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Creative calling: How one woman’s culture inspires her work

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Creative calling: How one woman’s culture inspires her work

Empowerment, education and sustainability drive First Nations designer Natalie Cunningham.

Natalie Cunningham loves empowering women through fashion using bold, Indigenous prints.

Growing up in Caloundra, the proud Nucoorilma/Ngarabal and Biripi woman incorporates the teachings of her culture and the needs of a modern woman with her range of swim and resort wear.

Now in Landsborough, she is making waves in the fashion industry, gaining international recognition and providing a platform for Indigenous and sustainable fashion to thrive.

Ms Cunningham’s mother was a model, her father is an artist and her grandmother made clothes and worked for David Jones, so it was only natural she is also creative.

Ms Cunningham began her career as a model and was part of the 2000 Olympic Games. At age 15 she left home and went to Tafe to learn to sew and has been in the industry since 2006.

But it was after having children that Ms Cunningham found her fashion calling and her label, Native Swimwear Australia, was born.

“As a young mother I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin when my son wanted to go down to Caloundra beach,” she says.

“I couldn’t find a swimsuit that was supportive enough, yet stylish for young mothers. So, I mixed everything I knew together from being brought up in the fashion industry and found my own niche.”

She says while she began with young mothers is mind, now her label reaches all ages and body types. She was also the first Australian Indigenous designer to feature in New York Fashion Week in 2015.

Sourcing her prints from First Nations artists in remote Australian communities, Ms Cunningham says a strong focus for her is sustainability.

“Each artist I work with has a different painting and each painting tells a different Dreamtime story,” she says.

“They are all education stories and they provide a lesson in our culture about how things were or how things are.

“A lot about my culture is only taking what you need and as a leader in the industry I find it very important as a First Nations person to really focus on sustainability.

“My label is made 100 per cent from recycled or regenerated materials, like plastic bottles or fishing nets.

“That is the way we are brought up. Grab enough food for the tribe, and I have followed that through.”

Ms Cunningham is pleased with how far Indigenous fashion has come, and how versatile it now is.

“I’ve seen fashion change since I was a model to now as a designer. The Indigenous clothes were very souvenir when I began; not too many people were doing what I do, but now there are so many Indigenous designers.

“The ready-to-wear fashion is not only sustainable, but it is being made for all bodies. It really has really come a long way.

“We are also really using the platform to teach non-Indigenous people about our culture through fashion. It’s important and I am very blessed I can
do that.”

Ms Cunningham is also part of the David Jones First Nations Designer Capsule Collection featuring other emerging First Nations designers.

Find @native_swimwear_australia on Instagram.

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