by Marion Hume
What constitutes fashion? That’s what I’m pondering while standing out in the Red Desert holding a handmade basket trimmed with emu feathers. Could it look good upended as a hat?
The Tjanpi Desert Weavers (pronounced “jumpy”, it means “grass”) make baskets – amazing, extraordinary, original baskets of fistfuls of spinifex. They embellish the baskets with skeins of vibrant wool, feathers and seeds. They also create toy animals in colours not seen in nature; but then I’m learning that the artisans of Australia’s Western Desert see nature in an entirely different way than I do.
I’m not a “clutter fan”, nor do I tend to buy souvenirs. Yet I find myself tempted by both the basket I want to put on my head, and what might or might not be a lizard. Maybe it’s a duck? The Tjanpi women make all sorts of animals, inspired by those that inhabitat a vast sweep of South Australia, WA and the Northern Territory, but also by those they have seen seen on television. A penguin, imagined in local grass, by an Indigenous woman living in one of the world’s most remote communities is a creature to behold.
The Tjampi ladies are spread across an area exceeding 350,000 square kms — bigger than Germany — yet they are both global and local. Their favourite material is raffia, which comes only from Madagascar, the island which hangs like a tear off the East Coast of Africa. This discovery reminds me why fashion is such a great beat. You and I speak one word of Malagasy (raffia) although perhaps unlike you, I’ve been to Antananarivo, that nation’s capital. There, 25 years ago, I met a real-life spiderman called Simon Peers, whose ambition was to rediscover the lost art of “milking” spiders to use the skeins to weave cloths of (natural) gold as had been done hundreds of years before. Last year, he achieved it with a dazzling drape exhibited at London’s V&A museum. (Every spider who contributed had been released at the end of each working day – none the worse, Peers believed – although we agreed, with aggressive hairy spiders, how could you tell?). Now, here I am, in the Red Centre of Australia, twiddling with a piece of raffia sticking out from a basket woven by an indigenous woman and recalling how half way across the world, on the island raffia hails from, the bizarre ambition of an eccentric Englishman lead to the creation of a thing of beauty and how with this basket/hat, another fashionable thing of beauty could be born.
Maybe one’s thoughts kangaroo-hop under the vast desert sky because the next thing I’m thinking is how complicated some of the names I have to learn to spell as a fashion reporter can be. Tjanpi is easy and with a lovely zing to it, however I have to check the website before I write here that the weavers are Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara. I learn that their ancestors make circles of grass on which to balance whatever they needed to carry around on their heads, so I think there’s a millinery precedent.
I’ve come to Alice Springs to catch up with Krystal Perkins, who helms the Australian Indigenous Fashion Initiative, which launched at the AFR’s Bespoke last May and will celebrate indigenous creativity with a show in Sydney next April. Tjanpi hats? The challenge is, what with the heat, December to March, they may not be ready for the inaugural event. Yet even if we have to wait – and “wait lists” are, after all, very fashionable – with a few creative tweaks, we could be on to something.
I learn another new word; “Tjarpa!” “Put it on!”
by Marion Hume
It was the best runway show held on a runway. Well, to be accurate, it ties as my joint favourite of only two fashion shows ever shown on a runway. I’m using the Australian sense of that word (a long straight strip on which planes land) as opposed to the American, where it also means the thin strip catwalk models swank down.
The first runway show I saw was some twenty years ago when the brainiac of fashion, Hussein Chalayan, revealed a conceptual collection called “Beyond False Equator” illuminated by aircraft landing lights. Great shows stick.
The other is likely to remain front-of-mind to Australians for years to come, given it began with the roar of jet engines and then out came the new Qantas uniforms. We all know Qantas is NOT the national airline (the people don’t own it) but when it comes to distilling the modern spirit of chic, sophisticated, multifaceted Australia, frankly, Qantas nailed it.
You don’t need me to describe the trench coat, the slender dress, the shorts for the baggage handlers – by now, the images are everywhere. After decades being unknown except to the tight, top-tier of the fashion world, Melbournian, Martin Grant (a long time resident of Paris) who Qantas hired as the designer, at last needs no introduction – although he is hardly what you would call an overnight success.
I grabbed an aisle seat a few rows back (always my preference), in amongst flight attendants who were seeing what they will wear to work for the next decade for the first time. “Loving the Qantas red with the hot pink!” the woman next to me exclaimed, not to me but to herself, in affirmation that she felt her pride in her job sweeping back back. Clothes can, you see, be powerful. The best uniforms can unite a workforce in a common goal.
You get it that my verdict on the Qantas uniforms is excellent when it comes to style but top marks to in terms of the politics of business, which can be very turbulent. Habitually, when corporations collide with fashion, the results end up ugly. Corporations have what I call an “Auntie Mame” view; they come to those funny people in fashion for glamour, yet want it for a buck in cheap synthetics. Surprisingly perhaps, fashion designers tend to tone things down yet they want beautiful fabrics and everything in a tiny size. Then it goes to committee where there’s an uneasy compromise, especially when the resulting designs are scaled for the climates of 5 continents and in sizes 2 to 22.
In addition, when corporates call the fashion world, usually, they are after a star, a personality who can be rolled out like a camp court jester. Martin Grant is no performer. He is quietly spoken, determined, diligent and has built his business one client at time. As a result, he knows where the bumps are and how to plan for them.
There are bumps ahead for the global aviation industry in the sky and on the ground. Yet Qantas can certainly tick one box; for motivating its far flung global battalions in a modern way. The era of the trolley dolly is over. It’s not about marrying the pilot or the guy in seat 1Aand the new Qantas uniforms signal pride in one’s career.
Martin Grant told me it was pressure from the flight attendants that persuaded him to add the gloves, the hat. “Too right,” say my friend Suze, who flies domestic for Qantas. “I’m in my 50s. You don’t get much attention. But in that outfit, I can’t wait to see the heads turn as we march through the terminal”
Call this lift off to a new and stylish corporate dawn.