The medium is the message: AAFW 22′ trailblazing the road

There’s a soft earthy scent in the air that lingers after the rain when walking through the narrow paths leading to the Carriageworks. My only confirmation that I’m headed in the right direction was a woman a few steps ahead of me, her black heeled leather boots click clacking on the autumn dressed streets.

To the rest of the country, 11 May was another mundane addition to their calendars. To the woman and I, it was the midweek mark of the Afterpay Australian Fashion Week (AAFW), the industry’s biggest celebration of all that encompasses avant-garde and innovation down under.

Like many others attending the week, it was a memorable first for me. After having been an invitation only industry event since its commencement in 1996, the doors of the Carriageworks have opened for consumers, admirers, and students, looking in from the outside.

It was only the first step in their path towards celebrating diversity, having faced serious backlash following the 2021 AAFW, where a number of designers were called out by critics and fans alike on their lack of representation outside of the ‘traditional’ look that their models and garments seemed to exclusively cater for. 

This year, however, the message was received with several shows lined up such as The Curve Edit, the Adaptive Clothing Collective, Indigenous Fashion Projects, Dyspnea, and the First Nations Fashion + Design.

“You feel so good to be a part of something huge and that stays with you.” 

The days since have stretched into weeks and now, over two months later, the question seems to settle in my mind. Will this be the catalyst the industry needs to continue down the road to diversity, or was it merely all for show? 

Despite the time that has slipped past, I’m reminded at how timeless this subject truly is, as I don my faded blue denims and slip into my favourite pair of heeled leather boots. Trends may come and go, and designers may fall out of like and be replaced with fresher faces, but the excitement and universality of fashion will never go out of style.

Upon arriving, I was met with a ghost town, save for the occasional early bird photographer that lurked underneath the shelter beside me. Slowly but surely, the influencers began to arrive, some in packs and others like lone wolves. 

I was soon joined by a fellow student, and fashion and lifestyle editor Rachel Sharp. It quickly became clear how at ease she was with the flow of the place. We followed her instinctively as she confidently walked from one end of the Carriageworks to the next. 

Change is all around us, she’d explained as we found solace from the impending clouds that whispered of nearing rainfall. We’d sat down in the front row in preparation for The Innovators show, a collection of designs by five graduates from the Fashion Design Studio at Tafe NSW. 

“This show is important because it’s almost like a peak of the next faces of the industry, in a few year’s time,” Sharp continued, ” A lot of big designers today have come from the college”, like Alex Perry, Nicky Zimmermann, and Dion Lee.

I took her advice very seriously, making sure to write the names of the graduates’ labels into the corners of my mind, Seung Il Jun (JSI Archive), Sugun Kim (Baco-92), Tina Zhang, Charly Thorn, and Tobias Sangkuhl. 

“The beauty of young or sort of fledgling designers or people who are trying to make their mark is they do tend to have big ideas,” she said, “in particular the ones coming from the college. They, by nature, tend to be quite open minded about the sustainability angles, but also diversity.”

There was something very special about watching the way the dimming lights softly hushed an audience, and nothing else seemed to exist outside of the moment.

AAFW 22′ The Innovators showcase

Sharp sitting beside me, it was through her commentary that I found myself seeing underneath the surface of the glitz and glamour and dissecting the message in the medium. “The casting is amazing.” She excitedly claimed a time or two, her eyes always kept firmly on the models passing us by. 

It was hard to look away.

The casting in question was diverse in its array of shape, size, gender, and ethnicity, adding a unique touch to the ensembles designed by the graduates. 

It was fresh and current, but most importantly, it was inclusive.

“Clothes are for everybody and for every day, so it’s foolish to not be inclusive.”

The first collection belonged to Seung Il Jun, an archive titled ‘Emotions In Motion’. His designs were sleek and dark, tailored similarly to Korean aesthetics, with hints of colour splattered across fabrics like paint. It’s an homage to his growing up as an immigrant in Australia, he told me after the shows came to a close. It is his seeking to find a balance between his Korean heritage and “searching for identity in western culture”.

“A lot of people might be able to relate to these stories especially if [they] are an immigrant as well and not living with or away from [their] family.” He shared in a conversation a few days after the show, “It’s quite common, so I thought if I were able to share that story through fashion it’d be really interesting. I wanted to show people that we’re all just human beings and we have shared experiences.”

Recently graduated from the college, The Innovators was Jun’s first experience showcasing at AAFW. “I noticed that most brands took forward that message of diversity and inclusivity,” He continued to list shows such as Dyspnea and the Adaptive Clothing Collective, which displayed a range of designs on models from all shapes, sizes, and abilities, the latter including wheelchair adaptive clothing, “Clothes are for everybody and for every day, so it’s foolish to not be inclusive.”

The sentiment was shared by his fellow graduate Charly Thorn, also selected to showcase at The Innovators show. 

“Real people want to buy our clothes, not everyone is a size 8…” her voice was strong on the phone as we chatted on a sunny afternoon post show, “so I feel that we need to show real people on the runway. We all need to make the effort at the end of the day to be more inclusive and open to these sorts of things.”

 In leading to this, the last 3 years of her studies have been primarily focused on “ the value of clothing and how much really goes into making a garment. [You] value high quality garments so much more when you see the time that’s been put into making [them].”

Thorn’s showcase held an air of soft glamour and warmer seasons, with a colour palette that sang of a Gatsby summer.

Showpiece by Charly Thorn

The showpiece capturing everyone’s interest, and iPhone cameras, was a golden pleated dress, glimmering underneath the bright lights. Thorn collaborated with Rado Pleating, a local pleating studio in Surry Hills run as a generational family business.

Wearing the eye-catching dress was model and creative Jasmine Munder, who walked down the runway in her third year of AAFW. Born in New Delhi, India of a Punjabi and Sikh heritage, Jasmine feels that the Australian fashion industry is moving in the right direction, but slowly. 

“It did feel more inclusive this time around with fresher faces of different backgrounds and looks,” She noted from her experiences walking in shows for The Innovators, Mariam Seddiq, Jordan Dalah, and Gyre the Label, “But I still feel that there is some lack in representation. At times I [saw] some shows not including any representation at all.”

The highlight for her was walking for Mariam Seddiq, an Australian-Afghan designer with the mission to empower women both on and off the runways of AAFW. “To book a show in fashion week is one thing,” she elaborated, “but to walk for someone who promotes diversity and inclusion feels really great. You feel so good to be a part of something huge and that stays with you.” 

The public calls for action for diversity in the industry are unavoidable. Though the AAFW 22’ certainly captured the attention of all in and out of the fashion world down under, there is a shared interest in where the next lineup of 2023 will take us. Munder believes this is just the beginning, that “people from any background [or] corner of the world can make a change” and they will.

As for the future, only time will tell, Sharp contemplates. “I’d like for even more focus to be around collaborations and supporting the fashion and creative side of things, and the business of fashion, which I think may have some sort of awards or scholarships for people who are really forging new grounds in terms of fabrication, sustainability, and diversity.”

These words remind me of a conversation with Jun. His words echo in my mind days later, “Inclusivity is important regardless of where you are in the world. At the end of the day, we are people who share a common love for fashion and art.”