound them together for the future. “Jade had long been a fan of our brand and loved that, unlike other brands that try to escape their Australian origins, we have always been very proud to be Australian and to present a quintessential Australian sense of style,” reflects Robinson. Proof that pride in our past is one of the most compelling paths forward.